Friday, July 7, 2017

Godless Skeptic is Being Retired! Go See the New Blog.

I've been running this blog for a long time now, and it's certainly changed over the years from what it originally was. Initially, this was conceived as a fun little personal blog, before it took on a more serious and scholarly tone, and lately the focus has shifted increasingly beyond the subjects hinted at by the name "Godless Skeptic". Religion and philosophy are things I'll still be writing on, but after giving it some thought, I've decided to retire this site and move on to a new one.

This is partly because I want to keep things general and continue to discuss a range of different topics, though also because I sometimes wonder about reaching a wider audience with a title that isn't so obviously atheist or so easy for folks to pigeon-hole. Blogger is fairly outdated these days, too, and it's maybe just time for a fresh start overall.

And with that said, I invite you to come check out the new blog:

I am already moving over some of this older material to there, and will continue to do so, with a (hopefully) nice new look. You won't see any further posts on Godless Skeptic, so I encourage you to check out the new blog and make sure to follow it and subscribe.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

How Not to Defend the 'Conceptual Penis' Hoax

Lately there has been much talk and much debate surrounding a certain hoax paper published by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. Attempting to follow in the footsteps of Alan Sokal and his famous hoax, Boghossian and Lindsay submitted a nonsense piece of writing to Cogent Social Sciences entitled "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct." Announcing the hoax in Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer and the two authors of the paper gleefully celebrated it for exposing a serious problem with the field of Gender Studies as a whole.

However, learning more about this little stunt reveals it to be more of a self-parody than anything else. Massimo Pigliucci notes that the paper was initially rejected for publication in NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies, and NORMA actually has no academic ranking and an impact score of zero. The journal they did wind up in, Cogent Social Sciences, is an open access, pay-to-play journal that promises they are "friendly" to prospective authors. These are red flags that should alarm the skeptically minded, but Lindsay and Boghossian have argued that what matters is that Cogent Social Sciences is still a part of the Taylor & Francis publishing group, and it was NORMA that directed them there. Even so, this would only highlight the problem of predatory publishing, not a problem with Gender Studies, and it deserves mention that the email response the duo received from NORMA was very likely auto-generated and Cogent Social Sciences specifically notes on their site that they operate independently of Taylor & Francis.

Massimo also points to a quote from Sokal himself that is far more measured in its conclusion than what Shermer, Boghossian, and Lindsay have concluded from the conceptual penis paper. "It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty," Sokal states. There have been a number of Sokal-style hoaxes published in various fields, and Pigliucci outlines a handful of these. One paper that was literally nothing more than the continuous printing of the message, "Get me off your fucking email list", was accepted by a computer science journal, yet there has not been an equivalently passionate declaration that this plays any role in challenging the computer science field.

These problems have already received plenty of attention in the numerous substantive critiques of the hoax itself (see here and here for additional examples), so I won't dwell on them any further in this post. Instead, I want to look at a couple ways James Lindsay has argued the alleged implications of this paper for Gender Studies. Recently, he appeared on the Serious Inquiries Only podcast to defend his part in the hoax. It deserves to be mentioned that the host, Thomas, spends the last 30 minutes of the episode debunking a list of sources Lindsay provides to him that supposedly shows the absurdity of Gender Studies. Several of his sources have been cited zero times, raising questions not just about how Boghossian and Lindsay have interpreted these publications, but whether they truly have the impact the two imagine that they have.

One of the most interesting and frustrating things Lindsay says repeatedly in the podcast is that they could have easily tweaked the paper a little more, cleaned it up, and had it accepted by a more reputable academic journal in the discipline. This is important because of the criticisms about the nature of the publication their paper received. It's hard to argue that your hoax says anything about an entire academic field if the only outlet that would publish it is "marginal" or "derelict" in its duty, to borrow Sokal's words. And it's definitely tough to rebut that charge considering the circumstances here.

Responding to Lindsay, Thomas asks, "So why didn't you just pull off a better hoax then?" This strikes me as a little too generous, though. We can be clear that what Lindsay is using in his defense here is sheer speculation, especially considering that the first journal they submitted to did, in fact, reject their paper and they wound up publishing in a pay-to-publish journal. In addition, neither journal has anywhere close to the kind of reputation that Lindsay presumably thinks they could have accommodated with revisions.

What would those revisions have been, anyway? Perhaps we'd just be discussing other major pitfalls with their hoax even if they had been accepted somewhere else. The trouble with speculation is that it's just as easy and valid to say 'it might not have been' as it is to say 'it could have been.' Besides, going from what we do have with their hoax, there is no real evidence that Boghossian and Lindsay could have managed to succeed with the better effort Lindsay imagines, but there is some pretty persuasive evidence to the contrary.

Asked what would appear differently concerning their hoax if the problem were purely one of predatory publishing, Lindsay claims that there would not be the polarizing sort of backlash that has erupted over their paper. Again, this is sheer speculation, and it's unclear what all Lindsay would categorize as backlash in this context. Does it mean impassioned argument? Criticism with political flavoring? Or is it that some on the far ends of the spectrum have adopted the paper as justification for their other dogmatic beliefs? I suspect that we would see all of the above on either scenario.

Boghossian and Lindsay have argued that there is fault with Gender Studies itself, and that is a claim capable of riling some folks up even if the hoax paper shows nothing of the sort. Obviously, there is a difference between being mad about a thesis and being mad about the way it's established, but beyond this there are going to be those who question the motives of two male authors attacking Gender Studies. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, yet even if I'm going to be charitable to Lindsay's take on this, at best it still seems to me that all their hoax would be demonstrating by riling up some people would be that it can get some people riled up. That is a far cry from raising any criticism of a whole academic discipline, but it does ring familiar to the preacher's assertion that persecution only serves to show he's rightly doing the Lord's work.

In the paper, the authors state that Gender Studies is "crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil." This conclusion - cleverly disguised as a "suspicion" - is not something that can be supported by a single, deeply flawed hoax paper. It's so outlandish that it leads one to wonder if the authors themselves might have a quasi-religious commitment of their own to seeing Gender Studies in this negative light. Hearing about the sources Lindsay provided on the podcast, and how bizarrely misrepresented they have been, it's difficult not to think there's something to this, too.

I have done some reading in Gender Studies, and even taken a couple related courses. I am nowhere near the level where I could be considered an expert, but one of the first things you encounter is that there is disagreement on a number of issues, as there is with most academic disciplines, not to mention a lot of the social sciences. I think there can be good critiques of Gender Studies, although they're going to come from those familiar with the literature, not those who have conducted the most cursory survey of it in order to find fodder for their attack. Unfortunately, the conceptual penis hoax and its defense seems to have all the markings of the latter and none of the former.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why I've Rethought Calling Out Fallacies

© Existential Comics

When I was a young atheist, having just lost my faith, I used to feel like fallacies were so obvious in religious views and religious arguments that it was a wonder more people didn't notice them. From there, it was an easy step to concluding that most believers must just be ignorant. And why not? A lot of them don't seem to know science as well as they think they do, so we shouldn't expect them to know logic, either.

This kind of condescension is not limited to young atheists, though, nor is it limited to non-professionals. I've seen some very intelligent, highly credentialed, and otherwise very informed people hastily call out fallacies as if they're ordering off a drive-thru menu. I've sat in plenty a classroom where the first instinct of some students (undergraduate or graduate level) itching to dispute a claim is to label it a fallacy. And sometimes they're right.

I would never suggest that there are no fallacies behind religious arguments and religious beliefs. I wouldn't even say they're uncommon. But they certainly aren't omnipresent. Some can be more complicated to identify than we suppose, too.

All we skeptics and atheists need to do to realize this last point is think about the times we've engaged with theists who've wrongly accused us of committing a fallacy. How many times have you heard that you're appealing to authority simply by referencing an argument made by someone else? What about red herrings? Appeals to emotion? Non sequiturs? Especially online, these sorts of back-and-forth shouting matches become black holes of productivity.

Now, remember the Dunning-Kruger effect. We often judge ourselves more favorably than we judge others. Why presume that religious believers are the only ones that ever abuse fallacies? There's a point here that I think is worth really digesting, and not just blithely assenting to. That urge to dismiss another person's claim comes from something in us that isn't religiously, politically, economically, culturally, or otherwise situated. We make mistakes. We let our emotions get the best of us. There are a million and one ridiculous memes mocking each and every side for what we're all guilty of at one time or another.

Personally, I've tried to take this to heart more recently by just avoiding calling out fallacies whenever possible. There are a few reasons for why I don't think this is a bad idea.

First, it's frequently the case that we can make our point in some other way - perhaps even a clearer way - without name-dropping fallacies. It can get messy and confusing to people when conversation dives into what defines a fallacy, whether this particular claim is an example of that fallacy, and what we're meant to take away from seeing the claim in that manner. People who are experienced in philosophy and logic may have a good understanding of all these issues, but the average person won't, and even the philosopher might wish to steer clear of a needlessly complex topic in normal conversation.

As for alternative ways of making one's point, I like to employ analogies since I've found that they tend to help discussion regardless of the audience. They can be misused, too, of course, as anything can. Socratic-style questions can prompt reflection and open up dialogue. Then there is just explaining disagreement that can be effective, i.e. instead of rattling off "straw man" to an opponent, you can restate your argument in other words. Sometimes I feel like this is the best option when the real source of confusion could just be that you need a little more clarity to what you're saying.

Second, focusing on what label to give to an argument can distract us from the stronger points it does make. When we start to think that something just looks like a fallacy, we may have a tougher time carefully examining its premises. This seems to happen all the time online, and, yes, it happens often in internet atheist circles. Sometimes if there's even a hint of concession to plausibility in a theistic argument, in swarm the accusations of fallacy after fallacy. Philosophers tend to attribute the best version of an argument to their opponent because it's not only the charitable thing to do, but it strengthens your own case when you venture to dispute it. Plus, if there is a non-fallacious way to easily reconstruct an argument, expending all your time on criticizing the fallacy and celebrating triumphantly will appear very premature and, well, pretty silly.

Third, calling out a fallacy can frequently be a conversation stopper. I'm aware that this shouldn't be true, but that doesn't mean it isn't usually true. When conversing with most folks, labeling something a fallacy carries negative connotations, implying they don't know what they're talking about, they don't know how to properly think, etc. Even if that stuff is kinda true, people are defensive, particularly when it comes to their deeply-held beliefs. If you come at them out of hostility, blurting out weird-sounding things and calling their claims irrational, that's likely to end fruitful and civil discussion.

It's not just about laypeople, either. You can often tell how serious a person is about engaging with you by what it is they resort to first. Many people like to use the label "nonsense" to dismiss a claim even where there's been little actual consideration, and name-dropping fallacies is a similarly dismissive tactic. Not to mention how it provides an opportunity to show off. When someone's first response to me makes it obvious that all they want is to slap a label on what's 'wrong' with my position, before sliding it off neatly to the side, I have to doubt it's worth my time to engage with them.

Again, though, please don't misunderstand this post. I still do point out fallacies, and I think it's important to do this in discussions on a lot of subjects, religion included. But I've just given a few reasons for why I think we need to be careful in how we do this. I think there is greater value in acquiring, having, and exhibiting virtues like charity, clarity, openness, and humility than there is in being right about a claim fitting under the moniker of some fallacy. I try to save that last part for last, if it comes up, when it's hopefully become clear that I do value the things I mention and desire a dialogue that is productive and provocative.

If the aim behind noting fallacies is not a shallow sort of victory dance, but a pursuit of the virtues - in ourselves as well as in others - then we will be concerned not just with addressing wrong thinking, but also with what approach we choose to adopt in realizing that end.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

It's Not Really About Free Speech

There was a time - it feels like forever ago now - that I was one of many Americans happy to rant continuously about the dangers of political correctness. Long before it was popular to deride people on the left as "social justice warriors", or to mockingly refer to your opponent as "triggered" for even the slightest of disagreement, it was a familiar talking point to suggest that political correctness is the road to tyranny. It just felt like common sense that everyone should be free to speak their mind without fear of reprisal from the state. And I still feel very strongly about this, although I have become increasingly skeptical of how these accusations are often thrown about.

One topical example is the debate over gender-neutral pronouns and the ways people choose to identify themselves. I have heard more than a few men (and occasionally women) complain about this societal shift away from black-and-white categories. Frequently, the line is: "You can call yourself whatever you like, but don't expect me to call you that." Taken charitably, the person making such a statement probably isn't aware of the hostility it expresses. In their mind, all should be well because you're free to be you, and they're free to be them.

Identity is something deeply personal, though. The questions of who we are and who I am are two of the biggest questions in the history of the West. We spend enormous chunks of our brief time on Earth trying to figure out what we want from life and where we factor into the whole grand picture of things. We have even created the term identity crisis to describe what is usually the most difficult and challenging form of this experience of self-examination. I rather like the synonym "soul-searching" because I feel it gives us a great idea of both the intensity and the elusiveness experienced during an identity crisis.

Now I can imagine someone suggesting that we should acknowledge this is a solo project. That word "self" is there for a reason, right? Well, this brings up the old Nature vs. Nurture debate. Some argue that we are born certain ways, while others argue that our environment determines who we are. I side with those that think the truth lies somewhere in between, but what I want to call attention to in all of this is the fact that our identities are not endowed to us whole-cloth by our genetics. We pick up some things from our parents, our other family, from our culture, and so on. Recognizing that identities are socially constructed does not mean absconding our responsibility or denying that some traits are inherited.

It should be abundantly obvious that if someone tells you how they identify, you are not respecting them in deliberately going against their wishes. Not only are you communicating that what this other person wants isn't really important to you, but you are basically telling them no, I think you are this. And by "this" I don't mean anything even like dishonest, bigoted, hateful, heartless, selfish, or the like. Those terms might suggest things about your behavior, but in telling someone their very identity, you're telling them who they are at their most intimate, deep down inside. It's understating things to say that you are in no real position to be able to tell someone else such a thing, especially in circumstances where you are barely an acquaintance.

"You can call yourself whatever you like, but don't expect me to call you that."

Stopping and thinking for a moment about the meaning behind this line reveals an expressed sense of identity. Don't tell me what to say, it communicates, because I have the freedom to say what I like. Important aspects of this person's identity, then, are things like their free will, their independence, and their individuality. It's not a coincidence that these ideas are also heavily-emphasized and cherished in a culture like that of the United States. In fact, they have become so deeply engrained in us that we don't always remember or appreciate the sources that have consistently upheld them as the norm for centuries.

There's an interesting web of issues here that is well beyond the scope of this post, but it's worth some exposure. Most of us are seeking to find ourselves, to know who we are, and to be respected as individuals. If we take individuality seriously, we can make our way to observing that what works for one of us isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and this can spark a rough agreement to generic freedom. You do you, I'll do me. However, the flexibility of identity keeps us on our toes. We encounter people who are not like us, sometimes even radically different, at the same time we question what separates us. Because we don't know the doubts, insecurities, or struggles the other might have, they can feel threatening to us, familiar as we are with our own doubts, insecurities, and struggles. They may appear to our minds as stronger examples of identity and individuality.

Of course, this changes as we get to know other people and learn who they really are. We find out they're not so different from us, and this makes them feel less threatening to us. The unknown always seems to tantalize us at the same time it instills fear in us. And when we feel threatened, sometimes we become defensive. In this context, what else could our reaction be except to attack the identity of the other person or fall back on reasserting our own prized identity? My free speech is at stake. Respect my rights. To some, it even becomes a conspiracy where the great boogeyman against individuality, totalitarianism, is looming on the horizon and threatening all our individual liberties.

Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, made headlines last year for declaring that he won't use "preferred pronouns" as part of his crusade against Bill C-16 in Canada. He wrote an article for the Toronto Sun purporting to explain his decision, and why we should all join him, that predictably throws in derogatory comments about "social justice warriors", political correctness, and Marxism, but is very light on either facts or compelling arguments. Peterson presents the bill as a measure to regulate what can be said on his campus, but many have pointed out that he is just wrong on this matter. Bill C-16 is actually aimed at protecting against federal discrimination and updating that with protections against advocating genocide and incitement to violent hatred against an identity group.

Peterson is a psychology professor and not a legal expert, it bears mentioning, and his article comes across as highly alarmist. So what - other than his obvious defensive need to safeguard his own identity - could possibly be so unbelievably urgent? Likely it would be argued that the wording is vague and ambiguous enough that it poses some hypothetical risk, but it's a wonder then why Peterson expends all his energy blasting the 'radical left' instead of proposing language that might be better suited for the bill. It sure seems like if his goal is actually to defend free speech, he could do so perfectly fine without any of the ideologically-motivated liberal-bashing that adorns his writing like lights on a Christmas tree.

All this would look terribly bad if it were only the case that folks like Peterson were being socially condemned for their choice to not acknowledge another person's identity. It's tough to justify outrage on that premise alone, but if you find a piece of legislation to whip yourself up into a frenzy about, it no longer seems like you're just upset that people aren't giving you undue deference anymore. However, it's common to find that people who do whip themselves up into a frenzy tend to have an exceedingly hard time not divulging what it is that really bothers them.

I use the pronouns I use because everyone else does. That’s how language works. When suddenly put on the spot with regards to exactly why I do that, and not something else, I am rendered speechless. Justification of this sort has never been required previously. It’s convention, and it is not a simple manner to understand the evolution of or rationale for convention.

One thing I will say is that we all need to acknowledge that we're capable of making mistakes. There needs to be more understanding, regardless of how we affiliate. This part of Peterson's article gives the impression that he is tired of being criticized for how he speaks to people. I do understand this, and I get that there are those on the left who can be unfair in the way they interact with people.

But there is a side of the excerpt above that feels like somewhat of an excuse. The very idea behind the push of some on the left to socially encourage the use of gender-neutral language is in recognition that this is how language works. The attempt is to change the language we use to be more inclusive, not through legal mandate, but through the social tools of praise and condemnation, among others. And yes, being criticized sucks. That's kind of the whole point here. If justification is being asked of Professor Peterson, it may not be for any initial use of certain pronouns, but for his repeated insistence on refusing to respect the wishes of his students after they have expressed how they want to be identified.

Without question, the immediate reply to this is probably that students today are too coddled as it is, or that the professor isn't there to be their friend or family member. But such a reply may be doing more harm than good. Peterson uses the analogy of a bank teller in his article, talking about how their interaction doesn't require her to reveal anything about her personal life to him. "To do her job," he writes, "she has to dress in a relatively innocuous manner, and present herself in [a] way that enables particularized, efficient and relatively shallow interactions."

I can't help making note of how amazingly apt this specific analogy is for raising a particular point. Paulo Freire and others have criticized what's called the banking model of education, which views students as passive receptors waiting to have the knowledge of the professor 'deposited' into them. For all sorts of reasons, this approach to education is regarded by many modern educators as outdated, too focused on memorization instead of real learning, and as having a less than helpful view of the role of students. Problem-posing education, which Freire advocated, gives students a more active role in their education, where the teacher facilitates discussion rather than dominates it, and where knowledge is presented in terms of questions for critical study instead of passing down a laundry list of facts through mere recitation and memorization. It certainly sounds from his analogy as if Peterson just wants more passive and less interactive students in his classes.

Peterson also works a job. Why shouldn't his job description be just as open to change as anyone else's? If a university wants to hire professors that are friendlier to students of different identities, what would be so wrong with that? It never ceases to baffle me how some conservative educators, who otherwise loudly defend the rights of employers and businesses, suddenly want special treatment when it comes to their own standing with their university. If your attitude towards a student disliking your use of a pronoun is essentially, "Tough, deal with it or transfer", then I'm not sure how you can become indignant when a school expects you to abide by certain codes of conduct, too.

I've used this example of Professor Peterson because I think it illustrates a lot of what I've seen and heard from those who take a firm stand against so-called identity politics. Free speech is very often a red herring, just as it is when Christians with a persecution complex lay claim to it in defense of their discrimination against homosexuals. It isn't really about that right being suppressed, it's about someone wanting to be able to speak their mind without reprisal. Like I said, I support this in the context of federal and state powers, and nowhere have I even implied that I think some legislation or university code of conduct ought to enforce what language we use. But it's not even clear that this happens anywhere close to as often as some on the right seem to allege it does. The bigger takeaway should be that we have to stop pretending that criticism and expressed disapproval from our peers (or students) is somehow a violation of our free speech.

Political correctness is frequently spoken of in this way, too. "You want to tell everyone what they can and can't say!" There is a world of difference between attempting to persuade others through reason and argument and attempting to force your will on them by legal means. This gets obscured so much in these types of debates it makes one wonder as to why. As if some among us feel so greatly threatened and averse to critique that they see the two as being one and the same.

We have to be careful what we buy into. Some like to throw out extreme analogies like whether we'd appreciate someone asking us to call them a word or name that we really wouldn't want to call them. Of course, that isn't at all like the idea behind respecting the way people honestly want to identify. And when I say that I wouldn't disrespect a friend or family member by calling them someone else's name, this doesn't need to be a one-to-one correlation in order for the point to be clear. We have no good reason for refusing to defer to another person on how they want to self-identify.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Emma Goldman on Atheism

Emma Goldman was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, a passionate anarchist and atheist, as well as an advocate for the rights of women. While she was critical of some of the aims of first-wave feminism, she was also a vocal defender of contraception, free love, and homosexuality. Goldman was jailed several times for handing out information on birth control. "I demand the independence of woman," she wrote in 1897*, "her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood."

In her eyes, anarchism was as much about liberating the individual from religion as it was about liberating her from the control of the state. Capitalism leads to exploitation and suffering, she believed, rather than to the social order and economic opportunities she found in her vision of anarchism. In 1923, she would publish My Disillusionment in Russia in reaction to her firsthand experiences with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Goldman's atheism, like that of Nietzsche or Marx, was focused on this mortal life here on Earth, and tended to view religion as an impediment to human development. Her short essay, The Philosophy of Atheism, published in 1916, shares many of her thoughts on this subject. "The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind," according to Goldman. "The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed... Atheism has its root in the earth, in this life; its aim is the emancipation of the human race from all God-heads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not... Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth."

The concept of God has changed substantially over time, she notes, but it originated from our fear of the unknown. As we discover ourselves and learn to shape our own destinies, theism becomes increasingly superfluous, the gods being transformed into something ever more indefinite, obscure, and nebulous. Goldman prematurely celebrates the decline of religion and the rise of atheism, though some of her observations here may sound all too familiar to us today, over a century later.
More and more, the various concepts "of the only true God, the only pure spirit, the only true religion" are tolerantly glossed over in the frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the "pernicious" influence of atheistic ideas. It is characteristic of theistic "tolerance" that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.
Noting the injustice in the world, and the inaction of a supposedly loving deity, Goldman says that humankind alone can undertake the task of achieving justice on the earth. However, under the promises of an everlasting heaven and an omnipotent god, the human being has become "a will-less creature". "Again and again," she writes, "the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms - though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence." The triumph of atheism is its resistance to the paralyzing effects of religion.

For Goldman, atheism is not only the negation of gods, but the affirmation of man and woman, and in this it is the affirmation of life.

 *Cited in Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, p. 94.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Trump Administration and Plato's Prophetic Critique of Democracy

In the run up to the presidential election last year, it felt like it became commonplace at some point to hear Trump referred to as a demagogue. Arguably, there is no better word for it, with the way he appealed to fear and patriotic bravado to mobilize his supporters, while neglecting to give the slightest semblance of an argument in defense of the vast majority of his views. Even for months prior to November 9th, you could find references to Trump's demagoguery being made by Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and others. Now that Kellyanne Conway has introduced the much criticized concept of "alternative facts", there hardly seems room left to hide from this accusation. Particularly if, as we suspect, these are facts in the same sense that the Bowling Green massacre is a fact.

What's interesting is that Plato kind of warned us this would happen. In The Republic, he critiques the direct democracy that existed in his time, and although this form of government differs in some ways from what we have in America today (or what we had in the past), we may nevertheless find a number of the criticisms are still quite relevant. Democracy understood as the rule of free people governing themselves in their own interests leads, in Plato's view, to demagogues and tyrants. In their emphasis on freedom and equality, democracies face the problem of corruptibility, and can fall either into anarchy or despotism.

Of course, Plato doesn't hold much regard for equality, probably in part because his favored form of society is class-based. On this we might rightly fault him, but we need not follow his lead here into abandoning ideals of economic or political equality, for instance. We can instead understand his criticisms in a manner like Robert Kane articulates them in his book Through the Moral Maze.

1. Democracies encourage mediocre leadership

Elected officials have to keep courting the favor of the people in order to maintain their place in positions of power. This tends to be a popularity contest more than any kind of election based on qualifications, experience, or intelligence. Pandering thus becomes a commonality as those in power try to stay in power the best way they know how: not by applying their own expertise or by doing what they think is right, but by appealing to the desires (and worries) of the masses. Unfortunately, one thing this can often mean is that our elected officials may be as ordinary and unexceptional as those that put them into office.

Considering how much attention has been devoted to the incredible lack of qualifications and experience in the Trump cabinet nominations, this critique looks to be pretty dead on. However, we can find further support in the very reasons Trump voters gave for why they voted as they did. "I feel like I know where I stand with Trump," says Rachel, in an article for The Guardian. "Trump is exactly what you get," Paul, another Trump voter, states. Most telling, perhaps, is Arlene's comment, who says that "Donald Trump might not have political experience but I truly believe he has the American people’s interest at heart."

Trump's win has also heralded what some consider to be the return of populism. Whether or not this is an entirely accurate characterization, it does speak to Plato's criticism. On the one hand, we may want our representatives to be "people like us" because those are generally the people we trust the most to make decisions on our behalf, but on the other hand, it is very likely true that most of us are not people especially capable of running branches, institutions, and systems of government. If we elect "people like us", we could well be electing people just as uninformed as us.

2. Democracies tend to focus on the short term rather than the long term

Because of how our leaders are elected, pandering to the wishes of the electorate typically means planning for the present and not for the future. Kane astutely notes that this problem is "at the expense of the long-term needs of society." It isn't always the case that taking no thought for the morrow is harmless. Sometimes failing to plan for the future has significant and long-lasting consequences. Along with this comes the all-too-familiar habit of giving the people what they want now, and passing the financial burden on to future generations.

What can't we say about this criticism? Let's just start with the foreboding moves the Trump administration has been making with respect to the EPA and climate change. Altering the EPA's climate website, suspending contracts, and teasing a case-by-case review of climate science work are fairly concerning signs of denial. Betsy DeVos' nomination as Secretary of Education raises additional worries, not just about science education specifically, but also about the seriousness with which the new administration takes the issue of providing an affordable, effective education to future generations.

Then we have the Wall as an example of a potential financial burden for American taxpayers, when Mexico predictably refuses for the last time to be bullied into building it. The immigration ban has been estimated as posing a cost of $700 million to U.S. colleges. Repealing Obamacare fully is being said to come at a price of a whopping $350 billion, not to mention all the jobs that stand to be lost as well. 

Getting people to understand the value of holding out for something better is notoriously difficult, particularly in a nation that prides itself on individualism, the myth of the self-made man, and instant gratification. By no means is Trump's administration unique in this, but we may see things as more pronounced here than they have been in many other administrations.

3. Image politics comes to dominate the electorate

The rulers in Plato's ideal society function in part to safeguard the values at the heart of society. Such an important task could not be trusted to the average person, Plato thought, but had to be something specially reserved for those who could be trained and educated in the proper ways. Democracy, he argued, usually devolves into politics focusing on appearances rather than on the things that really matter. How a candidate looks and sounds comes to be more important to people than what they say.

Again, we need not look far to see this criticism alive and well within the present administration. Trump has said some simply awful things and behaved in reprehensible ways toward women, yet his supporters haven't seemed all that perturbed by any of it. The Guardian article referred to above has the opinions of several Trump voters who state how impressive Trump's confidence, forthrightness, and business savvy are to them. We could indeed view this as an image issue, oddly winning out over even the moral concerns of some Americans.

It might be an understatement to say political debate has become superficial in the era of Trump. From remarks about penises during the campaign to the constant allegations of "fake news" that are being thrown at legitimate news outlets (and at almost any reporting the new administration merely seems to dislike), there is little question that this election and its aftermath have taken political discourse to another level. It may not be entirely new or entirely unprecedented, but what would previously have been roundly criticized as grossly immature has appeared to survive and elude such immediate hostility in today's political environment.

A society that focuses on images instead of issues is easy prey for manipulative personalities.

4. Democracies are prone to factionalism of special interests

Lobbyists, special interest groups, and money politics have been problems in the U.S. for a good while now, and they are certainly not limited to the current administration. But Trump's accusations against Hillary Clinton, as being controlled by special interests, can strike one as an instance of telling your neighbor to remove a splinter from her eye while you have a plank lodged in your own. Trump once said he'd disavow all Super PACs, shortly before he reversed his decision as soon as his party nomination was in the bag. His plan to "drain the swamp" apparently did not extend to keeping lobbyists out of his transition, either.

Plato believed that democracies lead to factionalism, as certain groups try to influence leaders for their own private interests. Because of this, democracies are also in danger of becoming a tyranny of the majority. As Plato saw it, the three worst forms of government participate in a sort of natural evolution: oligarchy gives rise to democracy, democracy gives rise to tyranny. Yet the tyrant won't be campaigning on a platform of dictatorship. Instead, he'll present himself as the champion of the people. It is "the insatiable desire" for freedom, Socrates says, "and the neglect of other things [that] introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny."

Tyranny of the majority was a significant concern of some of the Founding Fathers, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In his classic 1840 text Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed this same worry:
When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. To the police? The police are nothing other than the majority under arms. To the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to deliver judgments.
While some might argue that Obama, Big Business, or another culprit is behind the true tyranny of the majority, an important aspect here is the role and rhetoric of populism. I think we have seen this manifested in Trump's campaign and presidency in ways that simply dwarf most other comparable examples. This attitude of giving back the power to the people is what Trump ran on and what his supporters continue to call for today, above and beyond many other issues and concerns.

5. A loss of shared values

Democracies that emphasize freedom and liberty make the individual the focus of value. This produces a gradual dissolution of common values, since people think more about themselves and their desire to do their own thing than they think of others. So responsibility to others and the common good are sacrificed to the right to do as you please, according to Plato. This in turn creates distrust of authority, social disorder, and rising crime rates. Another consequence, Kane writes, is a large generation gap, due to the fact that the young do not necessarily share their parents' values, and want the same right to do their own thing that everyone else has.

It's worth starting with that last point, because one interesting statistic that emerged from the 2016 election was the factor of age difference. "Young adults preferred Clinton over Trump by a wide 55%-37% margin," the Pew Research Center notes, while "Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%." Distrust of authority and social disorder might be more than familiar to us, too, considering how both featured in the presidential debates. The crime rate is a somewhat thornier issue, though, since there is evidence showing an increase in violent crime from 2014-2015, for example, but this figure is still lower than it was in 2011 or 2006.

What ought to stand out most, however, is the theme of division. Trump supporters like those mentioned above in The Guardian article have voiced their opinion that our nation is fractured, hurting, and headed in the wrong direction. After the election, it seems that very many of those who voted against Trump likely feel the same way. Even before the presidential race, though, social conflict and domestic tensions were not at all outside the field of worries for Americans, as subjects such as immigration and Black Lives Matter would highlight.

It almost seems undeniable that there has indeed been a loss of shared values. How we should respond to this problem is what remains a matter of intense debate.

Is this the end of democracy?

A.N. Whitehead famously described the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato. This may appear as only the most minor of exaggeration to those familiar with Anglo-European philosophy. Plato's take on democracy, as we've seen, levies some fairly powerful criticisms that we are still wrestling with over 1600 years later.

Does this mean that democracy is hopeless? I have heard many declare its death in the wake of the election, but the meaning of this death, and how we move forward, are challenging questions to answer. I don't pretend to have the solution, and it's pretty clear that Plato didn't have it, either. We might be reminded of Winston Churchill's comment on how democracy is the worst form government except for all those other forms. One thing I think could be a promising start would be a revival of the sort of understanding of democracy held by someone like John Dewey, where there is vital emphasis on the social nature of democracy, as it consists of shared common interests and cooperative interaction among a plurality of groups.

On the other hand, this revival may be too unlikely to be a practical hope. The next four, eight, or however many years will tell. My point in this post has not been to spell out the doom of democracy. Plato's criticisms speak to the flaws of democracy, and I believe we are seeing these loud and clear now in 2017, although they have actually been present for a long time. This doesn't have to mean that democratic governments are inevitable failures, but it should cause us to recognize the problems that do exist, and it should motivate us to seek out solutions.

Some Americans probably think this is what they've done in electing the man that now sits in the White House. But we have seen how the Trump administration, in just its first month in power, has aligned itself more clearly with the flawed side of democracy - where it is much closer to descending into tyranny, as Plato explained. It's hard to understand how the tendencies discussed here could set us back on the right track, though there are strong arguments, made by one of the greatest philosophers to have lived, that we are heading for serious trouble.

This may not be the end of democracy full stop, but it just might be the end of democracy as we know it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

10 Things to Talk About This Thanksgiving Other Than the Election

Ah, Thanksgiving. It's that time of year to come together with friends and family to share good food and good company. Or at least that's how popular culture likes to think of it. I can remember enjoying watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a child with my own family, and getting to connect with loved ones we hadn't seen in a while, but then there are also those times that live on reminiscently in rolling eyes and head-shaking laughter. There is some charm and value to that mixture of both in the holidays, of course - in many ways it perfectly illustrates the precarious dynamic of familial relationships. Yet it may also be beneficial to remember, as they say, moderation in all things.

Every four years in this country, Thanksgiving winds up happening shortly after an election. No matter who wins, it almost always turns out that someone at the dinner table will be unhappy. If it's not the immediate family, it's the more distant relatives; if it's not the distant relatives, it's the romantic partners of family or relatives; if it's not the romantic partners of family or relatives, it could be the friends invited to join. Inevitably, it seems, there will be those who are thrilled about the outcome and wanting to gloat, those who are frustrated by the outcome and wanting to protest, or those who voted third party (or not at all) and want to rant about the system. Sometimes, if one is lucky, you may have the perfect singularity of all the above.

It's well known that this election in particular has been contentious, and that it has pitted many families against each other. Already some responses have been concerning, whether we're talking about racist reactions to Trump's win, or the nationwide protests that have broken out, sometimes blocking off sections of major highways. For reasons too obvious and omnipresent to be worth mentioning here, a great number of Americans may prefer to steer clear of political talk this Thanksgiving. With that purpose in mind, I have created this list of 10 things to talk about this Thanksgiving other than the election.

Now we all know what questions we can ask the people in our lives to spark conversation. How is so-and-so? Are you still working there? How are the kids liking their new school? Over the years we become trained in the art of acting like we care with our friends and family, so I won't be mentioning that stuff here. What I will give are some contemporary conversation ideas going beyond what you may already know for engaging with the people you already know. And let's face it, there are just those times where you want to minimize that engagement and get through the day. Here are some great time-killers.

10. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Peace Prize

Back in October it was announced that the famed American musician Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie praised the decision, with the latter referring to Dylan as the "the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition." Others, however, have been more critical, suggesting the choice blurs the lines between artistic mediums a bit too much. Do Dylan's lyrics really serve as poetry, or should we think of them more in terms of songwriting?

It's notable that this win is a somewhat contentious one, too, but it may nonetheless be appealing subject matter, especially if the aim is to soak up some mileage in conversation that isn't election-related. On the other hand, some conservatives may hear "Nobel prize" and try to use this as an opportunity to bash Obama's acceptance of a Nobel prize in 2009. The trick here may be to keep the discussion light and keep it focused on art, or on history. Dylan's music is loved by many Americans, whatever side of the political aisle they sit on, and he has become a staple of Americana, not to mention a significant influence on a wide variety of different bands and musicians to this day.

Another useful strategy behind this topic is that you don't actually need to defend the prize itself. This could be a great chance to just talk about music, about the impact it had on the 1960s, and maybe, if you're sly enough, the importance of peace in our public discourse.

9. Pokemon Go

While the above may be thin ice to skate on in some respects, this one shouldn't be. Pokemon Go was released in July this year and quickly exploded in popularity. The app has crossed boundaries of age, gender, race, and nationality, and has been responsible for vast numbers of people getting outside and getting more active. It has also helped people connect in a social manner that isn't restricted to being online, but brings players together in person, who might otherwise never have met.

You don't have to love or play Pokemon Go to find this a topic worth taking on, though. We've all seen the controversial news reports involving the app, such as Pokemon hunters at a holocaust museum, players getting into accidents while playing the game, and incidents of sexual assault. Whether or not your relatives are Pokemon Go addicts themselves, they have likely heard about the game and some of the stories surrounding it. This is a subject, unlike Dylan's music, that could provoke conversation among possibly everyone at the table, including even the kids.

It's difficult to imagine this turning into a political debate, either. Pokemon Go was referenced by both Trump and Clinton during their campaigns, but this type of very specific pandering is unlikely to be something that stuck out to a lot of people, except perhaps as an amusing sign of the times. If you like to be topical and want to avoid yelling and shouting and arguing over the 2016 election, Pokemon Go would make a great go-to conversation.

8. The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen

Death may not be the cheeriest subject, but a meaningful part of discussing the death of someone is reflecting on the legacy they have left behind. In the case of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, each of these endlessly-talented musicians has left behind an extensive catalogue of exceptional songs and performances. Some at your dinner table may have had the unforgettable privilege of seeing one of these artists live in concert, or they may just be a really big fan. Even if you hit on the improbable scenario that there are no fans of any of these three at Thanksgiving, it can provide a bit of time to talk about the weird rise in celebrity deaths we've been seeing.

I chose Bowie, Prince, and Cohen, but you could substitute others here, too. Why I selected these guys in particular has to do with their popularity and impact, yet also with the fact that they are musicians. There is something we can appreciate about music that often transcends divisions of politics, religion, and the like. It can be easy to miss the movies of a talented actor, or to miss the books of a skilled author, but music is everywhere, bleeding into our daily lives in coffee shops, in retail stores, at movie theaters, in the dentist's office, on the internet, etc., etc.

The death of a celebrity gives us pause to think about the fragility of life, and it simultaneously reminds us of how a life can touch so many around us. Rather than a morbid topic for family time at Thanksgiving, this kind of discussion can be a powerful encouragement during a time of year when some are already contemplating their lives, the future, those who have passed on, and the end of another season. We value the humility, honesty, and vulnerability that come from these things much more than we sometimes realize.

7. Zootopia

Alright, so if you're uncomfortable bringing up heavy topics during the holidays, what could be lighter than a Disney kids' movie that's fun for the whole family? Zootopia is a computer-animated buddy-cop mystery-comedy that takes place in a city run by animals, and has a starring cast that includes Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, and many more. The film currently has first place on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the top 100 movies of 2016, with an average critics score of 98% and an average viewer score of 93%.

Having seen Zootopia myself, I have to agree that this was one of the best flicks of the year, partly because of its creative and well-handled social commentary, but also because it was funny and fairly original. Most of what else came out in 2016 tends to call the word "disaster" to mind (Zoolander 2, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence... shall I keep going?) But Zootopia is a genuinely good film that can be enjoyable for adults as well as kids.

Of course, the movie scoring topic is a common one around the holidays, so other things could be substituted here, too. You could even prosper from raving about the worst movies of the year, but this one is at least not a violent, vulgar, or obscure movie, so it would be a decent bet for viable conversation material.

6. SpaceX and its trouble with rockets

Technological developments are often a topic of discussion at holidays. With the growing talk about traveling to, and eventually colonizing, other planets, developments with Elon Musk's SpaceX company may make good fodder for conversation. Back in April, SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, after delivering a cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Though previous attempts at landing had failed, this achievement could mark the first step towards bigger things for SpaceX.

That is, if incidents like the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad in September are easily-addressed accidents. The explosion occurred during a static fire test, and has raised questions about the damage to the launch pad, as well as the possible delay of future launches. Later it was revealed that a breached helium system is the suspected cause of the problem. By October, rumors of sabotage had begun to spread, with Musk calling the September incident the "most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years."

It remains to be seen how this will affect SpaceX in the long term, particularly with its plans to send NASA astronauts into space by 2017/2018. Even if you wouldn't consider yourself the most technologically literate, tackling the interesting subject of space travel and its privatization in businesses like SpaceX and Blue Origin could certainly provide for some thought-provoking conversation. After all, who isn't fascinated by explosions?

5. Self-driving cars

Many have declared that driverless cars are the future of travel here on planet Earth. It is often argued that they will end up being significantly safer than the manually-driven vehicles we use now. However, this year we have already witnessed a couple of fatal accidents involving the Tesla Model S that occurred while in its Autopilot mode, as well as numerous non-fatal accidents. 2016 hasn't been particularly kind to Elon Musk, it seems, who is also the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors.

Even so, these incidents, tragic as they are, are fairly isolated among the estimated 25,000 Model S cars in use. Tesla has alleged that some drivers have neglected to follow the safety procedures and warnings as instructed during the engagement of Autopilot. On the other hand, though, the Model S has only had the Autopilot feature since December 2014, and statisticians have pointed out flaws in safety estimates made by the company. Tom Simonite quotes a report from RAND Corporation explaining that it could take "as many as hundreds of billions of miles before [the vehicle's] performance could be fairly compared with statistics from the much larger population of human drivers."

Are self-driving cars dangerous? Are they the answer to automobile accidents that we've been waiting for? This topic would be sure to spark some debate over the holidays, especially among those with an interest in cars and technology.

4. Have you seen ______ yet?

A popular tactic for generating dialogue at family dinners is talking about the latest TV shows and seasons. This is used a lot with movies, too, but with the ubiquity of Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and television in general, you're more likely these days to command attention by reference to TV shows than to movies. The best part about the "Have you seen" lead-in is that it doesn't require that anyone actually did see whatever it is you choose to mention. If no one has seen it, you still get to give a taste to those around, and describe what you like/love/hate/would-like-to-see in the show.

Obviously, specific examples here are endless. The Walking Dead is extremely well known, but perhaps a bit on the gory side for Thanksgiving. Orange is the New Black is another popular one, though it also has some graphic moments. Then there's Game of Thrones, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman, Black Mirror, and on and on. Most of these are more adult than family-friendly, yet if you don't mind censoring yourself somewhat (or don't have young kids coming to dinner), any of these may be perfect for discussion.

If you tire of hearing the boring life stories of your relatives, introduce the exciting life stories of some fictional TV characters into the mix. It can be a great way to talk about a variety of issues, depending on the show, without delving too deeply into things that are personal or aggravating. Probably just try and avoid any shows that deliberately incorporate a lot of politics into their stories.

3. Black Friday

This one really should be a given. You either love Black Friday or you hate it, and although I'd venture to guess that by this point most Americans likely hate the holiday, there are still those who dare to go out shopping. Except this year, some companies like Walmart are planning on digitizing their deals. Black Friday conversation need not involve an itinerary, just some remarks on a range of related fronts, including deals you've seen, what you hate about the rush, what you like about getting gifts on sale, or your past excursions into the wastes of Retail-land.

Businesses like JCPenney, Macy's, and Kmart have been extending their Black Friday hours to almost absurd lengths. When the sales start on Thanksgiving evening, it may spare us from some of the mayhem of going out at 5 AM on Black Friday, but then doesn't it make the whole tradition just seem kind of pointless? Frankly, a lot of what we assume about big holiday sales are myths, like when it comes to getting the cheapest prices on Black Friday, or about extended hours increasing sales. So maybe save yourself and your loved ones some of the madness of Black Friday this year by staying home and ordering online.

Alternatively, if you disagree, and you just adore the experience of surviving Black Friday, make your case at the dinner table. The dreaded day after Thanksgiving is always prime material for ranting and raving about the day before, whether you're a shopper or an anti-shopper.

2. How 'bout this weather?

Discussing the weather is a favorite past-time of the unenthusiastic participant in conversation. It feels like something safe and simple to talk about, and it's a universally familiar subject. Especially during the holidays, when a lot of folks have to do some traveling, the weather can be a good icebreaker or a good tool for switching topics. Hell, I remember my grandparents leaving the Weather Channel on the television half the time we would be over to visit, so you know it won't be dead air if you bring it up.

The weather has been in the news a lot this year, too. There has been substantial talk about how hot 2016 has been, and how we've seen a gradual warming trend in recent history. This may stir up arguments over climate change, but keeping things localized and personal might help navigate around that contentious issue, as could some mention of diverse weather phenomena, like the major floods that have hit Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas over the last year to two years. Knowing friends or relatives who live in places that have been under severe weather can also help make this topic a lively one.

"Do you mind if we don't invite your cousin to Thanksgiving this year?"

Weather conversation reminds us all how Nature doesn't really give a damn about us and our problems. This may be worth remembering when everyone at your house starts trying to piss off everyone else. Suddenly our little family conflicts can seem small and unimportant. Save that rage for Nature!

1. Scientology

I know what you're thinking, but this one is and isn't a joke. If people at your table are looking for something to rail against this Thanksgiving, Scientology is one subject everyone loves to hate. There have been many exposés, news stories, and so forth, so it's likely your friends and family will have learned some things about it. They may say you're not supposed to discuss religion in polite company, but unless you have Scientologists coming to celebrate with you (or scholars of new religions), it's probably a good bet that everyone will pretty much be on the same page.

Scientology is topical as well, with Ron Miscavige, the father of current Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, having published a controversial book back in the Summer that purports to give some insight into not just the modern church, but the man behind it. Actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini has also developed a documentary series that is set to begin airing on A&E on November 29th. Many in the West have such a fascination with Scientology, and enough objections to it, that this could make for just the kind of heated discussion that might channel frustrations into a less destructive avenue than arguing over the election would.

Coming together for Thanksgiving isn't only about being thankful, after all, it's about bonding, too. And sometimes bonding is accomplished in the oddest of environments, over the most unusual sorts of things. So if push comes to shove, you can give those subversive persons something to rant about that won't ruin the holiday for the whole family.