Saturday, May 26, 2012

Low-hanging fruit

A lot of the pushback against conferences adopting an anti-harassment policy has been in the form of grousing about evidence (or lack thereof). Obviously we know this can be a problem, as these sorts of situations can easily degenerate into he-said/she-said.

But I think this is ignoring a lot of low-hanging fruit, if you'll excuse my use of what may be a somewhat tired metaphor. The assumption seems to be that the typical serial harasser will repeatedly deny everything and, as long as there are no tangible consequences, continue his behavior without modification. While it's undoubtedly true that there are people out there like that, I think this is the exception rather than the rule.

I think people will be pleasantly surprised how much of the more egregious behaviors decline precipitously as soon as there is a procedure in place so that conference organizers can have a chat with an accused harasser and merely let him know that the behavior in question is unacceptable. Sure, there will be those who laugh it off. But even just establishing that there are boundaries and that there might be consequences eventually is often enough to induce someone to change their outward behavior, at least in that particular context.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Conferences having an anti-harassment policy should be a no-brainer

It's sad how much pushback there is against the very simple and reasonable idea that atheist and skeptic conferences ought to have official anti-harassment policies in place, and a basic framework for dealing with harassment, sexual and otherwise. I mean... really?

I haven't written about Elevatorgate on my blog, because that kind of thing is a very difficult issue. I definitely come down on the Rebecca Watson side, but I also have a lot of empathy for Elevator Guy, and I am at a loss as to how best to address issues like that. As Greta points out, the more important issue is creating a safe space for women -- but at the same time, social dynamics strongly incentivize men to be aggressive in their overtures. Even if you make a good argument why individually men should not act that way, as long as the perverse incentives are in place then collectively very little is going to change. Actually fixing these problems is challenging.

But the stuff we are talking about here is not. For crying out loud, one of the problems Jen McCreight has referred to is speakers groping attendees! Do we really have to have a conversation about why that's not okay?

Adoption of anti-harassment policies will not do much of anything to fix the more difficult problems, like Elevator Guy-type stuff, or women being excluded in subtle ways like being interrupted more often, etc. And nor will it create some draconian atmosphere where everybody is afraid of what they might say, as some have feared. It simply means that there's actually some method of recourse when some asshole is doing something waaaaay out of bounds. Who the fuck can be opposed to that?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

PZ on religion on women

PZ has an entertaining little rant against D.S. Wilson and his ideas about religion as an adaptive trait operated on by group selection. (For what it's worth: I don't think it's inconceivable that at one time religion was beneficial to certain groups and that a form of cultural evolution may have driven it, but I'm extremely skeptical about the idea of group selection on a genetic level, in any context.) It culminates in a few paragraphs that I think extends far beyond this one little point about D.S. Wilson, and so I have re-edited it to make it more general:

But I have one word for [those with a] benign view of religion...That word is…


Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.

...[T]hose with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.

Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?


Friday, May 18, 2012

Some "skeptics" think Zimmerman's injuries were faked or self-inflicted

I'm not going to name names, and I'm not going to go into detail (I have a lot of work to do right now). But I have to comment on this... Over at FtB, I've seen a couple of commenters and at least one of the bloggers implying or even outright stating that the minor injuries George Zimmerman is reported to have had after the fatal encounter with Trayvon Martin were self-inflicted or faked, or even fabricated. The idea being that he thought this would let him get away with his devious plan to murder a black kid.

Come on, people. Is it possible that happened? Well, sure, and that sort of thing is not unheard of. But it's a pretty dramatic accusation, and a pretty spectacular explanation, especially when there is a much more mundane explanation ready at hand.

We know with 100% certainty -- from the 911 tapes -- that Zimmerman had been following Trayvon for several minutes and was extremely agitated by the time he got out of his vehicle. If we accept that the major elements of "Dee-Dee's" story are more or less true, we also know that Trayvon was (justifiably!) pretty worked up as well. For instance, "Dee-Dee" urged him to walk faster to try and get away, but he defiantly chose not to alter his pace. We also believe that at some point, Zimmerman got out of his SUV and approached Trayvon. Again if we accept "Dee-Dee's" story, it seems that the events at that point degenerated pretty rapidly, with the phone connection being cut off almost immediately after Zimmerman's approach, possibly as a result of Trayvon being shoved.

You know what could happen next in that kind of situation that would be totally unsurprising? A fistfight. Either one could have thrown the first punch, or neither of them might really have done it. Both were pretty much at maximum fight-or-flight response at that point, and based on their phone conversations we have reason to believe both of them had already made a conscious decision against "flight". Is it so shocking that they would have come to blows? Why on earth would someone be so skeptical of this narrative that they had to invent some weird conspiracy about self-inflicted wounds???

Is it some sort of need to make sure that Zimmerman is maximally to blame? If so, it's entirely unnecessary. If you stalk a kid ten years younger than you, aggressively walk up to him, get in a fistfight, and then shoot his ass, that's a serious crime, at least any place with sane gun laws. Hell, even if Trayvon unambiguously threw the first punch, you can't provoke someone into punching you and then cap them in the chest. Yeesh!

Or is it some sort of impulse to make Trayvon into some kind of saint? Well, once again, this is grossly unnecessary. Teenagers, um, occasionally get into fistfights. I know I sure did. And in this case, it seems Trayvon was pretty justified in feeling threatened! And like I say, even if there was a fistfight, that doesn't at all imply who threw the first punch. It's entirely plausible that Zimmerman walked up and tried to tackle Trayvon, then started losing when Trayvon fought back, and cowardly pulled out his gun. There, see, you still get to picture Trayvon as some sort of immaculate never-broke-a-single-rule hero, but you don't have to ludicrously deny that the evidence points strongly towards there having been a physical confrontation.

This conspiracy mongering about self-inflicted wounds is useless and annoying. Unless evidence comes to light that actually suggests that really happened, people should stop yammering about that hypothesis. It's paranoid, it's absurd, and it's distinctly unskeptical.

Addendum: A couple other thoughts on this... Zimmerman has not exactly come across as a criminal mastermind here. This is a guy who used to call 911 if he saw an open window or open garage door, and his website was, uh... well I don't know how to describe it. It's much easier for me to believe that Zimmerman is just a regular idiot with a gun and a hero complex, rather than some kind of devious sadist who formulated a clever plan to murder a kid in the streets and get away with it.

Also, some noise has been made about the fact that Zimmerman was on top of Trayvon when the shot was fired, and so therefore how could Trayvon have busted his nose? All I can say is, I guess people who say that have never been in a fistfight before. As I mentioned, I was in a couple of 'em as a kid. One of them actually dragged on for awhile, because it wasn't in school so there was nobody to break it up. Sometimes I managed to pin him down, sometimes he managed to do it to me. We both had bloody noses by the end. Actually, I think I bloodied his nose with a lucky punch when he was on top of me (though this was like almost two decades ago, so I don't really remember).

It's entirely plausible that Trayvon was mostly winning, then for a moment Zimmerman managed to get the upper hand, and he seized that opportunity to pull out his gun. I'm not at all saying that is what happened; it is just one of many possible scenarios that is consistent with the evidence. But it (and a lot of other similarly mundane explanations) are a lot more plausible than this self-inflicted wound crap.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Why does she have to be so hot?", or, How even some feminists are getting it wrong on the infamous Time cover

I think I may be starting to flip-flop on the Time cover again. I still think the headline was a bad choice, but so much of the other criticism I am seeing is just so terribly wrong-headed that I'm beginning to feel that countering the BS is more important than the judgmental implications in the headline.

For one thing, in the mainstream media there is still plenty of the predictable "ZOMG that kid is way too old!" garbage. If breastfeeding advocates had gotten exactly the cover they wanted, that's the battle we'd be fighting here -- and we ought not to lose sight of that, because it's a golden opportunity. Time has just opened a national conversation on how old is too old to breastfeed, and while you may not personally like how they introduced the topic, the #1 message needs to be: "As young or as old as you and your child feel comfortable with!" Let's not squander this unique chance obsessing over details.

Most troubling to me, though, is how much of the criticism is along the lines of, "Why did Time feel they needed to show an attractive woman with her boobs out?" I touched on this yesterday, but I feel I need to say more. I'm even hearing this criticism from some feminists and breastfeeding advocates, and while I understand where they are coming from, I think making an issue out of it, at least in regards to this particular image, is a big mistake.

The answer to the titular question, "Why does she have to be so hot?", is plainly obvious: Because she's on the cover of a magazine.

And no, that's not really okay. As I said yesterday:

I think the problem here is not so much the Time cover itself, but rather the fact that women in our society are constantly judged on the basis of their appearance, by both men and women alike, far more so than men are. The way a woman looks, and her perceived attractiveness, is already a highly-politicized issue.

Women appearing on the cover of Time magazine, or any other national magazine, tend to be highly attractive. This is nothing new. And while it reflects poorly on the way we evaluate and objectify women, this cover photo is at worst "not part of the solution" in that regard.

So why is that becoming such a big deal over this particular image? To me, the answer is obvious: Breastfeeding is still being sexualized and subjected to sex-shaming. People see that image, and instead of seeing an unconventional portrayal of breastfeeding, they see a woman flashing her naughty bits. That kind of response is exactly what we are trying to oppose! Why are so many breastfeeding advocates inadvertently encouraging it?!?

I'm vaguely reminded of the patriarchal religious impulse to demand that women "dress modestly" or cover themselves, lest men be tempted. "How dare you reveal your ankle in public? I won't be able to help myself!" Grow up. A woman who is breastfeeding doesn't have to assume a deliberately un-sexy pose for your benefit. She doesn't have to eschew makeup or (I can't believe I'm even saying this) make herself look homely just so you won't get all confused.

And anyway, why is it such an awful thing that a woman is breastfeeding and looks a little sexy at the same time? Is sex that dirty and evil (or breastfeeding that dirty and evil?) that it needs to be segregated from everything else at all times?

As I've admitted, there is a slight problem here in that Time is just unquestioningly going along with the "sexy ladies sell magazines" trend. But we see that kind of thing constantly and most of us don't typically make a thing out of it at every single opportunity. We're only making a thing out of it right now because this woman is breastfeeding. That shouldn't matter. If an inexplicably attractive woman on the cover of a magazine isn't worthy of complaint when she's not breastfeeding, then it's not worthy of complaint when she is breastfeeding. End of story.

Friday, May 11, 2012

About that Time cover...

So yeah, everybody's seen it, right? A lot of my Facebook friends are nursing moms, a lot of them are AP moms, a few of them are even extended-nursing moms, so there's been a lot of talk about this in my circle. I was initially pretty positive on it, though I've grown more ambivalent now that I've started to understand more of people's objections to the cover. I'm going to list the major objections I've heard, and my response to them.

A sensationalist photo will create a backlash against public breastfeeding/extended breastfeeding.

I just flat-out disagree with this one. Social change doesn't occur by staying within boundaries hoping to avoid a backlash. Social change happens by going way outside the boundaries. Even if you go "too far", the overall effect over time is to create more room in the mainstream for moderates.

Did over-the-top Gay Pride parades create a backlash against LGBTQ people? Nope, it normalized being gay, by extending the boundaries and thereby moving the middle. "I don't mind gay people, I just don't like those half-naked leather-wearing dancing dudes in the Pride parades. They are so in your face about it!" That's kind of a crappy thing to say, but the same person fifty years ago probably very much would have had a problem with gay people, even "normal-looking" ones.

By the same token, I don't really believe anybody is saying to themselves, "Well! I was okay with breastfeeding in public, but now I see these people are sick, and I won't tolerate it!" Rather, I think a more likely scenario is people who are leery about public breastfeeding subconsciously saying to themselves, "Well, I don't like that... but at least it's not like that crazy lady on the cover of Time!"

But it's not being sensationalist in order to create social change -- Time is just trying to sell magazines!

Um, yes they are. Is this supposed to be surprising? Next, please.

The woman is too sexy. Show normal breastfeeding moms!

This objection has some merit. But if they'd shown a less attractive woman, wouldn't there be outrage that Time was deliberately trying to stereotype AP moms as plain-looking or homely?

I think the problem here is not so much the Time cover itself, but rather the fact that women in our society are constantly judged on the basis of their appearance, by both men and women alike, far more so than men are. The way a woman looks, and her perceived attractiveness, is already a highly-politicized issue. This is not a good thing. And if you want to argue that this Time cover is contributing to the problem, I think you might have a point. But it's just so hard to say what they should have done. That's one of the most depressing things about misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.: in a world where privilege operates so pervasively and so invisibly, sometimes it's nigh impossible to figure out the "right" thing to do.

I find the Time cover unremarkable in this regard. It did neither a particularly good job nor a particularly poor job of navigating the depiction of women and the irrelevant criteria on which they are often judged. They probably could have done better, but there's not an easy fix here.

This relates to the next objection, which is:

That's not what breastfeeding looks like at all.

Nope, it's not. This is not what the economy looks like. This is probably not a fairly accurate depiction of what dripping petroleum looks like. This is not what two dogs hanging out together typically looks like.

The intention of a magazine cover is not necessarily to accurately portray anything; rather, it's to create an eye-catching image that captures the flavor of the topic under discussion. We can debate whether this cover did so in a responsible and effective way, but the fact that it doesn't look like real-life breastfeeding is totally irrelevant.

The "Are you mom enough?" headline is insulting to women who don't live up to some imaginary ideal.

Now this, I agree, is problematic. I hadn't really thought about that when I gave my initial reactions to the cover, because I was focused on the image itself, which, as I've described, I don't really have any major problems with. But the caption is troubling, especially since, as I've written about previously, there's a huge minefield when it comes to promoting breastfeeding: pressuring women to do something they don't want to do, treating them as baby factories rather than fully-realized individuals, etc. The relationship between breastfeeding and feminism is complicated, and this headline strikes a really unfortunate tone in that regard.

My wife interprets it as being intentionally hyperbolic, as in, they are picturing a woman doing something that is perceived as pretty extreme, and then the "Are you mom enough?" thing is an acknowledgment that, holy crap, this is some pretty extreme mothering. In other words, it's not supposed to be shaming women any more than a depiction of BASE jumping with the caption "You think you can handle this?" is supposed to be shaming everyone who is not a BASE jumper. She has a point... but it's too easily misinterpreted. I agree this was a mistake, and it is the main factor which has made me more ambivalent about the cover.

In summary...

I don't see anything wrong with the image itself, beyond the fact that it's gotten itself inadvertently tangled in the broader web of gender politics in general, and in that regard it is neither great nor terrible. The headline, however, is extremely troublesome. I think the intention was positive, and that was the way I perceived it initially... but there is just way too much potential downside. In a society where women are constantly dumped on for failing to live up to some ideal or other ("too fat!" "too thin!" "too ugly!" "too slutty!" "too prude!" "too wimpy!" "too bitchy!"), even the possibility that it could be interpreted that way is unacceptable. I like the image, I don't like the headline.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The tale of Skip Tex and Regina Edgars

One day, Skip Tex logged into Facebook and found that he had a friend request waiting for him. It was a woman by the name of Regina Edgars, whom his friend Sally C. Atwater had introduced him to at a party. The idea was that Regina had some campaign experience which, it was hoped, could help Skip with his political ambitions.

Now Skip wasn't so sure about this... Regina seemed knowledgeable and eager to help, but Skip Tex was predominantly progressive, while Edgars on the other hand was a registered Republican. The only other Republicans which Skip had friended on Facebook were his parents, and he was pretty tired of seeing all the birther nonsense and other crap they would constantly link to from WorldNetDaily. It wasn't even so much the terrible policy positions or even the undercurrent of racism that bugged Skip so much; it was just the patent absurdity of the articles his parents posted. But Sally assured him Regina was different.

Cautiously, tentatively, Skip clicked "accept" and added Regina to his friends list. The very next day, he saw that Edgars had reposted a status to her wall: a well-meaning request to send a birthday card to a kid with brain cancer. Problem is, the story had already been thoroughly debunked by Snopes, years ago.

With a roll of his eyes, Skip clicked over to Edgars' profile and unfriended her. An overreaction? Perhaps. But nobody who knew the personality of Skip Tex would be surprised. This is his pet peeve after all. Maybe he missed a golden opportunity by rejecting Edgars' overtures, but in practice it didn't matter. Even from the beginning, he wasn't sure he could get along with Edgars, and the Snopes fiasco just seemed to confirm his suspicions. Justified or not, that door was closed.

Moral of the story: The most surefire way to piss off Skip Tex is by saying something that anybody with an Internet connection can plainly see is false.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Surprise: Republican spin doctor comes across like a Republican spin doctor

Welp, Edwina Rogers really screwed the pooch with that Greta Christina interview, didn't she? (Note: I am being lazy with links for this post because a) I'm in a hurry, and b) I assume any of my readers who actually give a shit about the internal politics of atheism already know a dozen better places to read about the internal politics of atheism, so I'm just going to briefly and lazily give my two cents) My read of the atheist blogosphere's initial reaction to her appointment (and her interview with Hemant) was basically, "Um, woah... did the SCA just appoint a Republican spin doctor to be their executive director? Well, I'm not sure how that's going to work out, but let's wait and see..." So there was an opportunity there, I think initially. But the GC interview was disastrous, and I don't see any hope anymore of the SCA selling this to the secular community at large.

There are all sorts of problems with Rogers' appointment, but her biggest mistake could be summed up as simply as this: The sorts of techniques that work with Fox News viewers are not the same sort of techniques that work in the secular community. That's it. We don't even need to make the case that what the secular community finds convincing is superior; I happen to think that is the case, but it doesn't even really matter. All that matters for purposes of this post is that what those audiences want to hear is different, and Rogers just scored a massive FAIL in her understanding of that.

When addressing Fox News viewers, the overriding priority is to not give an inch. That's pretty good advice for arguing in front of any group, I'm afraid (nuance loses arguments, typically), but it's not always priority #1. And it turns out that when arguing in front of secularists, priority #1 is to not make statements that are disproven by 5 minutes of Googling. This is not to say you can't ever get away with lying to skeptics, but your lies can't be blatantly obvious to anyone with an internet connection. Rogers failed badly in this department, and given that there was already a lot of (IMO well-justified) bias against her due to her ties with the Bush administration, I just don't see any possibility of coming back from this.

Disclaimer: I must confess I don't even really have a horse in this race, since the extent of my involvement with the SCA has been that I "liked" the Secular Student Alliance page on Facebook. I am not a donor nor a member. So what I think doesn't really matter, beyond the fact that I think I happen to be super-smrt and stuff.

An awesome thing about Where the Wild Things Are that I bet you never noticed

I've been meaning to do this post for several months now, ever since I noticed this. The sad departure of Maurice Sendak made me decide that today is the day.

My paperback copy of Where the Wild Things Are is 10"x9" (actually it's more like 9 7/8"x9", but close enough). So in each pair of facing pages, there are two times 10" times 9" equals 180 square inches of paper.

The lone illustration on the first pair of facing pages ("The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind") is 5 1/2" x 4 1/8", for a total of about 22.7 square inches, or 12.6% of the total paper. The illustration on the second pair of facing pages is almost imperceptibly larger, at 6 1/4"x4 3/4", or 29.7 square inches, or 16.5% of the total area. I think you can see where this is going... but you still might be surprised at how committed Sendak is to this distinctly mathematical flair:


I probably didn't need to label the Wild Rumpus, but I did anyway. For the entire book, the illustration has been growing and growing, until for those three pairs of facing pages, the illustration fills the entire space, obliterating words (if you don't recall, those pages stand apart from the rest of the book in that there is no accompanying text).

I also labeled the two points where it crosses the 50% line, once on the way up and once on the way down. In both cases, the entire right hand side page is solid illustration, the left is simply black text on a pure white background. The first, which I have labelled "Start of dream?" is the frame where we see Max's arms raised as he prowls through the newly grown forest, accompanied by the text, "and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around". If you'll allow me a bit of interpretive license, I would argue that in the pages leading up to where I have marked "Start of dream?", Max has been in that semi-dozing state we often find ourselves in, where images flash in and out of one's head as one teeters between wake and sleep; and the page I have labelled "Start of dream?" is when he falls into a deep slumber, and the vague scenes in his head crystallize into the ragged narrative of a true dream.

The point I have labelled "End of dream?" doesn't require nearly as much interpretation. In fact, I probably could have left off the question mark. This page is accompanied by the caption, "and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him", and shows a tired-looking Max smiling and rubbing his head in his room. It is the first post-Rumpus illustration we see that is clearly in the "real" world rather than the dream world. This is pretty unambiguously the end of whatever experience Max was having.

I think it is no coincidence that the "dream" is book-ended by pairs of pages that stand at the threshold where the illustration bursts from the confines of the right-hand page and spills over into the left-hand page -- which, in all of the non-dream parts of the book has been reserved for plain black text on a pure white background. I have to believe this is deliberate.

It's a simple idea, but Sendak was committed to it, and it's subtle enough that I think most readers don't consciously notice it. And yet it adds tremendously to the excitement and other-worldliness of the book. The whimsy grows and grows monotonically, until it begins to impinge on the words, and finally all linearity and verbal thought is obliterated in a frenzy of unconstrained imagination. And just as quickly, the fantastic images shrink and dry up, until we gently touch down back in the world of words and simple material needs and hot suppers.

RIP Maurice Sendak. You were a genius.