Example 3: Activism and Intellectualism

So that was issues within activism, which I’m sure I could talk about forever. But I sometimes feel the same conflict with activism as a whole, especially as it relates to intellectualism.

It doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict, when I think about it in the comfort of my mind. I have desires I can recognize by introspection relating to happiness, health and well-being, and I have a skill for empathy that allows me to see how other people would want those things as well, and how a properly flourishing society might benefit everyone. I then comprehend the concept of injustice as a deviation from this pattern and seek out its instances, in isolated events and institutionalized inequity. It then takes a great deal of work and courage to discover the causes. Plenty of people and institutions have it in their best interests to stop anyone from doing exactly that, and in the case of societally enacted injustice, the hypotheses can at first appear unfalsifiable without properly conducted longitudinal studies. The possible solutions and their implementations can be even more difficult given the lack of evidence for any particular plan we have to work with. All for the goal of human welfare. Sam Harris and Si Kahn would be proud. It’s an alignment of evolved, passionate instincts with the right way to achieve goals and sub-goals.

And yet, it sometimes feels that, to be an environmentalist, I have to think about the world in terms of inherent value and beauty and mystical energy, and I just don’t. In fact, I don’t even think that sustainability and keeping the environment pristine are intrinsically moral propositions. Genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy should be opposed on principle, but my consequentialist ethics just don’t get me there. Over the course of my life, I’ve switched from viewing feminism as making sure that individual women can achieve the goals they set for themselves, to seeing it as a social movement dedicated to eradicating institutionalized discrimination and sexism put into place by hierarchical, patriarchal systems. It explains why sexism and capitalism often go together, and why sexism is often perpetuated by non-sexists. It makes things like the porn and sex-worker issue rather poignant. I’m mostly drawn to Greta Christina and other pro-porn feminists who recognize the fantastic work that the second wave did to alert us to violent sexism in the industry and in the very concept of making money off of encouraging sexual objectification, but who have decided that the most empowering system we can currently support is one where instead of rejecting industries whole-heartedly, making them safer and less patriarchal places to be. But then I read something like this, and I have to rethink.

Rethinking is hard. It means a massive intellectual undertaking, and while I do it, I can’t define myself, I find it more difficult to take strong positions (because I don’t like to pretend to be sure about things I may be reconsidering), and I can’t take action. So people I might be able to help aren’t being helped because I’m having a philosophical crisis. I remember during the Obama campaign, I canvassed with my dad, and one day I was just having an intellectual breakdown. I couldn’t remember why I supported him anymore, why I was a liberal, why I was doing what I was doing. I asked my dad why we supported Obama, and he gave a good answer, but still an unconvincing one, and I felt terrible asking people to give their votes and approval to something I didn’t agree with. When I’d reconsidered, I felt terrible for not having been able to be sincere about something I believed in. I give credence to those mental glitches, but they make activism extremely difficult. In the political world, we don’t really let people rethink, and we give them hell for changing positions. But that’s exactly what being an intellectual is all about.


My grandmother doesn’t seem to have any problems with intellectualism and activism. She has dedicated her life to grassroots activism, advocacy at the highest levels, worldwide justice, rectification of historical inequities and giving voice to the voiceless, and that’s after her time in politics. At the same time, she introduced me to the joys of sudoku and ken-ken, and once got two bingos in a single scrabble game. One memorable holiday evening in Vermont was spent solving the full page Boxer Day puzzle in the New York Times, with witty repartee all around and compliments given as good answers warranted. I saw her call her sister when the finished a crossword to see who had finished it first. It’s pretty incredible.

Her mother, too, embodied these principles, serving as PR director of the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years after deciding not to be a professor of symbolic logic (on which she wrote a paper proving Bertrand Russell and/or Newton wrong) because being a woman in math, or in academia, was too much of an obstacle. We tell stories about her in my family, of how she used to start crosswords in the upper left corner and never do a word if it didn’t connect to another one. When my grandmother corrected me once when I said there were less moguls on one side of a mountain, I was told that in order to carry on my great grandmother’s legacy, I had better say “fewer.” I could go on.

My dad is a professor of human development with a secondary appointment in pediatrics and a third in electrical engineering. He introduced me to activism of all sorts. He used to do the AIDS Ride for years, and I couldn’t wait until I was allowed to join. He and I have always done the Hazon ride together. He took me to my first rally in 2003, against the Iraq War. We also canvassed for Obama the summer of ’08. Maybe you really can have it all.

But for me, the dilemma remains.

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Example 2: Having Opinions

Activism, or even just strong opinion, provides the same set of problems, in a variety of ways. First off is a rethinking of the classic firebrand/diplomat dynamic, about which Greta Christina has written fantastically. The problem is that a brilliant analysis doesn’t make the issue go away, and also, I think she may be oversimplifying. Most social movements aren’t a one-dimensional spectrum; they are way more complicated than that. That’s fine, of course, but when you get people who are not only in conflict but not even addressing the same points, it’s much harder to realize we’re all on the same side.

Any movement can serve as an example, but I’m going to talk about religion. In everyday parlance, it’s easy to squish all of the nuances of thought about the metaphysics of existence, the ontology of the universe, the teleology of life, epistemological concerns about faith and reason into a religious on one side, atheist on the other, agnostic in the middle line. That’s ridiculous. It matters to me whether someone believes in god because they couldn’t imagine a meaningful life without one or because god is a source of morality. It matter whether they oppose religion on principle because of its false teachings or simply because of the disaster it’s wrought. It matters whether religious traditions are important culturally or accomodationist cop-outs. Also, it obviously matters to me whether secularist organizations care more about religious tolerance than they do about exterminating religion. They’re important distinctions, and they really should be talked about. At every moment though, we should be clear about what’s being discussed.

It’s really hard, you know. I just watched this video by TheAmazingAtheist, who I normally think yells more than he thinks. But this happened to be a justifiably angry response to idiotic bigotry, and a surprisingly fervent pro-American ideals stance. I liked it a lot, and I posted it on facebook. The worry, of course, is that my friends who are more in the liberal, tolerant camp will be frustrated that I’ve thrown in my lot with someone who makes a point in his video to discuss how much he hates Islam. It’s certainly problematic, but it’s not a conflict. It’s orthogonal; they have little to do with each other. This is addressing Pat Connell’s remarks about the Islamic Cultural Center and how it relates to the First Amendment. I support the First Amendment, quite a bit, in fact, and it makes me happy to see it defended to vehemently. It’s also great to see an adamantly asshole-ish atheist not take the cowardly stance of opposing the building just because “they don’t like any religious buildings.” The fact that he hates Islam as an ideological system makes his argument all the more powerful. In a video about religious tolerance in general, it might very well detract, but we need to recognize that these lie on non-overlapping categories, and I think it’s important to have people like him, just like him, not like him without the bitchiness, on our side.

On the other hand, PZ Meyers, who is a self-proclaimed dick, but who I admire and like on an intellectual and personal level (I met him! :D) recently responded in what I think is very poor taste to a writer. This commenter, with the moniker of EvolutionSkeptic, told PZ that he has recognized, after much research and self-reflection, the truth of evolution and the lack of evidence for god. He asked, earnestly, how to construct a morality without god. Now, this isn’t, objectively speaking, difficult. In fact, it’s hard to do just the opposite, as this video shows. There’s a wealth of options: Bertrand Russell has some things to say, as does Sam Harris. The classics, of course, are rule or act utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology, but there are more. Furthermore, our innate, evolutionarily designed moral senses tend to serve us just fine. But this person just came out of a long relationship with themselves and that moral compass, and PZ decided to start bitching about how the church isn’t moral at all, given its pedophilic priests and Inquisition and WBC, completely missing the point. Greta Christina has written about how we need to make atheism a more comfortable place to land, and I completely agree. PZ has taken a step in the wrong direction; when you’ve finally convinced someone is not the time to be a dick. Giving them praise, encouragement and some valuable links and resources is. So much as I may agree with the specifics of what were said, it goes contrary to my humanist values to agree with the method, tone and choice of strategy.

It’s not that I need a label, but it can be difficult to navigate the enormous number of choices and spectra in a consistent way, especially when, in the case of orthogonal issues (belief and god and appreciation for religion come to mind), a position on one doesn’t actually necessarily help with a decision on another. The sex industry vis a vis feminism poses many of the same problems.
On an intellectual level, it can feel like getting battered around, fighting off the internet idiots claiming that I’m going to hell on one level, engaging on very hard to follow moral philosophy on another, discussing science and religion while having Francis Collins in the back of my head, getting mad at fellow atheists for forgetting that they’re not actually better than everyone else, taking action on what I believe in while making sure that I’m open to changing my mind at any time, worrying that I’m being too accomodationist in the privacy of my mind while fighting off accusations that I’m overly militant from people who know me. My about me is a good set of examples.

There are just too many positions on too many spectra on too many intellectual levels in too many different contexts to keep track of.

What to do?

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Example 1: The Academic Community

I brought up a few small examples in the general post, but here’s a more in depth analysis of the issues of throwing out schools of thought within academia.

Let’s talk about disciplines of thought. Are you a math/science person or a history/English person? Divergent or convergent thinking? One answer or many? Black and white or shades of gray? The dichotomies abound, and you have to pick a side. Again, some of these are elucidating and important. Where would we be if the rationalists hadn’t furiously debated the empiricists? But just as importantly, we now know that they were both wrong, and that in fact, their positions, modified to be in line with modern thought, aren’t really in opposition at all.

When we talk about free will, for example, philosophy is obviously important. What does it mean to be free? How does this relate to consciousness? How does it affect choice and our understanding of the universe? When determinism comes up, physics inevitably does as well, whether the universe is being modeled as a game of pool, or the action potentials across the axons of the neurons in our brains. Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett then come in and remind us of the great importance of biology, not in terms of cells or motor proteins, but in evolution and the way that past successes and failures shape the way we do or do not make choices and perceive the world now. The social sciences then can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human in terms of universals, and then, finally, the humanities show us the great scope of what an overly large brain can create, in art and literature and the rest.

Seems unproblematic. Obviously, the existence of an evolutionary explanation in no way necessarily implies anything about meaningfulness or goodness or badness or how we should try to structure our society these days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Stephen Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, wastes a great deal of time bitching about the academic feminists and the Marxists and the café intellectuals and the social scientists. God, they’re all such post-structuralist, postmodernist, constructivists. They hate science, they’re ruining everything. But, to be fair, there are indeed intrinsic problems. Science has been fraught with pseudo-scientifically justified racism, ethically questionable studies and poorly done analyses of non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich democracies) societies. Nonetheless, it has advanced our understanding of the universe far beyond any armchair analysis has ever done or ever could do (Einsteinian thought experiments included). And while I could go into an analysis of what each “side” (they’re not really that easily separated or compared) has historically gotten right, the fact is it doesn’t matter. The facts do. Whatever is true, is true, and any discussion of what is right or what should be needs to start with what is.

There’s certainly room for improvement. Instead of working assiduously and transparently to understand the world and society and people on a variety of levels and tolerating dissent as it comes up, these different types of academics seem to hate each other. So perhaps we need to restructure the fields we have at our disposal, make sure we’re not committing any category mistakes, be clear and transparent about the assumptions under which we’re operating and ensure, above all else, that our moral claims stay separate from our truth claims and our truth claims are based on solid evidence. That makes all disciplines more flexible, more adaptable and more likely to be right. It allows the feminists and constructivists (who, by the way, Pinker, are not just looking for legal equality or individual empowerment or specifics of that sort. This is social change we’re talking about) to note that it’s been shown that people are exquisitely sensitive to context in terms of the way they see themselves and others and the way they behave. From that empirical basis, they can criticize prevalent racism and sexism and genderization in the media or in our commercial lives. It also allows others trying to effect social change to frame it in a way that, while non-utopian, may be more effective, such as looking closely at in-group and out-group formation rather than trying to eliminate difference or utilizing incentives instead of good will.

So everyone stays on their own turf, understanding and being clear about their own assumptions. That creates a specialized intellectual world that provides a myriad of ways through which to analyze the world. Nonetheless, they learn from each other, not in arguments and axioms, although those might translate, but in the findings that they reach, so that truth can grow as it is shared.

If only, if only.

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Confronting Conceptual Conflicts

I’ve written about 3-5 blog posts in the last few days, and I had thought about posting them, but they all seem to be missing something. I pondered it for a while, and it struck me that the problem was, they were really all talking about exactly the same struggle, from several different vantage points.

The problem is one of categories, levels and points of view. One of the most incredible things about being human is the diversity of options available, in action but particularly in thought. For someone who aims for logical consistency, however, this can pose some problems. There are ways of living that are applicable in different circumstances, and acting differently in accordance with separate situations is perfectly rational and justifiable. Regardless, even if the modes of thought or action do not come into direct conflict, their orthogonality can be troubling. Sometimes, too, they do seem to be problematically counter-aligned, and I am forced to make a choice, or at least come at the problem in a more sophisticated or nuanced way.

In general, my feelings about orthogonality or interconnectedness or conflict between conceptual frameworks rest not on an underlying feeling that there actually are deep cracks in my worldview as a result of being a feminist and a scientist or a constructivist and logical postivist, or some such. My problem comes more as a result of the fact that other people tend to draw lines in the sand, and since I either agree with both or neither, the lines themselves, usually taking the form of false dichotomies, tend to make me very uncomfortable.

One of the supreme ways in which to understand the world better, more complexly and more deeply is to jump into different axiomatic structures and see where they take you. It is this opportunity that prompts my profound appreciation for a wide variety of fields, systems of knowledge, cultures, subcultures and simple sets of interests or hobbies. There’s not only the chance to open up new worlds, but also to see the old ones differently. In an idealized intellectual space, a holistic understanding could be reached by integrating ideas and strategies from every subset and class one could think of. Obviously, that’s not always, or maybe ever, possible, but with that as my ideal, it makes sense that hardline ultimatums about belief or thought are irritating.

I’m not saying that we should all be gently accommodating and discuss our differences over cheesecake and coffee. Obviously, strong belief arising from strong evidence is to be admired, and academic debates are actually pretty excellent. They tend to be based on a controversy that no one outside the field knows about, and new data comes in all the time supporting one or the other. That makes them birth grounds of new knowledge, ideas and conceptual frameworks, and also very very exciting. Gould vs. Dawkins (as a general debate) gripped me for over a year, and I just recently threw in my lot behind evolutionary psychology as an extremely important and relevant and valid field of study (for example). What’s especially wonderful about this kind of debate, however, is that at the end of the day, the debate went to rest. The punctuated equilibrists weren’t accusing the gradualists of being awful people who are ignoring the importance of science and empiricism. They fought viciously, certainly, but only within a scientific framework, criticizing the validity of findings or interpretations. On the other hand, Stephen Pinker (whose book was, in general, amazing, by the way, and who I respect a great deal) sounds like an idiot when he accuses intellectuals and Marxists of denying the importance of science and evolutionary theory. There’s just so much wrong with that.

Essentially, I think that the reason categorically throwing out disciplines and groups of people is that, if we don’t recognize the importance of multiple sides, with underlying assumptions of sufficient evidence and valid reasoning to make the time worthwhile, we’re going to get a ton of false negatives, and that has extremely deleterious consequences for an advancing, knowledge-based society.

I go into more detail with these examples:
1. The Academic Community
2. Having Opinions
3. Activism and Intellectualism