All We Can Ask from Death

Unless you’ve been living in a cave mansion outside of Islamabad hiding from the US government, you’ve probably heard that Osama bin Laden was killed last night in a firefight. For many, the most appropriate response was obvious: unadulterated joy with a robust helping of national unity and patriotism on top. And who can blame them? Osama bin Laden was a hateful, opportunistic murderer, a terrorist mastermind who took advantage of anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and whipped it into a lethal boil. He is personally responsible for the death of thousands of Arabs, Americans, Muslims, atheists…people. If anyone deserved to die, he did.

Even so, there were those of us who did not have quite that reaction, for whom bloodlust and triumph did not immediately course through our veins. Some of us were quiet, thinking of the significance of the event. Some of us were grim, feeling vindicated in that there was one fewer murderer on earth, but not feeling exactly exultant, either. My response was some mix of these, but it was altered because I heard the news during a House Meeting, in a room full of people, many of whom took the first tack. Instead of having the time to sit and think and digest, I was immediately thrust into a party-like atmosphere in which Team America had won once again, and all would be right in the world if only our testosterone-soaked heroes could be allowed free reign. Good news had come at last from the unending wars! Let us rally around it in an orgy of patriotism and victory.

At least, that’s how it felt to me. In contrast, I felt hesitant, that something was not quite right about the reveling in death that was going on. I expressed these sentiments on facebook and twitter, letting it be known that I felt there was much more to Osama’s death than a simple check for America’s win column. To start, the death was more symbolic than anything else. It’s possible that his death will weaken the various Al-Qaeda affiliates, hamper their ability to communicate, and undermine their capacity to recruit. It’s also possible that they will become highly angered and the Middle East will be less safe for a while. Either way, Osama had been doing very little of the on-the-ground planning of late, and it seemed frankly silly to count such a psychologically significant yet geopolitically unsubstantive victory as meaningful.

It also seemed to disrespect the vast complexities of which Osama was a symbol: the two unending wars, the changes wrought in the American psyche, the culture of fear created, here and abroad, increases in Islamophobia and hate-crimes, the still unfinished Ground Zero Monument, anti-American sentiment the world over, the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq and Afganistan, the controversial drone attacks. But for the night, none of it seemed to matter. In a way, it was a tacit acknowledgement. Americans were so hungry for a victory that they leaped on the action-movie-like story of a Special Ops force, a firefight, a mansion, an exotic South Asian country and dead target. When I expressed this idea, I was told in no uncertain terms that “Its not anymore complex than 3000 innocent Americans, your fellow countrymen.” But there was still something farcical about letting the droplet of success wash over us as the waves of the uncertain path forward continued to churn. That’s why, I suppose, I was so bothered by Obama calling for national unity because we’d killed Osama bin Laden. It’s not that there’s so much wrong with that on its own, but rather that Osama is part of something so much larger, and the call for national unity just serves as a veneer. I wish so deeply, I suppose, that there had been a call for national unity when the Iraqis had their first election, or on the day Obama announced we were exiting Iraq. There wasn’t, because those were not unequivocally good happenings, and there were a lot of mixed feelings. People may have been upset if it were implied that those were things everyone had a duty to support. That’s how I feel about this, because bin Laden himself was just a man, and the tip of an enormous iceberg.
Then there’s how we react to the death itself. Frankly, I was a little disgusted by the streamers and the celebration. I understood it, certainly, and how profoundly human of a response that was, but I wish we’d had the wherewithal to overcome those particular instincts and instead acknowledge the importance and significance of the death, to reflect on his life and the destruction he cause, to think of the 9/11 victims and their families, to ponder the aftermath of 9/11 and how the world was forever changed, and not, perhaps, to throw America-themed frat parties, sing Queen’s We Are the Champions and begin dancing in the streets. Americans celebrated death last night. 
I know there was a lot going on, I’ve had the conversations, and I know there were legitimate causes for celebration. But there was a blatant current of outright self-satisfied, self-aggrandized, smug gratification in our accomplishment. And it just seems like death, especially one I felt wasn’t quite as important as everyone was making it out to be, isn’t something we ought to glorify. It’s a tad unseemly, yes, a tad grotesque, yes, but more importantly, it runs counter to very important values.

As Americans, we value, supposedly, due process, which Osama (for very good reason) never had. We do not relish the meting out of justice. As a humanist, I value life. I reject wholeheartedly these all-too-religious overtones of good and evil, black and white, that human lives are valuable until we deem them irredeemable, at which point they become worthless. Osama was evil, so the story goes, and so his life no longer mattered. He may have deserved to die, but I reject the narrative that says that there exist pure good and evil in the world, and that we eradicate evil by whatever means necessary, as if morality itself were not a natural phenomenon, and as if the cultivation of moral excellence were not the task of a lifetime. James Croft did an excellent job of pointing out the history of this line of thinking in the humanist movement:

Humanism and its Aspirations declares that “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all”, and makes no distinction between the wicked and the just, the good and the evil. The Humanist Manifesto II is abundantly clear: “The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.” So is the first Humanist Manifesto, saying “humanism will affirm life rather than deny it”.

The humanist perspective shows us that while we may have to kill, we simply do not have to revel in it. We should despair at every human life lost, to death, to destruction, to monstrous beliefs and behavior.

And if that plea to a shared humanity does not move you, a much more analytic approach exists. I subscribe to the ethical theory called desirism. If you don’t want to read about it, what you basically need to know is that it relies on desires as reasons for action, and modulation of those desires as ways of ensuring that more desires are fulfilled rather than thwarted. I find it clear, then, that we have many and strong reasons to condemn the desire to kill and be joyful in the killing, because humans are not so good at containing those emotions and applying them only in the appropriate circumstances. Humans are not so good at overcoming violent tribalist jingoistic instincts, and using patriotism to come together over shared values instead of policing self-identification boundaries by a country border. Humans are not so good at erring on the side of not killing rather than killing. Humans are not so good at affirming life, a value we have many and strong reasons to strengthen, as it is, and I will have nothing be a setback to reminding us everyday that the enemies we see around us are protagonists in their own narrative, are doing what they think best, are human just like us.

In my thinking about this issue, I’ve been taking inspiration from some interesting sources.

In Leviticus, 18:18, in the midst of many reactionary and troubling decrees, the Hebrew god tells the Israelites, that they must, 

“not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

A more recent source gave us,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, 
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.  
The deal is that this quote was said by MLK, except for the first line that was here previous, which goes something like: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” I think that’s a beautiful sentiment too, but I don’t know how to attribute it, so I’ll just leave it here. 

On facebook, someone said, 

See, regardless he was still a person. Start dehumanizing someone, even someone like him, and you forget your own values. We are better than that, or we hope to be.”

My friend Sandra wrote a beautiful piece on the same issue here.
The movies Munich and Inglorious Basterds stylized and hyperbolized our trusted protagonists, forcing the audience to be revolted at the bleak humanity present even in our heroes.

And Orson Scott Card, that brilliant author who has changed my life more than once, penned some incredibly beautiful thoughts that he threaded effortlessly into his narratives:

In Ender’s Game, Ender says to Valentine, the sister who cannot understand that he has become a killer, a monster in his own right, 

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

Bean learns this message, and many books later, has an encounter with an incredibly evil enemy, with a pathological disregard for human life. And this is what transpires:

Achilles laughed nervously. “Come on now, Bean. We’ve known each other a long time.” He had backed up against a wall. He tried to lean against it. But his legs were a little wobbly and he started to slide down the wall. “I know you, Bean,” he said. “You can’t just kill a man in cold blood, no matter how much you hate him. It’s not in you to do that.” 

“Yes it is,” said Bean. 

He aimed the pistol down at Achilles’s right eye and pulled the trigger. The eye snapped shut from the wind of the bullet passing between the eyelids and from the obliteration of the eye itself. His head rocked just a little from the force of the little bullet entering, but not leaving. Then he slumped over and sprawled out on the floor. Dead. 

It didn’t bring back Poke, or Sister Carlotta, or any of the other people he had killed. It didn’t change the nations of the world back to the way they were before Achilles started making them his building blocks, to break apart and put together however he wanted. It didn’t end the wars Achilles had started. It didn’t make Bean feel any better. There was no joy in vengeance, and precious little in justice, either. 

But there was this: Achilles would never kill again.  

That was all Bean could ask of a little .22.

That Osama bin Laden will never kill again may indeed be all we can ask. Not that the wars end, or that freedom triumphs, but that we have taken a small step in a protracted campaign, and that all we can do is hope, and keep trying.


Updates from the blogosphere:

A more appropriate response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death, as well as the violent deaths of thousands in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play any role in killing another.”

“American citizens often like to think of themselves as good Christians—decent, kind God-fearing people who defend what’s right even when that’s difficult, just as Jesus would have. Last night was an opportunity to live up to that ideal, to let the world know that we are powerful but we’re not drunk with power. Instead, we got wasted and said we wanted to rub our balls on Osama’s dead face, belying American exceptionalism by not acting exceptional, but entirely common.”

Speaking Up

The first talk I went to was called ‘Evolutionary Leadership for a Just and Sustainable World

I wasn’t sure exactly why this talk thought it was describing “Evolutionary Leadership,” but it essentially described a sort of classic criticism of the way we live today, that we are not seeing the vast, overarching forces and narratives that in many ways constrain and change our lives. Manuel Manga, the speaker, said that there were impending crises, ecological and economic, and that to have our vision focused narrowly on our lives, for example, allowed us to miss these problems. He directed our attention to the importance of using our capacities to satisfying human needs and also acknowledging our interconnectedness, globally and with other species.

There were few concrete suggestions, but I generally appreciated the overall mood. I was worried about what “being connected with nature” might mean for his attitude towards transhumanism, which is rather important to me. Of course we’re connected with nature, sort of, and we should acknowledge it, especially insofar as we need the environment to work for us and to prevent needless suffering. Past that, though, I’m less sure.

The most important part of the talk for me was when someone asked a question regarding the way one might communicate these ideas to a larger audience. It started innocuously, but then quickly moved into dangerous territory when he ‘worried’ that perhaps it would be difficult to speak to groups where words like ‘paradigm’ for example, weren’t common. And then he used a phrase that has served condescending elitists well for many decades. He said, “What if we have to dumb it down for them?” And it was at this point that I became rather uncomfortable. I mentioned in my last post that I had been worried about the community and the culture that would exist at this conference, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps this population of middle-aged, wealthy, white, very liberal atheists didn’t have all that much in common with me, despite the apparent similarities, because they also seemed to think that they might be better than anyone who didn’t understand the word ‘paradigm.’ Then another woman picked up the phrase, because that’s often how language works, and added “They fall for the hype. That’s what they want to hear” referring probably to either poor populations or largely conservative ones, assuming that somehow they were more prone to cognitive biases than the people in the room. Which as anyone who’s done some rudimentary research into cognitive science knows, is ridiculous. In fact, a few were developing as she spoke: group polarization and conformity. I really didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I could; I spoke up.

Manuel had already begun to move on, but I raised my hand and said something like, “I’m disturbed by, during a presentation about being loving humans, an us vs them narrative being created. People respond to hype because we all do. We’re exquisitely sensitive to the context in which we’re brought up, that’s what this presentation is about [creating and educating better leaders]. If people don’t understand us, we’re not being good communicators; it doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent.”

I felt good about making the statement, changing the direction of the talk, and even more so when a couple sitting behind me, whose names I don’t remember [EDIT: I think the woman’s name was Carol Solomon] nodded approvingly. Later, when I went to introduce myself, she congratulated and complimented me, and her husband told me that they’d been fidgeting uncomfortably, thinking exactly the same thing, wanting to say something but that I’d said it better. Then he hugged me.

At some other point, a fellow named Bruce stopped me in the hallway and said I’d made the best comment during the talk, especially the emphasis on self-responsibility [in terms of our responsibility to communicate well]. I completely understood what he meant, and told him about how I’d chosen UChicago over a small liberal arts school like Amherst or Oberlin because I was worried that there would be too much agreement and not enough rigorous justification going around. That might be totally unfounded regarding the schools, but the principle of encouraging heterogeneity rather than homogeneity still stands. I also brought up a fantastic essay I read once about higher education and the opportunities it closes off, in particular the ability to talk to people who haven’t had a college education.

So that was a tremendous ego boost, and it also reassured me that the atheist/humanist community was a place I wanted to be. Nonetheless, that kind of readjustment is important sometimes, and it requires that somebody say something. Otherwise, as Asch’s conformity studies show, even smart people will say things that are very very wrong. It’s a constant vigilance kind of thing, making sure that your actions and speech are in line with your beliefs, and making sure that the world around you reflects the kind of world you want to see.

For a recap of the conference, go here.

AHA 2011 – A Recap

I spent this last weekend at the American Humanist Association national conference. It was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I have a lot to say about it, and according to JT Eberhardt and Jesse Galef (more on these folks later), I really ought to be blogging more, so there will be quite a flurry of posts coming up.

First, a recap:
As the secretary of the University of Chicago Secular Student Alliance, I get weekly emails from the wonderful Lyz Lyddell. A few weeks ago, it included an interesting tidbit. “Have breakfast with Richard Dawkins (at the AHA conference) for $49 (which is the registration fee for students)!” my email offered me, ever so alluringly. (Hilarious: when told this (minus the parentheticals) at the conference, Richard Dawkins himself said, “I feel like a prostitute!”) Of course, I couldn’t resist, and signed up. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve only been to one conference, and that was ISHE (International Society for Human Ethology) with my father last summer, which turned out to be a lot like the University of Chicago all grown up. Nerdy scientists walking around, asking interesting questions and making psychology-related jokes. But what would a conference of atheist activists look like?

As it happens, oddly similar.

I arrived on Thursday evening and went straight to my aunts’ house and caught up with one of my aunts and my cousin while raiding the fridge (garbage salad + ice cream is delicious nighttime snack) and playing monopoly. My cousin, who’s been homebound for a week after knee surgery, has gotten problematically good, but I survived with my Secret Socialist Strategies of making alliances and putting on my puppy face when it looked as if things weren’t going my way. You should try it sometime. Anyway, I got to bed and set my alarm for the terrifyingly early 6:45 so I get get out the door by 7:30 and be at the conference for registration at 8:30. And in fact, that’s what happened, except my aunt drove me part of the way, and the bus came in a timely fashion, and I was at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge by 8:15. Me? Early for something? I must have been really excited.

I registered, walked to the restaurant to grab some coffee and immediately started meeting people. It was a pretty welcoming crowd the whole weekend through, which was certainly reassuring. I ran into my friend Josh Oxley, who’s the graduate advisor to Rockefeller Chapel back at UChicago. Eventually, it was time for the first breakout session, and on the way there, I ran into none other than Greta Christina. I almost freaked out. That’s a lie; I did freak out, but in general I kept it together. She was incredibly sweet, waving my silliness away when I ‘admitted’ to being boringly cis and straight and even recognizing my name from the comments. We then walked over to the breakout sessions, which varied in topic and quality.

In the middle of the day, I was invited to have lunch with the “Feminist Caucus” which seemed like a good idea, with Serah Blain discussing the difficulties that mothers have in going to meetings and conferences and others bringing in ideas about gender and technology. Unfortunately, it was pretty disorganized, so I have no idea what’ll happen with that.

After the first session of the afternoon, I got to meet Jen McCreight of Blag Hag and Lyz Lydell, Sharon Moss and JT Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance, which made me really happy. Then, on the way over to the next breakout session, I went by the SSA table and saw Jesse Galef, the Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. As it turns out, he’s my second cousin, so I introduced myself and we ended up talking straight through the session and the afternoon plenary. How things work when you read all of the same blogs and have many similar interests.

After the plenary, they brought out fruit and cheese and other nibblings for noshing, and I got to briefly meet the wonderful Debbie Goddard, with whom I’ve been exchanging email for a while. More on her later. Also, Roy Zimmerman. Now, let me explain this. Roy Zimmerman is a liberal satirist songwriter who as far as I’m concerned is this generation’s Tom Lehrer with a more partisan (as a compliment) bent. He’s excellent. I’ve been listening to his songs obsessively for years. And then he was there! In the room! Much taller than expected! Which I told him, in an effort to defuse my overwhelming fangirliness. But he was great, and we had a fun conversation in the midst of a massive swirling of hungry people about the use of music and art to broaden the conversation surrounding political activism (to which Debbie said “We need to be friends”), especially in his series The Starving Ear. I also asked him about the use of satire in difficult circumstances, as in The Sing Along Second Amendment, when he references the Columbine tragedy. He responded that he felt that humor engaged people and challenged them, especially when it was about difficult topics. I was impressed by how much he’d thought about these things, as evidenced by his deep sincerity when we discussed a time when he hadn’t used humor (or perhaps it’s simply black humor), in his song the The Last Man. He just seemed to feel that his humor was his contribution, but also saying that songs often wrote and rewrote themselves, allowing him to just follow along and see where they led. I also complimented him on his measured response to the commenter on that song who seemed offended (though I felt he’d misunderstood the lyrics). To me, it demonstrated that Roy really sees his songs as a medium through which to transmit a message, not just to poke fun at people he doesn’t like. He could certainly get caught up in the idiotic flame wars on youtube in general, but he lets his faithful commenters do that (see: To Be A Liberal).

Eventually, things wrapped up, and because I was on a student registration, I wasn’t invited to the evening banquet, so several of us students went off to try to find food in Cambridge. It ended up being me and Josh, as well as several excellent folks we had met throughout the day, namely Serah, Josiah, Thomas (a 21 year old computer science PhD!) and Kaeleena. We found a pub/bar and started to get comfortable when we discovered that the upstairs, where we had been seated was 21+, which was a problem for Serah, who had forgotten my ID and me, as I had also ‘forgotten’ my ID. When obstacles like that used to come up, it was always strangely awkward, so I was relieved adults tend to handle themselves better. We just up and left and found an Indian place on Mass Ave. Interestingly enough, most of us were vegetarian or vegan, so that was quite convenient. We talked about that as well as the relative benefits of nuclear power all through dinner.

Afterwards, everyone except Tommy and myself went off to have a good time, but he needed to go home, and I needed to get back to my aunts’ place. Given my awful sense of direction, I was lucky that a Green Line station was close, so we both got home just fine. My aunts were still awake, despite the lateness of the hour, so I got to talk to them about the conference and what humanism meant to me. I actually didn’t know what their beliefs were (we’re a family of generally secular Jews, but it varies), so I explained it all in the most diplomatic way possible. They seemed to really take to the idea and were really supportive and interested, which just strengthened my convictions about the worldview I’ve chosen for myself. In particular, I think they took to the notions of the harms of religion towards women and gays and other marginalized groups throughout history. When I told them the statistic about atheists being the most mistrusted group in America, they were genuinely shocked. One of my aunts eventually went to bed and I spoke with the other about the different approached to humanism and atheism, making sure to emphasize the positive elements. Much to my surprise, she wanted to know more about Dawkins, Hitchens and their respective books, so maybe she’ll turn into one of those evil ol’ confrontationists 🙂

The next day, there were more talks. There seems to be a lot of talking at these conferences. I missed the early morning plenary because the Boston public transit system was not nearly as helpful as it had been the previous day. Something to do with it being Saturday, and late, and I had to take a different bus, it was all kind of a mess. Luckily, I have a somewhat intelligent phone, so I downloaded the bus schedule as a pdf and boy does the BTA’s site not have a mobile version. Also, the pdf only showed the arrival time to one stop along the entire route besides the end points, and it happened to be mine. What if I’d been somewhere else? Am I supposed to be able to calculate all that? This is why I don’t like public transportation #firstworldproblems.

Anyway, talks and food (pizza party for the students, at which we got much free schwag from the Richard Dawkins foundation including two A-pins, which I’ve been wearing around everywhere). Because I go to a largely secular university where self-deprecation rules all interactions, no one minds or is offended by the symbol or message (once I explain it), but they all think the ‘scarlet letter’ thing is much too earnest and clever for its own good). Afterwards, I ran into Debbie Goddard again, and I took the opportunity to ask her about the different movements within The Movement, and she told me the story of Skeptics and Humanism and Atheism and Secularism and how those map onto the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. We also discussed race and the way in which cultural privilege can blind much of these movements to the wariness of, for example, the black community to medicine and science, which we see as unequivocally good, not having in our cultural narrative Tuskegee and AIDS. She also pointed out that the science as a force for good narrative is also tempered by the great destruction it has wrought, and separating the science from how it’s used isn’t always easy. We transition from all that into our stories, though hers is much more interested than mine. Eventually, we’d been talking about science, secularism, atheism, activism, queer issues, race, genderqueerness, identification and all manner of other things for two hours, and then: more talks!

After the talks, there was yet another banquet, but this time, we students were invited, though with a different (cheaper) meal. Luckily, as a vegetarian, I got this delicious stuffed something or other. And cookies! Then, Roy Zimmerman came on stage and performed a prayer to God or Goddess or Gods or gods or none of the above, To Be A Liberal, Creation Science and few other hits. He was on fire; the crowd loved it. Then Steve Wozniak gave a speech. Now, Steven Wozniak is a very intelligent man, and that’s an understatement. But I’m pretty sure he has no idea how to give a speech. He switched topics every 3 minutes or so, ranging from how you don’t need religion in your daily life (duh) to how morality is the study of ethics revolving around truth (what?) so engineers are the best kind of people (double what?). It was strange, so I left before the Q&A and headed over to the restaurant. There, I had a series of conversations about rationality, morality and religion with Jesse Galef, John Shook, Annie Calicotte, Woody Kaplan and others. The problem with conversations like this is that they last a while, in this case until 2:30 in the morning, when only a few of us were left talking (I think it ended with me, Jesse, Chris Stedman and Josiah talking about community service and interfaith work).

I thought about staying at the hotel, but my aunt had been so sweet as to text me telling me to call her to open the door at whatever hour, so I called a taxi, which failed to come for quite a while, and when it did, had a driver upset that I was asking him to take me to Boston. This left me quite confused and thinking about Mandelbrot sets. Does he want to drive me to the border of cambridge and leave me there to grab another taxi into Roxbury? I think not. Eventually, very late, I got back, crashed, and woke up three hours later for the last day of the conference.

I’d tell you about all the closing sessions, but I don’t know anything about them. Public transportation failed me, coming infrequently on Sundays and then being almost an hour late, so I got to the hotel rather late, and then spent the entire morning talking to Jesse, Jen McCreight and Sandra Korn, who came up from Harvard to see me! We had a good time talking about the importance and drawbacks of outspoken activism, and I got to ask Jen whether group selectionism is actually taken very seriously in evolutionary biology (answer: no) or whether punctuated equilibrium vs gradualism is a matter of some debate (answer: no, they’re just useful for different types of analysis). I also got to express my admiration for the inclusiveness of the community, and how they’d all come together despite being bloggers from opposite sides of the country. Jen acknowledged that the grassroots nature of their work added to the conferences made for deep friendships that easily brought in new people (like me? I sure hope so).

And that’s actually one of my main takeaways from the conference. Atheism, as Debbie Goddard pointed out, doesn’t actually say much. It just means you don’t believe in god or gods. It doesn’t mean you’re a liberal, or scientific, or rational, or political, or an activist, or a humanist or kind or fun to be around. So I was worried that bringing lots of people together under such a minimal banner wouldn’t necessarily create a supportive and challenging and exciting community, and I was so thrilled to realize that, at least in this case, it did. It made me want to get all the more involved and energized and be a part of this excellent, thriving, diverse (somewhat; we’re working on it) community, filled with opinionated people of different persuasions, bringing their experience and thoughts to bear on making our movement broader, bigger and better.

Things started to end around noon, so I said goodbye to all the incredible people I’d met, sad to leave, but excited to go back and bring all of my new ideas to my community. Sandra and I went off to lunch, talking about our blogs and the interaction between rationalism/intellectualism and politics/activism, which she thinks a lot about as well. She took me to Harvard, where she goes to school, so I could see her room and meet some of her friends (many who were Christian, interestingly, but also one “secular, hard agnostic, socially liberal, fiscally conservative Israeli nationalist.”) When they asked about why I was in Boston, I got to grin widely and tell them a tidbit or two about the magnificent American Humanist Association National Conference, and in the case of her friends down the hall, launch into an overly excited analysis of the different words (secular, humanist, atheist, bright etc.) that are used in the movement and what separation of church and state has done for religiosity in this country (Hint: helped, at least according to Tocqueville and many religious people).

After saying goodbye to Sandra, I made my way back to Roxbury, with a fair amount of difficulty and mostly barefoot (my heels and feet were giving out; I’d been doing a lot of walking over the previous days), said goodbye to my wonderful aunts and cousins, got into a cab and got to the airport, luckily in plenty of time. Josh was already there, but he elected to grab some vouchers and stay another few hours, so I got back alone, and didn’t stop grinning for several days.

Who knew conferences could be so amazing? I’ll certainly be going to more in the future.

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?

This post is part of a series:

The Importance of Stories, Part I: The Individual

Disclaimer: This is somewhat incoherent. There is so much to say about this approach to humanity and knowledge, and this alternate approach to truth. The implications are wide-ranging and somewhat radical. It would take me years to fully flesh this out. But here’s the germ of an idea.

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stories and how they relate to truth and understanding. Stories are everywhere. Everyone has one; they spend their entire lives living out stories, as a matter of fact. I would never claim that objective truth could be arrived at based on some kind of abstract averaging of all the different stories. But there’s a different kind of truth that is based on stories, that it based on looking at humans as inherently valuable and thus placing value in their stories. Those stories are vast – repositories of knowledge, memories, hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions. About themselves, about other people, their families, their communities, their histories. They’re beautiful, too, and their individual beauty along with the diversity they exhibit, is reason enough to maintain them, pass them on. Which is why we protect ancient cultures and traditions, even as we march onward to a brighter future. Which is why we bother to listen to people without power, without elite intellectual or financial status. Because they have stories to tell. We are a community of learners, knowers and we communicate this by being also a community of story tellers. It would be a grave misfortune, a travesty, if that aspect of our humanity were to be lost.

The implications of this value are immense. It means that despite our own biases, prejudices, opinions, preferences and aesthetic desires, we simply cannot write off other people as useless or worthless. We don’t have to respect their ideas, or spend our time getting to know them, but we have to acknowledge their power as storytellers.

This has clear consequences for our systems of morality. For example, personhood might be defined as having a story. That’s not an entirely well-formed idea, but I kind of like it. Humanistic morality might benefit from approaching self-actualization in this new light. We help people live out the stories they would want to later tell, stories that are fulfilling, that can help and inform and inspire future generations of storytellers. We have no right to write the stories of others, or to tell them how to make their stories more like ours. Also, everyone should have the chance to tell their stories, both for their sake and the value that can be transferred to the community at large that can benefit from it. That allows us to pursue the value of tolerance without relinquishing our ability to note where harm is being done, stories and being censored and humanity is being lost.

If one prefers, they might reconceptualize this idea as placing the value of knowledge above all else. I’ve already discussed here and elsewhere that the stories people tell are extremely valuable sources of knowledge. This could inform our views on language extinction (see here and here) and biological diversity (over here and yonder). There’s no need to posit objective values when we understand that valuing knowledge and understanding is a human value we can all support, and we can achieve those through a variety of methods. Some are biological, scientific, what have you. But some are stories, those sets of experiences that seem so meaningless on an individual scale. Why bother listening to what people have already done when there is so much more to do? I counter that not only do those stories provide a treasure trove of knowledge relating to history, politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more, but they also help us see what the future holds. Most importantly, they help connect us to our fellow humans, in a way that can only be mutually and communally beneficial.

The World and Humanity: A Fangirl’s Approach

This post sort of came out of nowhere. I was writing about something completely different and then realized I was describing more of my worldview, so I guess I ought to post it as is.

I’m a humanist. I place my trust and value in the ability of rational persons to achieve great things. I happen to believe that people have more similarities than differences, and as such that those similarities can and should be taken advantage of. I also respect people’s differences and may even seek to maintain them in order to avoid losing vast repositories of human knowledge and experience. I do, however, maintain the right to employ my own powers of reason and my own experiences to make judgments, moral and factual, among others, and to declare others mistaken if I feel that their ideas are a detriment to the advancement of human expression. Knowing when I have enough evidence to take this kind of position is a difficult balancing act, and all of my judgments remain mutable. They are not, however, any weaker for this. In fact, because I know that despite the fact that they could be changed at any moment and yet, these are the ones that have withstood the onslaught of critical thought, makes me trust more in my opinions.

This understanding of humanity, combined with my knowledge-based worldview means that I have a fairly broad definition of human knowledge and expression. As such, I have a deep respect for a wide variety of human activities, and multifarious interests corresponding to those activities I would like to make contributions to. This gets very intimidating. I can study hyperbolic geometry, twentieth century feminism and sociobiology all I want, but I’ll never know everything, or even close, within those fields. I might have an interest in something as broad as physics or as specific as scav (Go SCAV!!) but I’ll never learn enough. And that’s what’s so great about living in a time when the vast magnitude of past human achievement can be really appreciated and brought to bear on future endeavors. Big things, like the Human Genome Project. Medium things like being a famous videoblogger. Small things, like geochacheing. Did you know what that was? I only recently found out. Small things that become big, like community organizing.

It’s all so fantastically cool I really just can’t get a handle on it. I’ve had at least three existential crises relating to times I realized I’d never know anything/everything. It makes me anxious, nervous and scared. But it also makes me excited, proud and optimistic. It’s this sense of the world I call humanism, and this willingness to learn I call being an intellectual. I wrote a whole college essay fangirling out on the meaning of mind-boggling. Because that’s what this world is, and it’s pretty excellent.

So what to do if I can’t learn everything? First, learn to respect this fact, because in and of itself, it’s very important. Secondly, talk to people. People know things, and you can learn from them like you’d never believe. My version of humanism supports this in multiple ways. Firstly, people are all due a measure of dignity and respect, by being people. Secondly, one type of knowledge is knowledge about one’s self, and it can be unbelievably mind expanding to try to get into someone’s head, see what they see, feel what they feel. Thirdly, another type of knowledge I try to acquire is about people in general, and that sort of thing is pretty much impossible to access a priori. If you want to learn about people, and come to conclusions about their differences and similarities, you should probably go talk to them. It has helped me both achieve more confidence in my ideas – because I know that they survive in my head not only because I believe them to make sense but also because the knowledge and ideas of others has added to them and made them stronger – and also more flexibility in my point of view – because it has become commonplace for my essential notions about humanity and the universe to be changed or monumentally reshaped by a single conversation. Finally, a reverence for human achievement is incomplete without an equal amount of respect for the importance of collaboration, for all that humans have done together, in groups, to reach higher and higher goals than any alone. Human community is an invaluable resource, not to be squandered, and fostering such communities through your own actions tends to be deeply meaningful.

Caveats: To be perfectly honest, I’m not actually sure that this is what humanism means to me. It’s really difficult to put a handle on. Respect for human achievement certainly is humanistic, but I haven’t yet touched on the political, global, moral, justice-oriented or religious sides of humanism. And the aspects that deal with learning and ambition are in some ways what it means to be an intellectual, or a nerd, or something else. And the appreciation for the passion and excitement that goes into the most niche of activities might define being a geek. The vast reverence I have for it all I might call, if I were an entirely different sort of person, a kind of spirituality. So I’m not really sure what to call this sort of thing. I’m sure I’ll expand on it another time.

For other humanist ideas, check out these links: