Self-Reflection and Self-Loathing: Welcome to the High Holy Days

Who among us hasn’t turned a blind eye to our own faults? Who among us hasn’t known or suspected that we were acting badly, but never taken the time to contemplate it? Don’t so many of us think better of ourselves than we deserve, need help finding a better path, or hurt others without thinking?

Assuredly. And so, thank goodness for the High Holy Days, the two days…or ten days…or month and a half Jews are asked and encouraged to reflect on our faults and sins, all the ways we’ve fallen short, to confess and ask for forgiveness, both from others and from God, all in the hopes that we will be written in the Book of Life, and secured for another year.

But what of us who reflect on our faults throughout the year, and not just during the Days of Awe? Every month, or every day, or all the time? Who are susceptible to scrupulosity,  or simply excessive self-criticism and blame? What if you already don’t like some or all of the person you are? What do we do with the High Holidays? To borrow from another holiday, why should these days be any different from any others?

When you are keenly aware of your faults, when you notice when you do wrong, and think you do wrong more than you do, when you’ve worked on worrying *less* about your flaws, what are you supposed to do during this time, how are you supposed to feel?

Appropriately for a Jewish question, there are approximately 613 possible responses.

Here are some of mine, based on what I struggle with.

Excessive self-blame, it turns out, isn’t actually mutually exclusive with doing things wrong. Feeling overwhelmed by guilt isn’t an excuse for not facing our faults and striving to do better. The High Holy Days are a good time for that.

In fact, the excessive guilt thing isn’t all that Jewish at all (though, that’s the kind of thing that could make someone in this mindset feel even worse about themselves). “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” To drown or wallow in self-recrimination prevents us from actually taking positive steps to improve and do better.

One of those positive steps is asking for forgiveness, one of the most powerful things I do on a regular basis as a part of being Jewish. It’s a way to move forward, a positive step, that doesn’t involve weaponizing weakness or talking about how horrible you are. It’s a way of focusing on others, not yourself.

Focusing on how you, yourself, have done wrong is part of the process, but not all. Ashamnu, the confessional prayer, is stated in the collective. We have gone astray, we have given bad counsel, we have rebelled. It’s not about you. We have all done wrong, and we stand together to ask for forgiveness. And we have probably all done many of the things on that list, so we are not alone. But we haven’t done all the things on that list, so we are standing in solidarity with others who have done wrongs we have not, and so they are standing for us, and our wrongs.

On Kol Nidre, the evening service on Erev Yom Kippur in which we renounce all our vows, we say, admit, that we will be saying the same thing next year. It might be mightily depressing, to think that inevitably, another year of sins will accrue. Even in the time that we are most fixated on changing our ways, our focus drifts to the ways we’ll fall short. But the inevitability of failure should also be a comfort, to know that we are all flawed, and our tradition accounts for that. It, or God, doesn’t expect us to be perfect.

Not only does our tradition know we will fail and falter and fall short, but it has a process in place for us. This might make it worse (if you’re the anti-inductive type); why do it all if you know you’re bound for failure? I happen to like the finiteness of the process and how much is externally ordained. You do the right things, in the right order, and it might not make it better, but then it’s over. You don’t have to think of what the right things are, they’re right there in your machzor, or in your family tradition. You pray, or think, or reflect; you ask forgiveness, connect with those around you; you confess; you try to do better.

Believing in God might make things worse. Perhaps for his anger, jealousy and viciousness, his demands on our thoughts and behavior. Or, oppositely, because he is the moral arbiter, a Judge, and our King, and we are being held to account in ways we might wish we weren’t. After all, we are told in the Unetanah Tokef that God plans the manner of our deaths at the same time he counts up our sins.

Not believing might make things worse. If there’s no God to keep us accountable, what’s the point? If there’s no god to love us, how do we escape from our self-hatred? Having god in your life can be a comfort and a help, whether the model is of a monarch or a parent, a judge or a caregiver, or something else besides. We are lucky (others might say blessed) to be part of a religion uniquely accepting of atheism and doubt).

But a situation which is lose-lose is also a win-win, so maybe we can feel lucky for what we do get, atheist or believer: the comfort of boundaries or the joy of freedom, ethics divinely inspired or humanistically molded. God will think of our good deeds as well as our bad, and look upon us mercifully. We can do the same, and recall our achievements as well as our faults. We are made of dust, but we are also made in the image of God.

Whatever helps you, the following are true:

Yes, you’ve sinned, but here you are, atoning.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and we have time to do better.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but it’s not all on you.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and our community stands together to proclaim it.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but maybe not as much as you think.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and will sin again, but maybe we will get to make new mistakes instead of old ones.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but still you are loved.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and you can ask for forgiveness.

Yes, you’ve sinned, and so what?

Yom Kippur will come regardless.

It might be difficult or easy, painful or lovely, empty or meaningful. I hope the latter for all of you, but the former are just as fair and legitimate.

I will be praying and fasting and atoning and self-berating and apologizing and hurting. It will be hard. I will prostrate myself and beat my chest and feel the fear and agony of the gates of heaven closing.

And then they will close. And then it will be evening and morning, a new day.

Empaneled again! Critical Thinking in Education

I actually got to be on *two* wonderful panels for FTBCon, quite different from each other! In this one, Matt Lowry, Dan Linford, Jason Thibeault and I just chatted free-form about how we teach critical thinking in our classrooms.


  • Important: When I say math here, I mean high school math, not logic or model theory.
  • The truth is I am incredibly conflicted about things like this (and really education as a whole). My thoughts go something like this: teaching breaks up into four categories: skills, conceptual understanding, love of math, meta.
    • The first is most important if you think students should need to know those skills and be able to use them or remember them in the future. That goes for everyone when you’re talking about addition and number skills, and engineers or other applied scientists or mathematicians for the advanced stuff. Since I don’t think most of my students need this, I’m ok with saying that dropping a negative is not a big deal and doesn’t necessarily warrant points off. BUT there is of course value in, you know, getting the right answer, and maybe this focus is taking away from actually being able to do the problem, as this Atlantic piece argues.
    • Conceptual understanding is important for mathematicians and anyone hoping to do complex math, but it’s also important for grasping connections and getting a sense of how math describes the world. I think it’s the coolest and most interesting part, and so it’s what I focus on. Being able to perform skills is subordinate to this, largely. If you can’t intersect lines well and smoothly, you won’t get what’s so cool about parametric equations. If you have trouble with mental math, integration is going to be a slog, and not for good reasons. I also tend to think, but maybe this is the Typical Mind Fallacy, that the better you understand something, the easier it is to perform skills, since everything flows and makes sense, rather than being a rote list where you’re racking your brain for what happens next. BUT you can focus on conceptual understanding to the detriment of skill building, which can lower confidence since students don’t even know where to start. Giving them systematic approaches (i.e. rules)
    • Love of math is half selfish, half not. I think math is cool and beautiful, and I want other people to think so. I also think math is so amazingly capable of describing the world around us that it’s valuable for educated people to have an appreciation for it, and a general sense of how it works. (things move in parabolas when thrown, it has to do with earth’s gravity; if you know how many tickets to the interview sold and how much money you made, it is a solved question how many were $6 tickets and how many were $15 tickets). I *also* think that if you have to sit through school-mandated math you might as well enjoy it and have enough understanding and care to find things in it that interest you.
  • I, and many other teachers, can talk all day about all the cool strategies we use and all of our lofty goals, but I certainly don’t know what the outcomes are. I don’t have data. I got a lovely card from a student last summer that said “thanks for teaching me a new way to think” but I also had students fail their final exam, possible because we did so much “sure it works in practice, but how does it work in theory” that they couldn’t actually use equations and formulae. At least, that’s my fear.

I hope to write more in 2015 about education and my teaching experience, but if you want to find some cool gifs and general ramblings, my math tumblr is here. But now I’ll turn it over: what are your thoughts on the panel or about critical thinking in education?

Sprouting New Moral Foundations

There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are, myself included, and how we should take our own moral intuitions with a grain of salt, knowing how different they are from those of people in most of the world.

In light of this, it is valuable for all of us to question our moral intuitions and understand those of others, so you know why other people think and act the way they do. This seems especially true given Haidt’s finding that liberals are worse at answering questions like conservatives than the reverse (that is, they are worse at ideological turing tests). And why is this?

Haidt’s research has found that humans tend to think about morality on six axes (from Wikipedia):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Except that apparently, liberals care primarily about the first three, seeing 4-6 as morally less relevant, where conservatives care about all six. You can see where you fall at

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

I certainly fall into the pattern for liberals – whether something disgusts me isn’t relevant to how I judge it morally, at least when my System 2 is doing the evaluating. And it’s even worse than that; as a utilitarian, I’m really choosing to focus on care/harm and forget all the rest. Now, utilitarians have a long history of skirting that issue by simply saying that we care about 2-6 insofar as other people care about them. If degrading what is sacred to others makes people less happy, then, huzzah, we also care about sanctity. And even if disrespect for medical ethics makes sense in one particular case, such as using medical professionals ostensibly giving vaccines in Pakistan to sniff out Osama bin Laden, we can claim to take a longer view, noting that people may no longer trust those handing out vaccines.

That’s one of the primary strengths of utilitarianism; much like rationalism, it can simply absorb critiques and adapt to “care” about whatever other people seem to care about. On the whole, this is great, and utilitarians can learn a great deal from Haidt’s findings. It’s much easier to make people happy (or satisfy their preferences, or make them live better lives) if you know what those things mean. We ought to note that people like living in moral communities, where some things are held sacred, and some people are held as authority figures, even if those axes don’t mean a lot to some of us personally. As a plus, the research indicates that people behave better and give more to charity when they inhabit communities like this, since they are surrounded by people keeping them accountable to their professed values.

But none of this is the same as actually understanding what it would be like to feel that a standard of purity, or loyalty, or authority is a viscerally important ethical fact. What would that feel like?

My first instinct with regard to is to say it would feel like letting all of your lowest, instinctive feelings come through. Elevating the glimmer of disapproval I’ve had when I see women dressed “overly” sexily, or “too young” to an actual ethical consideration. Letting myself wholly disapprove of people when I feel that sense of disappointment that they don’t agree with all the liberal positions I thought they did. Hell, even chastising people for consuming too much low art: too much tv, not enough books; too many romance novels, not enough Jonathan Haidt. (It’s important to note that all of these would entirely condemn me as well). Even more grotesquely, it could start to look like The Gag Reflex, an article arguing for the value of letting our “natural” disgust at gay sex inform our moral sense about it. (Descriptively, several studies indicate that some significant portion of anti-gay attitudes are related to disgust). Sure, there are steelmen of these ideas, but these aren’t moral positions I want to get anywhere near.

Attempt 1:

But to really try, I might venture to say that there’s something beautiful or comforting about a natural order (whether from religion or from a secular teleology), which promises stability and contentment, if everything is in its place. Depending on what that order consists of, I might be comfortable with being concerned that my own actions or those of others are disrupting such an order. Conservatives do a lot of this, especially with regard to sexual morality, but I can imagine utilitarians and economically minded people thinking the same way about everyone working in a field where their comparative advantage lies. If we were really committed to the kind of world where everyone did what they do best and contributed the most, seeing someone do something where they weren’t would seem kind of…low, kind of missing the point of what you’re supposed to do with your life. How’s that for sanctity?

Attempt 2:

Or if you really believe, in a secular virtue ethical kind of way, that people seem to be happier and more fulfilled when they take steps to interact with other people around important issues, or spend time with nature, rather than watch Netflix or spend the day indoors? Or even the question of doing something active (blogging, exercising, reading) over something passive (sleeping, watching tv); I don’t hold by this, but I could imagine what it would be like to want to push people to the “higher” things over the “lower” things.

Attempt 3:

If you’re in an Effective Altruism community, you might think that most of the focus is on Care/Harm, since you’re trying to help the most people with your money. However, Leah Libresco has pointed out that features of that world harken closely to the purity axis, since every part of your life now becomes up for critique as “the best thing you could be doing with your time and money” or “not the best thing you could be doing with your time and money.” We could extend that further; if I lived in a community where everyone committed as much money and time as they could to saving lives, and someone didn’t, they wouldn’t just be impure; they’d be disloyal: to their cause, to their community, and to the global poor that this community has claimed as their sort-of-in-group.

Part of the philosophy is how people tend to do philosophy and charitable giving incorrectly.

Attempt 4:

In some of the best examples of moral communities the liberal world has to offer, communities of political activists and secular/humanist groups, respecting authority could mean that it’s important to give your president or humanist minister the benefit of the doubt, and questioning what they want us to do on Sundays, whether it’s go to a march in Ferguson or go to a blood drive, would be undermining the very moral communities that research has shown us are so important. There are so few strong secular or progressive moral communities, someone might say, it would be such a shame to divide this one by not letting the duly selected leader do their best.

I have the podium! Listen to me!

It is easy for people on the left side of the political spectrum to find issues with every example I’ve constructed. It would be awful to coerce people into choosing jobs that made them unhappy just because it’s what they’re best at. There are dozens of reasons, including issues surrounding physical and mental disability, why it would be terrible to stigmatize “passive” activities and elevate “active” ones. And few of us would want to be in a secular community where people shushed us for questioning the leader; that attitude is why so many left religion in the first place. I’ll examine examples like these in the next piece.

But these are, for me, examples that at least make it plausible that Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity could be ethically relevant in my life. If you agree that it’s important to understand where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do, what worlds would activate the moral axes that you usually dismiss? What features do they have? What can we learn from them?

The Caring Less Game

Let’s talk about the Game Where You Pretend You Care Less, explained succinctly by Thought Catalog: “The person who cares less has all the power. Nobody wants to be the one who’s more interested.” Is it just me, or does this game *suck*?

I know, as a long time player, that it doesn’t always feel like a choice, and that not playing can be incredibly painful. But I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to have the sinking feeling that you don’t care for someone quite the way they care for you, and to have that make you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you can’t just be happy. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve this person’s care and affection. And it doesn’t make you feel powerful, unless you’re a special kind of manipulative narcissist. Quite the opposite; when you like someone more than they like you, at least you’re aware and you can decide what to do. Often you don’t wish you liked the other person less; feeling love is it’s own kind of beautiful thing, desirable in its own right.

When it’s the opposite, it’s always felt to me like everything would be better if they just didn’t like me quite so much, and yet I am powerless to make that happen. It feels like it’s my fault that everything is going wrong and that the relationship, romantic or otherwise, is inevitably going to fall apart. Worst of all, I become increasingly uncomfortable just being in their presence, no matter how much I care for them, because the sheer weight of their liking me more than I like them is overwhelming. And that discomfort morphs into pain, which begins to hurt them, and then we are both hurting, and damaged, and why couldn’t I have just liked them more?

Which is all to say that a relationship where there is this kind of asymmetry of feeling isn’t a relationship with unequal power, unless one or more people are using that asymmetry to make power plays, which is a case of abuse, not someone losing the Caring Less Game. It feels like unequal power to the person who feels that they care more, because they are hoping and pining and the other person seems just fine. But that person doesn’t feel thrilled and in control as a result, as you imagine they will from the other side, at least not in my experience. They are just as likely to feel frustrated and unhappy. There’s no winning this Game. No one ever wins.

Which means that the view of relationships as being one where you win the game by caring less is terrible. It undermines our ability to empathize with both sides of a difficult situation, and also normalizes a very unpleasant dynamic. Certainly, there are times when it’s reasonable not to want to overwhelm or scare someone (such as at the beginning of a relationship), or respect their wish for something less emotionally intense, but those are clear exceptions to what sometimes feels like the crushing nonchalance with which this Game is accepted as normal.

Instead of constantly playing the Caring Less Game as if it were the price of admission to a romantic relationship, it might be better if we took it as a bad sign, and looked instead for people who were head over heels for us, and we for them, and no one afraid to say so.

What are other people’s experiences with this dynamic? How has playing or not playing the game affected your relationships?

Excuses, Excuses, and Blogathon Begins!

As with all intrepid warriors on a quest, I encountered obstacles on my way to beginning Blogathon this morning. My dragons were CTA closings, Sunday train schedules, and my complete inability to distinguish the Purple Line from the Yellow Line. All intrepid heroes go to Skokie on their way to Evanston, right? For those of you who don’t know quite what this says about me, I’ve screenshotted a map of the route I was supposed to take. Note Skokie off to the west. Yeah…


Combine that with a few bouts of very bad internet luck, and you have my promise to start Blogathon at 10am in tatters. So the new plan is to blog from noon to sometime in the mid-evening, with a post every 45 minutes to make up for the late start.

And as I did last year, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about why I’m doing this.

I know first-hand what incredible resources religious students on college campuses have at their disposal. Houses, mentors, communities, internships, jobs, educational and entertaining programming, spiritual and emotional support, student groups, money, encouragement are all awaiting a Jewish or Christian student upon setting foot on most college grounds. Clubs, ministries and houses of worship all bend over backwards to ensure that religious students have the best possible experience (religious or not, often) throughout their college careers. Just at the University of Chicago, there are about 10-12 Jewish events going on every week. That tells me, as a Jew, that I am welcome, and that there are resources for me.

Secular or nonreligious students have none of these. Of course, they have access to the same nonreligious student clubs as everyone else: dance, debate, political clubs and cultural groups are available to all. But any religious student engaged in religious life knows that there is often something special about having a group centered about that part of their life. I think that secular students deserve that community, too. And that is why I am a huge supporter of the work the Secular Student Alliance does. They work tirelessly to provide the resources that allow students on college (and high school!) campuses to create and foster those communities. They provide group running guides, tabling supplies, meeting ideas, and tons of support so that secular students can, on their own, create the kind of organization that religious groups do with ten times less funding and institutional support.

I am so thrilled to have been President of my school’s Secular Alliance for the past two years. I hope that I’ve provided a community that atheists, agnostics, deists, pastafarians and freethinkers at the University of Chicago have been happy to call their own. I am excited to see what it does in the future. But none of it would have been possible without the Secular Student Alliance.

If you believe in that vision, or you feel sorry for me for going all the way to Skokie this morning, I ask you to donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Even $5 helps.

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Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Radicals

There is a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin about hedgehogs and foxes, based on a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehogs, as Nate Silver describes them in his The Signal and the Noise, are people who “believe in Big Ideas–in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society.” He asks us to “Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious.” They are essentially narrative-driven thinkers.

Foxes, on the other hand are “scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.” Presumably we’re here asked to think of, oh, say, Nate Silver.

I think these adorable animals can help us answer what to me is a burning question: What is the difference between radicals and non-radicals?

For instance, what differentiates Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and PIV-critical, kink-critical tumblr feminists?

Or, what is the nature of the gap between this “neutral” response to Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions and this criticism of the very idea of neutrality?

And even, what is the difference between Christians who wish to legislate from the Bible and those who take a more secular approach to government?

If we’re talking about good forms of each argument, then I think what we’re looking at, broadly speaking, is hedgehogs and foxes.

(Note: Of course, this is an oversimplification. In practice, most people do have multiple ways of looking at the world. This is a typology, not a dichotomy.)

Non-radicals, sometimes called liberals (as in liberal feminists versus radical feminists), sometimes simply moderates, see facts about Big Issues like racism, sexism or God as facts among others. Certainly, there is truth to be discerned on an issue like racism: an empirically verifiable history of discrimination against people of color, internment camps, studies demonstrating the relative likelihood of employers hiring people with “black” names versus “white” names and so on. There are also facts about how to change the facts. Does affirmative action work to promote the economic and cultural success of people of color? How about job training?

There is plenty of disagreement over these facts, to be sure, but the fact remains that these questions are empirical ones that have factual answers, and non-radicals tend to treat them as such. Non-radicals also see the facts of the case, whatever they may be, as just that, facts. They are part of a universe that also contains facts about consciousness, facts about political realities and facts about organic molecules. All facts need to be worked together and be weighed against each other. The facts of racism must be balanced against the facts of the costs of anti-racist public policy. The facts of sexism must be considered along with the facts of the way that economies respond to regulation. And my guess is, for some theists, the facts about God’s law must be taken side-by-side with the facts about living in a pluralistic, generally progressive country like America. This is a fox-like approach.

But of course, that doesn’t make sense to some people. It doesn’t really make sense to me. If you really believed that racism was deeply enrooted in our political realities, how could you then say, “Ah, but there are other things to take into account”? If you truly thought that sexism affected every social interaction, would it be rational to say, “But perhaps the costs of fixing that are too high”? And if you thought that God wanted a certain vision of America, would you, could you, tell yourself to wait until a more favorable congress? There seems to be something deeply wrong with that.

From this way of thinking we get hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, or radicals, ask us to take all of the facts we have in our arsenal, and build something deeper, more powerful with them. There aren’t just facts about how, on average, certain sectors of people of various non-white races have been treated in America; there is, above and beyond those facts, a long-standing history of deeply entrenched racism in almost every facet of American life. Facts about sexism, the pay gap, misogyny, rape statistics, aren’t simply listings in the Great Morally Neutral Book of Facts About the World; they tell a broader story about the treatment of and attitude toward women. And the existence of God, if true, cannot possibly just be an isolated fact about the universe. I’m reminded of a conversation from Orson Scott Card’s First Meetings in Ender’s Universe:

John Paul digested this. “Some people think God doesn’t exist.”

“That’s true,” said the woman:

“Which?” he asked.

She chuckled. “That some people think he doesn’t exist. I don’t know, myself. I don’t have an opinion on the subject.”

“That means you don’t believe there is a God,” said John Paul.

“Oh, does it?”

“St. John Paul II said so. That saying you don’t know or care about God is the same as saying you believe he doesn’t exist, because if you had even a hope that he existed, you would care very much.”

Indeed, radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

These are the characteristics of a hedgehog. Sin, bigotry, environmental negligence, injustice, or fill-in-the-blank; there are Big Governing Principles of the world. Not only are these principles more than just mere facts, they are the lenses through which all other facts may be understood. Sin explains all degradation and harm and moral decay in the world. Feminism gives us the framework to fully understand social and political interactions. And so on and so forth.

Nate Silver doesn’t much like hedgehogs, as we saw above, but I don’t think these views are wrong, necessarily. I do think they are risky. Anti-racist hedgehogs may well be right about the world we live in. Racism and race relations may well be the only (or the primary) lens that properly makes sense of my experiences and known empirical facts. After all, I am white, which gives me privileged status in American society. So all of my experiences are affected by that fact. My experiences in stores, not being followed around. My experiences in classrooms, being listened to more seriously. And so on. I agree with all of this.

And yet, there is the risk. Because what we end up getting from hedgehogs, in fact, is a kind of deontology. The fact of your moral obligation to oppose racism is a logical deduction from properly understanding racism. Any other approach cannot account for this rigid logical connection, so it cannot be trusted. Therefore, anti-racists have to be absolutely right about the nature of racism and the effects it has and its primacy as the lens through which I should understand the world, or they have thrown away all other possible forms of analysis in vain.

This deontological radical position compels me to certain political and social stances on issues even before I have examined them individually. If an issue involves race/sex/religion, my position is known. It cannot be otherwise, because I have a largely unchanging approach to the world, and that approach morally demands my backing whenever it is called into play. Because I am against racism and I am against sexism and religious people are against sin. And that might be right! If we really had a Theory of Everything, we wouldn’t need to analyze individual cases! Absolutely!

But this is a very troubling approach.  Because these lenses, these Big Governing Principles, might fail me, and I will have rejected any other – science, utilitarianism, political pragmatism, hell, even virtue ethics – that might have helped me or given me another perspective. And then it would be incredibly difficult to admit the the Big Governing Principle has failed. The list of men’s rights issues feminists care about in this otherwise great article demonstrates this perfectly; some of them are completely correct, but some of them push far beyond what I think is reasonable, in what I see as an attempt to bring all facts into the same explanatory rubric.

There are many models of how the world works, and blending them in just the right way is part of the difficult work of building a worldview. If you have one that works for everything, whether it’s simply your chosen approach towards the world or one built on other principles (like reason or empiricism), more power to you. If you’re right, about God, about power dynamics, about the unconscious, then you’re going to get all the answers right, and well done.

But I’m skeptical. I think all of us would be much better served by becoming more foxlike, by being comfortable with many different types of thinking and models of the world, and then using models only where they’re best suited and throwing them out where they’re not.

I’m a feminist, sure, and that helps me analyze all kinds of situations in the world I couldn’t without feminism. I think racism exists, too, and ditto. Intersectional social justice activists have been doing excellent work on blending these types of models, and acknowledging that they don’t all work all the time. But I’m also a utilitarian, and there’s a point where, for instance, I wouldn’t support public policy that could help women but might overly hurt the economy. The world is a complicated place, with many competing interests and an overabundance of competing narratives. The truth is that all facts are relevant facts, and we have to learn how to balance them effectively. If our thinking is primarily narrative-driven, we’re likely to be led to wrong answers that we can’t account for and then can’t adjust to correct.

I, for one, would rather be a fox.

Stop FAPing!

If a female Graylag Goose sees an egg outside of its nest, she will initiate a series of behaviors intended to get the egg back into the nest with her beak. She will complete these same actions if she sees an egg-shaped object outside its nest, like a golf ball or a door-knob. But far more hilarious than that, if the goose starts bringing the egg into her nest, and the egg is taken away during the process, the goose will not stop until she is done bringing the invisible egg into her nest. It’s behavior that simply does not adjust to new stimulus. This is what’s called a fixed-action pattern (FAP).

You may think you’ve never seen such a bird in your life, but I assure you that you have seen a very similar behavior, which I call a fixed-argument pattern (FAP). You see, if a FAPer sees a conversation or argument taking place about a topic on which s/h/ze has a strong opinion, s/h/ze will make their favorite argument. Even if the argument is actually only shaped or colored like the argument they thought it was. Even if the argument ends, or becomes about something entirely different. It doesn’t matter. A FAPer will continue to make the same argument they always make, bravely undeterred by the inappropriate context or situation. Now I bet you’ll agree that you’ve seen this kind of FAPing going on in all kinds of arguments and discussions, on-line and off-line.

That guy on facebook who comments on every atheist-related status or discussion with an extended analysis of how you are sure to find God eventually or why the dinosaur bones are there to trick us, even if you were talking about North Carolina trying to institute a state religion or the importance of Bayes’ rule?


The woman in your social circle who always manages to work into a discussion that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical, corporate-owned cesspools of hypocrisy and mendacity, even if you were talking about comparing the intervention in Libya to that in Bosnia, or whether or not Hillary Clinton will run in 2016?


The genderqueer person you know who, seemingly upon hearing just the phrase “power of suggestion” will start quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm at full volume and railing against New Age things, even if you were having an utterly different conversation about the incredibly interesting world of nocebos, or harmful placebos?


What all these people have in common is that when they see a discussion going on about a particular topic, they seem to think to themselves “I know an argument about that topic!” and then proceed to give it, whether or not it’s appropriate or relevant. FAPers see making their argument as so important that it doesn’t matter whether it adds to the discussion or not.

It’s often with good intentions. I’m sure that the Christian in the first example really wants to save my soul, even at the cost of my conversation, which he’s just irritatingly derailed. I see feminists on the internet all the time giving Feminism 101 lectures in cases where it wasn’t appropriate, or where it would have been better to address more specific or nuanced points. Of course they want to convince others of their entirely valid points, and for good reason, too. It just may not have been the occasion.

In fact, we’re probably all guilty of FAPing at some time or another, because we thought we had a point that was too important not to say, even if it was only tangentially related to the argument at hand. But even when it comes out of good intentions, FAPing is a bad habit.

Why FAPing is Bad

1. It is selfish. It makes the discussion entirely about the argument the FAPer wants to make instead of what has organically come out of the group up to that point.

2.  It confusingly and irritatingly violates the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, in which we all tacitly agree to only add to conversation with relevant things.

3. It’s really bad and unproductive arguing. FAPers fail to listen to what other people are saying, and as a result, don’t address any of their arguments. People tend not to get convinced that way. FAPing also often demands an all-or-nothing approach, where the opponent must agree immediately or be subject to a repeat of the fixed and unchanging argument.

4. FAPing is way less interesting than thinking about how to address the specifics of a particular argument. FAPing may as well be just copy pasted from a google doc, or a playing of a voice recorder. As a result, FAPers tend not to learn new things from arguments, since they’ll say the same thing no matter what.

4.b. I think FAPing can add to burnout, since FAPers are guaranteed to have the same arguments over and over again, since they’re making the same arguments over and over again. People who are responding to the particulars of the argument they’re in are probably going to be less frustrated with the miserable and unproductive monotony of never having a novel argument.

How to Fix It

If you notice yourself making the same arguments over and over, or being accused of saying things irrelevant to the argument, try to stop yourself. Even if you think what you have to say is really important, if you find yourself thinking of how to shoehorn your point in, rather than thinking about to respond to what’s going on, take a step back. You might be FAPing. How to stop yourself? Think about what’s going on in this argument, not all the similar ones you’ve seen and been in, even if you know exactly where the argument is going. Try to respond to the argument this person is making, not all the ones it sounds like. I promise it’s more interesting that way.

If you notice others FAPing, ask them (charitably, kindly) to respond to the arguments that you or others have made that they haven’t responded to. Make sure to ask people on “your side” as well! Ask them what their opinion on the particular issues at hand are, and ask them to stay on topic. If they continue not to, delete!

So let us go forth, and FAP no more!


For another random animal-related piece of rationality advice, check out Julia Galef’s video about Sphexing.