Ethnocentrism and Violence

December 20th, 2012 by Tim

Humans are naturally ethnocentric. From an early age, we are programmed to establish ourselves as part of a tribal in-group, in order to identify and categorize potential allies and potential threats. This is an important part of the pre-existing psychological landscape upon which we gradually build up our identities and beliefs as we mature. It’s a part of “human nature”, you could say, if you wanted to phrase it more misleadingly. But at the same time, there is no greater significance to this fact, either – it’s simply one of the strategies that helped our ancestors survive, which is why it has persisted to the present day. It’s like a wing, or an eye: shaped by the natural selection of varying traits, with no foresight or intelligent interference.*

This is the kind of discovery that a lot of people, even those who are generally enthusiastic about science, sometimes appear to be afraid of. These fears usually stem from the idea that if we discover a genetic basis for certain behaviours, then suddenly these behaviours will be rendered an immutable aspect of human nature, and any political or social arguments against them will be instantly voided. It’s a fear of genetic determinism, in other words. Richard Dawkins gives an example of this in one of his books (I think it was The Extended Phenotype but don’t quote me), recalling a science lecture he attended where afterwards, a woman asked the lecturer how much scientific evidence there was for genetically-based gender differences (other than traits relating directly to biological sex, obviously) – the trembling emotion in her voice suggesting that all her feminist beliefs were riding on the answer. A similar fear of (or appeals to) all-powerful genes overruling our better judgment can be found pretty much across the spectrum of political and social ideologies.

Let’s assume the existence of a single gene with a single allele that controls for the aforementioned tendency towards ethnocentrism, or perhaps just a more generalized tendecy towards tribalism. This is by no means certain to be true; it could be a trait controlled by the combined effects of multiple genes, or a gene with a complex subset of alleles, or some other weird biological curve ball that nature delights in throwing our way. And it could also be possible for this gene to have additional pleiotropic effects which make it extremely difficult to mess about with. But since this is a hypothetical scenario, we’ll keep it simple. What would be the consequence of discovering such a gene, learning how it works, and perhaps even figuring out a way to remove it entirely?

At first glance it seems like this might be a useful course of action, given the problems associated with our tribalist heritage. You could easily imagine media reports proclaiming that scientists had uncovered the “racism gene”, with the suggestion that either removing the gene or blocking its expression could be seen as a “cure for racism”. Strictly speaking this doesn’t add up, but only because the logic is incomplete. Race might be a social construct, but as long as we use this construct to denote tribal divisions, you can effectively argue that we are evolutionarily predisposed to racial prejudice and that genetic engineering could therefore offer a solution to the problem.

This view is much too simplistic, of course. There are many other ways in which tribalism manifests in human behaviour, and a wholesale genetic slash and burn job would eliminate these, too. We can take “predisposition to tribalism” as a basic psychological building block and say that this is the thing that cultural evolution has transformed into religion, nationalism, organised sports, and all the other things that involve large groups of people pooling resources to achieve things beyond the simple pursuit of individual survival that we normally see in more “classical” Darwinian settings. Secular humanism is perhaps the most important product of this branch of cultural evolution, but it, too, is reliant on our hypothetical “racism gene”. To an alien observer who did not possess this trait, these behaviours could well seem bizarre and difficult to relate to – but to us, they are quite meaningful, for better or worse (and don’t worry; through observation and a little game theory, our alien friend would eventually come to understand this too, at least intellectually).

This is the main point I want to make with this little hypothetical scenario: that our increasing knowledge of the human genome and the various behaviours that have filtered down through our evolutionary history don’t automatically equate to a justification for these same behaviours. In this example, we see that there are many different ways in which a basic instinctual impulse can manifest, especially once cultural evolution takes hold of it. This is a key fact we need to keep in mind when new scientific discoveries come to light, to ensure that they expand our knowledge without being used to reinforce old prejudices and outdated worldviews. And the reason I chose to use the increasing knowledge of our tribal heritage as an example is because of our inspiring reaction to this information: we didn’t justify racism, we (re)invented humanism. We turned a potentially divisive weakness into the greatest of strengths.

Now we can turn to the subject that I am normally going on about. There is no sound reason why we can’t use this same principle to argue against violent behaviour as well. The more we learn about how violent behaviour works, the better equipped we are to develop strategies and philosophies to circumvent these psychological shortcomings – and the dumber it is that people keep trying to use this knowledge to justify violence instead. As I have discussed before, to a large extent cultural evolution is steadily chipping away at this problem even as we speak (and not out of any sort of benign interest either, but simply because it works). Humans today are much less violent than they were during pretty much any other period of history, and the gradual trend towards nonviolence shows no signs of slowing down. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help the process along, as there is still work to be done.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in another long blog post here, so I’m just going to write about a couple of discomforting truths which I feel are usually neglected during discussions on this topic. The obvious one to start with is the fact that you don’t have to be crazy to think that violence is a useful solution to your problems. Violence is a sound evolutionary strategy, and probably one of the oldest, too, because evolution is a process that occurs without foresight, so the long-term consequences of violence are irrelevant. Moreover, the wastefulness of natural selection – wiping out the vast majority to filter out a select few survivors – also mitigates the consequences of violence, from that perspective at least. Indeed, in many instances, violence is precisely what propels natural selection onwards. (And it’s worth noting here that natural selection ultimately doesn’t favour organisms, it favours genes, so unpleasant outcomes are hardly of any concern to it in that resepect also.)

The key predictors of violent behaviour in humans remain the most dangerously banal ones: young, male, low socioeconomic status, substance abuse. Mental illness is rarely a factor, and when it is, usually the other factors will also be in play to a larger degree anyway. In fact, mental illness is actually much more likely to make a person suicidal rather than homicidal, and this is an important factor in a special kind of statistically-rare but highly publicized kind of violent behaviour: mass shootings and suicide bombings. In these cases, the pathological desire to die will naturally change the brain’s internal risk-vs-reward analysis and make violence seem like a more attractive option, but even so, regular suicides are far more common than murder-suicides. Even in these rare outlier cases, the triggers for violent behaviour are usually just the same as the ones that influence the behaviour of mentally healthy people; the difference in outcome is due to the way these triggers interact with the person’s suicidal desires. Considering that the vast majority of violent acts are committed by mentally healthy people, that is where our focus really ought to lie.** The problem is that the kinds of violence that are most common – domestic violence, rape, street violence, etc – are also the kinds that people don’t want to talk about, whereas the rare outlier cases get widespread media attention and therefore alter people’s perception about the reality of violent behaviour. If we are constantly told that “the man with the gun was crazy” then inevitably it will sink in, regardless of the level of truth in that statement. But in reality, automatically attributing all instances of real-life violence to “craziness” is like dismissing all car accidents as being caused by ice on the road – you’ll be right occasionally, but you’re ignoring all the most common causes of the problem, and your calls to combat car accidents by increasing the public’s awareness of icy road conditions will just look silly and ill-informed.

As usual, an evolutionary perspective can shed some light on why this is the case. Prior to the advent of civilisation, the “typical” social arrangement for hunter-gatherer tribes was a dominance hierarchy headed by a small number of polygamous males who monopolized all the mating opportunities. From my feminist perspective, I see this as a sort of “proto-patriarchy”; the thing that cultural evolution would later shape into the familiar patriarchal societies of today (not with any foresight, of course, but we can apply these labels in hindsight, for convenience). For the present discussion, however, the key point to note is that this proto-patriarchal social order did not benefit all males; only those at the top of hierarchy. An inevitable by-product of polygamous, “harem-style” mating strategies is that there will always be groups of males, often adolescents who have not yet challenged the alphas, who are left on the outer, and are frustrated by a lack of mating opportunities and, usually, harrassed and shunned by the rest of the group. Under these circumstances, any risk-vs-reward calculations will now swing towards the violent end of the scale, and aggressive behaviour will become a potentially winning strategy. (This is true not just amongst our ancestors but of pretty much all species which have adopted this kind of social structure.) So now, we see that violence is a conditional strategy, triggered by environmental circumstances.

At this point I was considering trying to stretch the feminist analogy and suggesting that we should be thinking in terms of alpha-male privilege versus regular male privilege, as a way of linking our current cultural conditions with the behavioural patterns of our ancestors – but of course, the more obvious approach would be to suggest we are looking at the beginnings of class-based privilege instead. There is already a wealth of analysis on the intersectionality between these two concepts, so I won’t dwell here. Again, the key points are that aggressive behaviour, as an evolutionary strategy, is triggered by certain social conditions which, in a modern context, look a whole lot like the predictors of violent behaviour I listed above. The only outlier is substance abuse, which, in common cases such as alcohol-related violence, acts as a remover of inhibition and thereby enhances the role played by other factors which, on their own, may not have been powerful enough to influence the person’s behaviour. It’s worth remembering that one of the primary functions of the neocortex is simply to act as an inhibitor of lower brain functions, so disabling it through artificially altered brain chemistry provides an important shortcut for those who have not developed violent behaviours habitually, and therefore have greater difficulty overcoming these barriers through more natural means.

So, as the causes and origins of our built-in behavioural repertoire come to light, we are faced with much the same choice as in the previously-examined example of ethnocentrism: we can either use these facts to try and justify violence, or we can use them to develop strategies to prevent violence. On the surface, this might seem like a no-brainer, but the real problem with most anti-violence philosophies is that people will readily agree to them in principle, but they will then often reserve a few exceptions to this rule in order to preserve instances where they either benefit from violence or are too afraid of letting go of violence as a coping mechanism, even if it is not the optimal choice. We need to keep in mind that violence is a selfish strategy with short-term benefits which serve to blind people to its long-term consequences. We therefore cannot expect people to willingly change their behaviour unless some solid alternatives are provided, and the consequences of a failure to act are highlighted to the point of being impossible to ignore.

I’m not going to drive myself crazy (again) by trying to come up with all the solutions here. But the most obvious starting point, at least, would be to focus on the hierarchical nature of our society and examine the ways in which it turns violence into a statistical inevitability by recreating conditions that favoured violence in our evolutionary past. Deconstructing hierarchies is already a necessary task faced by feminists and atheists anyway (which I’m guessing is the direction your views already skew if you’re reading this), so we have plenty of pre-existing ideas to call upon. It’s just a question of synthesizing all these different perspectives into a coherent whole, and perhaps also, convincing ourselves that such wide-reaching change is indeed a goal we can realistically work towards. I certainly think it is within the realms of possibility, even if it will take a long time. Societies can’t remain in stasis; new ideas are constantly being generated, and the best of these will rise to the top and oust the old ideas. It’s just a question of whether “best” means “best for everyone”, or “best for those at the top of the hierarchies” (or even “best for the ideas themselves”, selfish meme style, but that’s a whole other thing). But whichever way it goes, change is inevitable, so we might as well try and make it a change for the better.

I began with a reminder that behavioural patterns are naturally-selected artifacts, no different from an eye or a wing. This is important because humans are the only animals that actively modify and rework their bodies instead of just having to settle for whatever evolution provided them with. Eyes and wings can be augmented and improved upon, and the same will hold true for just about anything else we care to turn our attention to. We are humans; that is what we do.

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*This is something of a digression, but I point it out because it’s easy to get caught up in the complexity and subjective strikingness of some evolutionary products and start thinking to yourself, wow, this must mean something; it must be important. But would you say the same thing about some of the more humble yet, by most measures, far more successful Darwinian progeny, such as cyanobacteria? The significance we apply to a thing needs to stem from more than just its ability to survive in relation to other things. Evolution is the closest thing we have to a science of teleology, so it can therefore powerfully inform our moral and ethical judgments, but that is all it can do; it cannot dictate morality, which is key. As primates we have a built-in desire for morality to be dictated from an authoritarian source (originally the alpha male of the social group, which eventually evolved into increasingly-powerful tribal leaders and up to spirits and gods and so forth), which is why we need to approach claims of such authority with an additional level of skepticism, to compensate for our innate biases.

**Of course, mental healthcare is worth advocating for regardless of the role it plays here, so obviously I don’t wish to downplay its importance. We just need to recognize that pursuing that path won’t lead to the decrease in violence that many people seem to think will naturally follow from it.

Evolved Hip Hop

July 18th, 2011 by Tim

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Private Vice Leads To Public Virtue

July 13th, 2011 by Tim

Recently I’ve been writing out plot summaries for some of the future story arcs in Comical Interlude, and I noticed that a lot of them were about the characters’ sex lives – and more to the point, these aren’t the sorts of stories that will still work if they conveniently fade to black just before a boob comes into view (though don’t worry, they will be proper, relatable stories, as opposed to the ridiculous Hollywood satire put forward in my latest comic). On one hand, I didn’t actually sit down and say, “okay, time to write some sex comics” – and indeed it is something which I’ve been kind of subconsciously avoiding for a while now, despite the fact that I have these stories I want to tell, because I don’t particularly want to be associated with the current porn culture. But on other other hand, sex is naturally a subject that is going to be of considerable interest to humans, and being a human myself, I don’t see any problem with that… in principle, at least. So, given this direction my work is now heading in, I thought it would be useful to work through some ideas about the depiction of sex in art and our cultural attitudes towards it.

A good place to start would be Justice Potter Stewart’s famous failure to define pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

I’m sure there are a lot of things we could discuss about such a statement, but what catches my interest is what it reveals about the unspoken rules we live our lives by. We all possess an extensive catalogue of cultural values which have been instilled in us – largely through memetic behavioural imitation – as we have grown up, often without conscious realization of the process. The main reason we don’t notice what is happening is because usually, we are surrounded by people behaving in the exact same way, so this all seems perfectly normal according to our only available reference points. By the time we gain enough knowledge and experience to properly reflect on our behavourial patterns, we are usually well and truly enveloped within our cultural constructs, and deconstructing them becomes a rather daunting and complicated task indeed.

Justice Stewart’s problem seems to be that when he encountered something outside his own cultural domain, he simply lacked the necessary self-awareness to properly define it as such (hence being forced to rely on intuition). This observation, I think, highlights the crucial distinction that separates porn from all other forms of art: namely, art is an expression of culture, while porn is a deliberate violation of it. Porn is not simply “depictions of sex”, because such things will sometimes also fall within the domain of art; rather, porn is depictions of sex which fall outside of the cultural values we attach to such material. Additionally, whilst it is of course common for art to challenge cultural norms, porn doesn’t even attempt to do this – it exists almost as an acceptable violation, and not one which is striving for higher ideals or that needs to be met with counterarguments, because everyone already knows that it is wrong, and indeed, that is usually considered part of the appeal. This is also why the term has become shorthand for certain other forms of entertainment – for example, excessively violent and sadistic movies being labelled “torture porn” – because it’s a way of expressing that this material violates the unspoken rules we normally live by, but at the same time, we are also acknowledging that it’s not a true violation, merely an imaginary one. And interestingly, this is true regardless of whether the speaker is using the term in a positive or negative context.

To understand how this strange situation came about, we need to remember that culture is an artificial construct that has essentially evolved on top of our pre-existing emotional and behavioural responses, and which manipulates those responses into different and highly complex patterns. The defining pattern in Western culture has been a variation on the common patriarchal dominance hierarchy seen throughout the world, influenced particularly by Christian theology and, more recently, democratic nationalism. Like any other culture, it is a highly imperfect system with various strengths and weaknesses, but people invariably play along with it because, as is the way with all dominance hierarchies, they feel they gain a net benefit from it, even if they’re not at the top of the tree (and they probably also comfort themselves with fantasies about climbing higher up that tree one day, too).

But one of the more curious aspects of this system is the extent to which it has repressed sexuality. From a modern context it seems absurd to imagine humans, of all species, adopting an anti-sex viewpoint, but you have to keep in mind that this system dates back to before reliable contraception and birth control, when even extremely brief, one-off encounters could carry considerable consequences, especially in a culture built around arranged marriages and such, where maintaining the family unit within fairly narrow confines was central to all aspects of life. This was exacerbated by the fact that the culture was modelled as a dominance hierarchy, meaning there was increased competition for mates, which equates to fewer mating opportunities for almost everyone except perhaps the alpha members of the group. Additionally, people at the top of social hierarchies often benefit from controlling the reproduction of those beneath them, so it’s in their interest to start interfering with the cultural values they dictate to the masses. Combine this with the fact that sex is one of our major sources of fear anyway (it’s the reason why we die, after all), and it’s not hard to imagine why people could get freaked out and start inventing all kinds of crazy rules to try and control it.

But a sexually repressed culture brings Problems. In particular, it leads to increased and unfocused aggression, because people are left with the subconscious feeling that something, some unseen force, is preventing them from fulfilling their biological imperatives, but because they don’t know what it is, that aggression generally just gets directed towards whoever happens to be around them (this is especially true for males, of course, because they compete through aggressive behaviour, whereas females have traditionally competed more indirectly through appearance-based sexual selection). Taken to extremes, this can result in the kind of problem that the Islamic dominance hierarchy model is currently dealing with: young, almost exclusively male suicide bombers who have been persuaded to their cause in part because they think they will get laid in the afterlife. When people have reached the point where they think their best chance at having sex is to kill themselves then it is perhaps time to start rethinking your cultural values. [Note: yes, obviously the situation is much more complicated than that; I don't have time to deconstruct the entire psychology of a suicide bomber here. My point is, sexual repression is certainly one of the factors that directs people towards such a path, and moreover it makes the whole process easier than it would have been if that element were not present.]

This is where porn comes to the rescue of the patriarchal cultural model. If you want to run a sexually repressed society then you are going to have to deal with the increasing pressure to rebel against this artificial repression that will be quietly building up in your populace. And of course, the perfect way to do that, whilst still keeping the original culture intact, is to construct an outlet outside of those cultural values, where people can seek refuge as needed and let off some steam before falling dutifully back in line. So this, then, is the strange truth about porn (and similar, seemingly-contradictory constructs surrounding sex): it is the moon to the patriarchy’s Earth, an orbiting satellite which stabilizes the main body and allows it to flourish where otherwise it would have failed.

[Note: in researching this blog post I have come across several articles citing this study (pdf link), which indicates a slightly higher percentage of porn subscribers in conservative states in the US compared to their more liberal counterparts - but on further reading it appears the correlation is not statistically significant. Unfortunately I haven't come across any other, more helpful statistics here - but at the very least, the Edelman study indicates that porn consumption doesn't vary all that much across a range of political and religious belief sets across America, which I suppose is what you'd expect of a unified culture that drinks from the same mass-media well, despite the variations within that culture. So, as much as I wanted for this to be the part of the post where I cited that study as another in a long line of religious hypocrisies, I guess I will have to hold off on that one. For now. Plus, they may not be consuming more porn than anyone else, but they're not exactly abstaining from it either, so I guess there's that.]

Ultimately, this just serves to highlight the exact same point that we regularly reach when deconstructing patriarchal culture: this whole thing is a really dumb idea that never would have happened if intelligent people actually sat down and designed the culture from scratch, as opposed to accidentally allowing it to evolve this way over several thousand years. But it also highlights the mistaken assumption people often make when trying to counteract this culture: that by supporting porn and promoting its ideals, we can start to break down the repressive parent culture. Clearly, when that parent culture is actively reliant on porn to sustain itself, this approach is not going to work out as people would like it to. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, regardless of whether people are pro-porn or against it, very few will disagree on the actual use of the word “porn” to describe the material in question. Generally, these arguments are not about changing the overarching culture, they are about whether or not it is appropriate to have an externalized outlet for things that don’t fit within that culture. And indeed, for many people, the entire appeal of porn is that they see it as a place where they can break the rules they normally live by (which just raises the obvious question of why they choose to live by rules which are by their own definition unsustainable…). This is also why some of the few attempts to actively redefine porn as “erotica” or something similar and instill some cultural values in it have often failed to catch on (or at least, have certainly failed to achieve the popularity of regular porn), because people are inadvertently removing the very characteristics that attracted them to porn in the first place, whilst not taking it far enough to remove the need for those characteristics entirely.

As an aside, an interesting illustrative example of how arguments about porn are based on cultural values rather than measured evaluations of its actual content is a movie called The Good Old Naughty Days, which was released in 2002 after being edited together from a collection of old silent porn films from the early twentieth century. These films had originally been made to screen in French brothels, so obviously, at the time of their creation, they would not have been held in particularly high cultural esteem. But fast forward eighty years, and this same footage suddenly has enough “sociological” merit to be classified for a limited cinematic release in the freaking UK, of all places, despite containing not just explicit sex scenes but also some bestiality and stuff like that. And whilst there was an inevitable backlash from the usual religious types, there was also apparently enough interest for people to quite happily attend their local cinema just so they could watch such a film. The lesson here is that all you need is the thinnest of pretenses to allow people to tell themselves that they are watching the movie for any other reason than just because it’s porn, and suddenly it becomes a perfectly acceptable and reasonable idea. Or, essentially: it’s okay to watch porn for intellectual reasons, but it’s not okay to enjoy it. I think you will agree, this is a fairly transparent set of rationalizations by any standard – and it also recalls the cultural distinction between art and porn that I mentioned earlier. So long as the material is ostensibly not being put forward for the purpose of sexual gratification, it is clearly not serving any practical purpose at all, and therefore is much easier to define as “art” – whereas regular porn, which does serve a practical purpose, is barred from such standards. A barbeque pit is not art, but a broken barbeque pit beaten to an incomprehensible mess by Homer Simpson is.

So how do we go about fixing this problem, then?

Ironically enough, in my view, the best approach would be to start promoting depictions of sexuality in non-porn settings – sort of like the cinematic release of The Good Old Naughty Days, except with material that is designed to be unironically enjoyed, rather than being presented as some pretense at a history lesson. That way, you are not escaping the culture, you are actively confronting it, and forcing the audience to consciously reflect on their absorbed values. People will subsequently begin to criticize these ideas, of course – and that is when real progress can begin to happen. Improvement will only occur if we actively hold the material to a higher standard. In fact, I believe it should be held to the same standard we expect from any other form of art or storytelling, and the fact that the material is sexual in nature should neither cause us to automatically discount it, nor automatically accept it. More important questions, such as what sort of artistic merit it possesses, whether or not it is degrading, what sort of emotional depth it carries, etc, should instead come to the fore. In particular, the current porn standard of either completely context-free sex scenes or absurd and childish scenarios where people suddenly start having sex for no reason is the thing I would really like to see changed, because it stands in the way of a culture which could instead feature much more emotionally fulfilling kinds of entertainment, built around the same real, human stories we spend the rest of our time preoccupied with anyway. And sure, it is certainly possible to detach yourself in order to enjoy the kind of emotionally bankrupt porn that currently overwhelms the market, but it is not particularly… hedonistic.

This is the main way in which art can play a role in influencing the course of human development, incidentally: not by actively solving problems or swooping in to rapidly change people’s views through transcendent expression, but simply by disseminating new ideas and subtlely influencing people’s thoughts and beliefs (for better or worse, sadly). Art doesn’t end discussions; it starts them. And perhaps most importantly, it can entertain and reassure people who already agree with the ideas in question, so they can then go on to make more important strides in achieving these goals. Realistically speaking, a deeply ingrained problem like this is not going to go away overnight – it’s something that can only be changed over successive generations, as people grow up and readily adopt new behaviours and new ideas before the old patterns have a chance to take hold. This is how cultural evolution always works, of course, so if we wish to consciously influence its path then we need a realistic understanding of its mechanisms, and we need to be ready to play a much longer strategic game, because it doesn’t generally produce immediate results. Although another thing to keep in mind is that the pace of technological development illustrates perfectly how evolutionary processes can rapidly accelerate after they reach a certain tipping point, so that is definitely something to aim for, and it’s certainly a comforting thought if you wish to spend your time advocating something which may never eventuate within the course of your lifespan.

Which brings up another point: obviously, I am drawing a fairly fine distinction here, not to mention asking you to consider endpoints in the far future that aren’t all that immediately relevant to our own lives, so these ideas won’t be of much use to people who are simply looking to porn as a way of getting off and who don’t much care about the larger significance of their actions. If that is your view then you are free to live your life that way, of course, and no one can force you to change. To be honest I am surprised you are still reading at this point. But since you’re here, I would ask you to keep in mind that these things, so easily dismissed as irrelevant, have a way of coming back and biting you in the ass. If sexuality is constructed as something which exists outside of normal culture, then it becomes associated with other things that have been relegated to that same place, which is why porn has become largely synonymous with misogyny, racism, sexualized violence, and similar concepts. Because of the way our brains categorize ideas, grouping them together when they apparently have something in common, this is not the kind of association that can be drawn without consequence (as many of our current pop culture and porn tropes will all too readily attest). Ultimately, the choice to do nothing about this problem is essentially a choice to allow it to continue along its current evolutionary path, which, to the extent that we can foresee such things, does not appear to be a path with a happy ending.

On the other hand, if you do agree that this is an extraordinarily dumb situation and that we can clearly do better, then our primary goal – regardless of whether it is accomplished through art or other means – should be to try and integrate a healthy and robust understanding of sexuality into our shared cultural values, so people don’t feel like they have to escape from everyone else or break their own moral codes just to participate in an activity which is, after all, not only the very archetypal example of a “natural” behaviour, but one which brings considerable benefits, both socially and on a more personal level.

It is difficult to define exactly what a liberated sexual culture would look like, because the only convenient reference point we have is a history of failure (which in turn served to suppress or probably even wipe out a lot of wisdom which may have been garnered in more distant historical periods). Indeed, it is akin to ancient farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age attempting to extrapolate the limits of human technological development based only on their own nascent achievements: they would have absolutely no way of knowing that twelve thousand years of cultural evolution would produce the civilization we live in today. I would guess, however, that an idealized culture would have no need for an externalized concept called “porn”, because sex would be a common and unremarkable theme in all the regular artworks and entertainment, not only rendering the concept redundant, but replacing it with something which is much more holistically fulfilling anyway. And yeah, there has been some relaxing of attitudes towards sex in pop culture in recent decades, but the general climate is obviously still fairly farcical. We don’t go to the cinema to watch movies about sex, we just have romance movies, which occasionally feature a blurry pseudo-sexual montage (which isn’t to say that romance isn’t important; obviously, sex needs context to become emotionally meaningful. But that’s just part of the story, not all of it). And more to the point, we have action movies, we have horror movies, and generally speaking, we have a culture set up to venerate another concept entirely: violence. As you would expect of a sexually-repressed culture, this has become the popular surrogate obsession. A good litmus test for these values is children’s entertainment, because this is an area where people instinctively become much more careful about the ideas they are passing on to the next generation: and indeed, not only are fight scenes commonly depicted, but attempts to sanitize these depictions usually result in entirely unrealistic scenes where “bad guys” are dispatched bloodlessly by valiant heroes who suffer no negative consequences for their actions. Compare these tropes with the arguments commonly put forward to justify real-life violence; the similarities are striking (haha, yeah, as my twitter followers would note, I was quite annoyed by that particular article). Meanwhile, of course, you’re not even allowed to hint that sex exists, let alone suggest that it is a healthy and normal activity that you can look forward to when you get older, much like getting a driver’s licence or whatever. Oh, but don’t worry, you do get to kiss someone once you’ve defeated all the bad guys and gotten married – that is, providing you’re not gay, because that doesn’t exist either.

I guess basically what I’m saying is, a truly sexually liberated culture would presumably have much the same attitude towards sex that we do towards the allegedly “justified” violence that so dominates our present-day culture.

In Which The Complaint Is Longer Than The Original Piece

May 19th, 2011 by Tim

Something that caught my eye in the news the other day: an article about scientists discovering a potential genetic link to depression. Whilst the subject itself is interesting, and we will get to that in a moment, this article also provides us an illustrative example of the problem with overly-simplistic science reporting. In this case, it is playing up to a popular misconception about the nature of genetics, by stating that the genes in question actively cause depression. This is almost certainly wrong, for reasons which experts would have a much easier time explaining, but I will give it a shot.

All human behaviour, to varying extents, is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment (additionally, you could also say that genes construct phenotypes – some of which, such as the psychological makeup of the human brain, become a kind of third player in this interaction, transcending their genetic origins but also acting independently of any environmental influences). The idea of genes playing a predominant role in this process is kind of like suggesting that all you need is the recipe to know how a meal is going to taste. If you don’t go to the trouble of gathering the necessary ingredients, cooking them, and actually eating the final product, you’re going to miss out on a lot of important information. And even then, you can’t speak authoritatively about the recipe, because variations in ingredients and the cooking process will produce subtlely – or even substantially – different results each time.

Depression is no different in this regard, and its status as a problem that has both genetic and environmental roots is fairly well accepted by most experts. And yet the idea of a neat genetic cause remains appealing, both here and with many other problems, for a couple of reasons. First is just the basic simplicity of it – but whilst simplicity is of course highly valued in science, this simplicity should never come at the expense of fact. Elegant simplicity, encompassing all the known facts, is the real ideal to strive for. And secondly, there is a strange comfort that people seem to derive from the idea of genetic predeterminism, even when it causes significant problems, because it negates responsibility for any actions that may have otherwise caused said problems. In other words, no one has to modify their behaviour to prevent depression in this scenario, because it’s just genes and there’s not much you can do about it. Naturally, this is especially appealing to people who don’t actually suffer from depression, but whose actions or beliefs may have contributed to other people’s problems with the disease.

In reality, most people with depression can trace it back to an environmental cause, though the actual nature of those causes can vary greatly, from interpersonal problems to physical injuries to any number of odd and unexpected things. But of course, if the causes are so varied and widespread, why do some people suffer from it and not others? This is where the genetic component comes in: theoretically, genes may provide a predisposition towards depression in some people, explaining why they react differently to others when presented with the same stimulus. As a general rule of thumb, this is usually how genes work: they can only create a predisposition towards certain behaviours, which is then fulfilled or altered by environmental conditions. Some predispositions are easily changed, whilst others require a more complex confluence of factors before they will start to shift, but generally speaking, humans have evolved to be highly malleable and to adapt to a wide range of environments – including entirely artificial environments of their own creation. Indeed, one of the largely unique functions of the human brain is its ability to override its own predisposed behavioural patterns, which is why we can adapt so readily to new environments, and is also why we possess some semblance of biologically-constrained free will. Additionally, contrary to what you may at first assume, knowledge of our genetic predispositions doesn’t excuse behaviour (ie. you won’t be able to say, “this person has the dickhead gene, therefore they can’t help being a dickhead”) – in fact, this knowledge is actually more likely to make it easier to change these predisposed tendencies. In much the same way that it’s easier to control your hands when you can see what they’re doing, as opposed to groping about in the dark, self-knowledge often empowers the brain to overcome its own limitations. So, you know, it’s not something we should be particularly afraid of, even though many people seem to be, in my own experience at least.

The real trick here, if you want to understand how human behaviour works, is trying to unravel a tremendously convoluted chain of cause and effect – which is why simplistic explanations like “genes cause depression” usually fall apart fairly quickly. I expect the actual answers will be somewhat harder to pry out.

While we’re on the subject, one interesting point to come out of this discovery is that a genetic predisposition to depression may help strengthen the theory that depression has some adaptive value, under the right circumstances. This will largely depend on whether these genes have been actively selected for, as opposed to just being a harmful mutation or an unfortunate by-product of some other beneficial process. Whilst depression is generally a debilitating problem, especially once it spirals out of control, it is also unusual in the sense that it actively reshapes the brain’s thought processes to make it better at solving problems. Most of the harmful symptoms of depression only occur because the brain is devoting too much of its finite resources to this effort, thereby neglecting other important functions. Which means that if depression occurs in response to a genuine problem, the person may well be in the optimum position to solve this problem, assuming their depression doesn’t go too far and drag them under entirely. If it does give people an edge when it comes to problem-solving, then this benefit may be enough for natural selection to favour it, despite the unpleasant side effects (especially if the side effects of failing to solve problems are significantly worse, which is not hard to imagine). But this idea is still fairly speculative, and the debate is far from over.

To return to the original article, we should probably ask the question: did the reporter actively misunderstand the concept, or were they simply trying to create a quick summary and didn’t realise the implications of their imprecise language? (This is a common problem in science – as I have often discovered in the past, even if you have a basic understanding of a concept, there’s still like a thousand ways you can get the terminology wrong.) Or alternatively: is it perhaps an accurate record of an overzealous announcement by one of the research teams in question? Well, here is one of the papers referenced in the article, so check it out for yourself. You’ll notice they are rather more conservative in their wording, revealing the actual nature of their discovery: they are merely documenting an interesting and potentially significant correlation, not the be-all and end-all causal link suggested by the subsequent article reporting their findings. Unfortunately, as usual, the real science is rather more boring and messy than most people would like.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder to remain skeptical about information that has filtered through the science news cycle.

Violent Political Rhetoric

January 11th, 2011 by Tim

Hey, do you want to read a deeply ignorant article? No? Well, that’s understandable. But here it is anyway: In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric. It’s written by a person who is apparently capable of looking at the current political climate in America and saying, yep, nothing wrong here. But what’s more instructive, for our purposes at least, is the method by which he has rationalized this view.

Most revealing is the use of the standard argument employed in the defence of a lot of different types of faux-violent behaviour: namely, the personal anecdote about having experienced similar influences (in this case, violent political language) without being driven to violence. So clearly that’s not the root cause of violent behaviour, and we can simply write off people who do resort to violence as outliers, or victims of some other kind of problem – like mental illness, as was immediately assumed in this case. In other words, violent people would have been violent anyway, so we are automatically relieved of any responsibility in having contributed to this problem. Because you know, that guy who WAS violent, well, clearly he was just a freak, and as long as all the normals remain unaffected, we don’t need to worry.

If nothing else, this serves to highlight the general ignorance our culture still harbours towards the topic of mental illness. But it also reveals another, more nuanced level of ignorance: most people just straight up don’t understand how things like implied violence or violent threats and metaphors affect our behaviour. I mean, it is considered perfectly logical for exposure to real life violence to cause trauma, but as soon as you remove that element of reality, the trauma is supposed to become similarly imaginary. It’s pretty obvious, however, that that is not the case.

Perhaps the best way to understand how this behaviour functions is to think of the brain as a balloon, and all of the different social and cultural interactions which affect our behaviour are like hundreds of dull sticks applying light pressure to that balloon. Each one on its own is inconsequential, but when their combined force is multiplied together, problems can begin to manifest. In an extremely basic and unrealistic simulation, we could expect that successive exposure to violent influences would increase the pressure applied by the sticks which represent violent behaviour, until the balloon finally bursts, and the person lashes out with real-life violence. However, that’s not how it works in reality, because exposure to violence is constantly being tempered by exposure to other sources of pressure, including pressure to avoid violent behaviour, because in most circumstances it is considered socially unacceptable. (This is a uniquely modern situation, incidentally; these opposing sources of pressure did not exist in the past – or at least, not to the same extent that they do now – which is why violence is far rarer today than it was throughout much of history.) So in effect, all these different sources of opposing pressure lead to the sticks being placed fairly evenly around the balloon, spreading the load and making it much less likely to burst even when new sources of pressure are suddenly encountered. Assuming, that is, the person is leading a healthy social life, and is therefore under direct pressure to conform to the social ideals of the day. For comparison: in other places around the world, there is much less opposing pressure to balance out the violent influences, and the difference is profound.

This is why it’s so difficult to determine cause and effect in these instances: because each person has a unique array of sticks around their balloon, and so their responses to new sources of pressure can be radically different from one another. Moreover, removing one stick can alter the topography of the whole balloon as the pressure redistributes itself and achieves a new equilibrium, so actually removing seemingly harmful influences can have unexpected consequences, too. The important thing to recognise, however, is that we are dealing with a complex and chaotic system, which means that whilst individual instances can be difficult to deconstruct, a broader, systemic view can still yield identifiable patterns. (In this sense, it’s a lot like long-term climate prediction – even though we know that climate change will produce stronger and more violent storms, determining precisely where those storms will strike is still impossible, according to our current level of knowledge at least.)  As a result, we can reasonably argue that increased violent rhetoric will lead to real-life violence, even if predicting exactly where and when it will occur is a much more daunting task. If you continually stack up the sources of violent pressure, you greatly reduce the strength of the stressor needed to give a vulnerable person that final push and trigger a truly tragic reaction.

It’s also worth remembering that whilst ascribing responsibility to a single source of pressure (in this case, Sarah Palin) is a rather silly and naïve view to take, that’s not the only role Palin plays here. She actively profits from this pre-existing culture of hatred and veiled violence, and uses it for her own ends. That’s still completely obscene. We don’t need to exaggerate her role in this to try and make her look bad – even if there were absolutely no traces of cause and effect here, her actions are still indefensible.

Anyway, back to the article itself – I think this quote really highlights the sheer arrogance, let alone ignorance, upon which it was constructed:

“The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again.”

Note the use of the Juggalo fallacy: this situation is, apparently, a miracle. It’s obviously a very evocative term to drop on an American audience, so I’m sure he’s mostly just using it for rhetorical flourish, but all the same, it still serves to highlight the logical flaw in the central argument being put forward here: the author just clearly doesn’t understand precisely why violence is so rare in American politics. Which is why, as usual, it is simply ascribed to American exceptionalism – we are talking about the shining light on the hill, after all. They’re just inherently superior. Well, unless they have a mental illness, of course – then all bets are off.

The result of this lack of understanding is the surreal situation we now face: we have a subtlely violent culture which has (inevitably) produced violent behaviour, and yet people react by defending that culture and not only outright dismissing the possibility of a causal link, but they seem content to do so by means of some rather uncircumspect logic. This situation should, really, inspire disbelief in all of us – but because we have lived in this same culture our whole lives, we have unfortunately grown used to it, making it much harder for us to see this situation for what it really is.

As with all violent behaviour, the violent rhetoric currently dominating American political discourse simply serves to highlight the position of extreme fear from which these people are operating. It might seem counterintuitive, but just compare it to a similar phenomenon, like how narcissism actually stems from very low self-esteem, rather than the overabundance of it that you might otherwise assume at first glance. These types of behaviour are designed to compensate for the absence of, rather than the imposing presence of, the emotional trait they appear to be built upon. In this case, deep fear equates to a lack of courage, which is why people will then try to appear courageous by putting forward outlandish rhetoric. But of course, it would be a mistake to confuse these actions with actual courage. Back in my day, we were taught that Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.

So, to sum up: if you’re looking for a simple equation to explain cause and effect, you’re going to be disappointed. But trying to argue that violent rhetoric has no effect at all is just… well, it’s deliberate ignorance, there’s no other way of putting it. People would easily reach this conclusion if they didn’t have a vested interest in believing the exact opposite. The real problem here is that it’s simply much easier to change rationalizations than to change behaviour, so people just continue along the same old path, even when confronted with the thankfully rare, but still brutal consequences of their actions.

The thing to remember is this: when you walk away from a car crash, you don’t go around telling people car crashes are awesome. You remind yourself how lucky you were, and you examine the cause of the crash in order to prevent it from happening again.

ETA one day later:

I’ve done a bit more reading on the subject of violence and mental illness, and I found this paper particularly illuminating. It basically trashes the popular link between violent behaviour and the mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims, not perpetrators – and when they do act out violently, more often than not, it’s due to the exact same stressors that trigger violent behaviour in healthy people.

Much more telling, however, is the observation that the general public often draw comfort from the myth that random acts of violence are caused by mental illness. I’ve read articles over the past couple of days about how the supposed overreactions against violent rhetoric are just the product of people searching for a convenient narrative to explain the unexplainable – but dismissing violent behaviour as unexplainable is itself a narrative, and a rather problematic one at that, because it absolves people of the need to search for actual answers, however difficult they may be to uncover. In this case, if the mindset of a violent offender is impenetrable and unknowable, then there is no need to question any possible role that the overall climate of violent rhetoric (not to mention all the other types of violent and faux-violent behaviour still tolerated by our society) had in shaping this person’s views, and so we are free to continue as before, unburdened by responsibility. And regardless of your views here, surely you can at least see that dismissing a question without answering it is a terrible idea, and sets a harmful precedent even if this particular instance turns out to be a red herring.

On the surface, it seems strange that people could be comforted by the idea that violent behaviour is unpredictable and unexplainable. But break down the logical sequence behind it, and it takes on another tone altogether. Because the thing is, there is ample evidence to suggest that the most common causes of violent behaviour actually affect healthy people to a greater degree than the mentally ill, and yet the majority of the public is quite content to write this problem off as the product of a loosely-defined minority of “crazy” people. This is because the only logical alternative would be for people to start questioning their own behaviour, and trying to deconstruct their own role in the culture of violence that lurks at the edges of our society. Dumping this problem on a scapegoat is simply the much easier option, and the result is that the mentally ill are not only unfairly blamed for a systemic problem shared by us all, but they often end up suffering the harshest consequences of this problem, too.

And that, my friends, is fucked up.

tl;dr

December 1st, 2010 by Tim

Can’t be bothered to wade through that last entry? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. The basic argument is actually pretty simple; I just went off on lots of tangents about the evolutionary history that has led us to this point, and I also ran through some of the implications of these ideas, and how they relate to everyday life. Here are the key points:

- The historical and evolutionary evidence indicates we are in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one. Also, the evolution of our attitude towards violence is closely tied to the evolution of religion. Religion greatly reduced the overall violent nature of our societal groups, but it also gave rise to war when these societal groups clashed, which is why we are now moving on and seeking new alternatives, in order to build on the progress that has been made.

- There are two characteristics which all pro-violence viewpoints have in common: they are reactionary, and they come equipped with a system of ethics designed to eliminate the problems associated with all the other pro-violence worldviews that have failed in the past. This ethical code allows people to feel superior to other practitioners of violence, which is why they can sustain their position even as violence continues to cause problems throughout the world.

- Whenever this system of ethics fails, people simply refine their ethical code and start again. But in reality, there is no such thing as a system of ethics that can prevent the harmful consequences of violent behaviour.

- Violence is a fear response: we experience fear, we try to enact control, violence is usually the simplest act of control so it is the first thing people turn to (ie. it is the path of least resistance, which is something our brains always find appealing). But modern violence carries an unusual quirk: because nonviolent ideas have already permeated society to a significant degree, people are now trying to regulate their violent behaviour. This means that when they experience fear, and thus the desire for control suddenly makes violence seem an attractive option, they try to repress that response, because they have been taught that it is wrong. This is the key mistake. Repression only delays the response; it doesn’t eliminate it. In order to properly move on from violence, we need to stop repressing these actions, and learn to let go of them, and embrace the feeling of inner peace that stems from this action. Then we can all go frolicking together in meadows, etc.

- Because we are still in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one, most of the pro-violence worldviews that exist today can be viewed as the memetic equivalent of transitional forms. Many of them will provide useful, if rather unstable, stepping stones on the way to that long-term goal, but they are clearly unsustainable, and we will eventually have to complete the transition. And yeah, I know it’s probably hard to look at some of the wars and such that exist today and think “well, at least we’re making progress”, but it seems that that is indeed the case, even if we still have a long way to go.

Anti-violence post #2

December 1st, 2010 by Tim

We have come a long way. Even a study of recent history will reveal remarkable changes, but when you look back at the last 100,000 years or so, in which we have gone from a few thousand tribespeople on the African savannah to almost 7 billion people spread all over the planet, you really just have to sit back and marvel at the extraordinary changes which have occurred. Not least of which because this has all happened with only relatively minor changes to the human genome; as far as we can tell, there have been a series of superficial adaptations to environmental conditions, but aside from those, we are essentially still the same as the first people to look up at the stars, all those thousands of years ago. All the subsequent changes, the evolution of civilization, technology, and everything else we take for granted today, are the product of cultural evolution, derived solely from the tenuous transfer of memes from one generation to the next.

This evolutionary process shows no signs of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. We are even today caught up in this vortex of inexorable change, running as fast as we can just to try and stay in the same place, as the saying goes. Naturally, the question arises: where exactly are we headed? It is a difficult thing to predict, but by looking at some of the selective pressures in play today, we might gain some insight into where we’ll find ourselves tomorrow.

Perhaps the most significant driving force behind the changes that have taken place is the fact that our exploding population has put immense pressure on our traditional territorial tribalism. When we grow tired of our neighbours, we can no longer just pack up and find somewhere else to live, as we’ll simply run into more humans who are likely to be just as defensive about their land as the people we left behind. Varied responses have arisen to deal with this pressure in the past: war, politics, diplomacy, and perhaps most interestingly, the expansion of social groups to include members of many different tribes. These supertribes required a powerful rallying point for social cohesion, and so we began to exaggerate the abilities of our leaders, so that their stature would match the size of the tribe, and everyone would gratefully serve them due to their unmatched power. But this line of thought soon required extending beyond the realms of human possibility, necessitating the invention of a concept above nature – the supernatural. These mythical leaders grew ever more powerful as social groups increased in size (the bigger the group, the better the odds of survival, marking a new evolutionary paradigm directed towards group selection), spurred on particularly by tales of past leaders, who were no longer around and thus could be exaggerated without any fear of being proven wrong by a need for real-life demonstrations of power. Eventually, they were removed entirely from reality, and we had ready-made gods inhabiting an imaginary realm, laying down the foundations for religion. (Ancient Egyptian culture provides a famous transitional form, exhibiting both gods and the god-king pharohs. And let’s not forget that modern Catholicism is at least partially derivative of Egyptian mythology…) But ideas that worked well in the past can wear out their welcome, such as when religious warfare leads to violence on increasingly unprecedented scales, creating marked conflicts with our kin-selected propensity for altruism and empathy. Expanding social groups gave us the ability to extend empathy beyond our immediate kin, and so ironically, turned us against the very thing that opened our eyes to the concept of a wider culture in the first place. The evolutionary march continues, and religion is on the way out, having been supplanted by nationalism and hopefully, eventually, a single, worldwide, humanist culture.

Population growth opens up other sources of pressure: the need for sustainable food sources, the need to consciously limit our impact on the environment, the need for more efficient infrastructure – and, especially when aligned with our increasingly devastating arsenal of weapons technology, the need for effective conflict resolution. It is now necessary not just to end conflicts after they arise but to figure out why they occur and how they can be prevented. A thorough understanding is required to ensure that we don’t bumble into a catastrophic and irreversible war – which, as close calls in the past have illustrated, is an all too real possibility.

Naturally, the pressure to finally put the concept of war to bed has brought forth many proposed solutions, some of which will ultimately be seen as having played a part in uncovering the final answer; others will merely be smirked at amusingly or maybe even scoffed at incredulously (*cough*pre-emptive self-defence*cough*). For mine, I would put my money on a fairly basic idea: the promotion of the positive aspects of human potential (trying not to use the term “human nature”, it is a fairly misleading concept), coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the motivations behind violence, greed, and other negative behavioural traits, which is now being brought to light through modern scientific discoveries. This understanding will allow people to make properly informed choices, and will highlight the absurdity of choosing to pursue violence, when its predictable consequences are fully laid bare. This is more of a long-term strategy, obviously; people who have already developed violent behavioural patterns are likely to be too fearful to change in the short term, because their fear has been magnified by their violent actions. But over successive generations, changes which seem impossible to us will become inevitable and unavoidable. Widespread education and rapid advancement of knowledge, coupled with constant reinforcement of empathy and other positive aspects of human behaviour, have already worked significant changes over the course of history, and this pattern shows no sign of stopping – indeed, it is only accelerating.

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Only A Matter Of Time

August 19th, 2010 by Tim

I didn’t watch last Monday’s Tony Abbott-fest on Q&A (GNW was on, and besides, an hour of watching Abbott speak? I need at least three hours of preparatory meditation before I can endure something like that, and I don’t have that kind of time), but I just caught his answer to that question about gay marriage – quite poignantly posed, if you also missed it, by a man with a gay son who overcame his own prejudices as a result of being exposed to this alternate point of view. Funny how empathy can change people like that. Abbott, perhaps realising that the sympathy of the crowd was dangerously against him at this point, was suitably effacing in his answer – but in doing so, highlighted the absolutely absurd position this debate has reached. He praised gay relationships, not a bad thing to say against them, seemingly drawing no distinction between them and their straight equivalents – except for the fact that he believes straight relationships are special for some arbitrary reason, and therefore they are the only ones deserving of the title “marriage” (itself a completely arbitrary social construct). That’s where we are now. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That’s all it takes to justify social oppression. Not even so much as a Biblical citation, let alone some actual logic.

The fact that the human brain is actually capable of sustaining such a position should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s easy to cite the deeply ingrained memes surrounding homophobia passed down from a patriarchal society which automatically devalues anything that threatens aggressive masculinity, because these memes are still so prevalent that even many gay people still display latent tendencies towards them, let alone their straight allies – so people who have been taught that homosexuality is somehow a lesser form of sexual expression certainly do have a lot of memetic baggage to sort through, especially if they’ve been insulated from alternative arguments, as people raised in a religious environment often are. But there’s more to it than that. This strange desire to cling to a pre-existing viewpoint despite all logic to the contrary is a hallmark of religious thinking, and it stems from the rarely-spoken assumption that the system of morality put forward by the religion in question is the only thing standing between a stable civilisation and total societal collapse. In other words, if you were to suddenly take away religious morality, there would be no more civilisation, and we would return to a state of barbarism, if not outright savagery.

This view is plainly false. Morality is a product of evolution, and evolution does not just unravel itself like that – not when the same selective pressures which produced this behaviour are largely still in play today. True, memetic information exists in a far more tenuous state than genetic data, but even so, we have reached a level of development where only a truly catastrophic event, like nuclear war, could make such an impact on our progress as to undo it completely. Gay marriage is not, safe to say, the equivalent of nuclear war, though you could be forgiven for assuming as much if you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric from those who oppose it. And even in the event of an ACTUAL catastrophe, we would still be human, and thus still possess our kin-selected ability for empathy and a natural tendency towards social co-operation. If we survived, we could rebuild over time. We’re kind of bad-ass like that.

Aside from discussions surrounding proper problems with an actual scientific basis, like nuclear war or climate change or death by intergalactic space laser, conversations about morality should revolve around determining what is best to make people’s lives happier and healthier, not what must be done in order to avoid self-destruction. This fear that a loosening of moral standards will result in an inexorable backwards slide is really quite ridiculous. Cultures have been built around far less developed types of morality than that which exists today, and whilst they certainly weren’t perfect, they survived okay. This is kind of like when people argue for action against climate change by saying that we have to “save the planet” – it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about preserving its current state to the extent that is physically possible, so that it remains comfortably habitable for humans. That’s still a worthy goal. And the inherent selfishness of it might actually be more appealing than a Captain Planet mantra (since unironically caring about things beyond our immediate concerns is apparently still an embarrassing trait to publicly display). In the same way, people should be putting forward moral arguments in order to make the world a better place for us, the self-centred, fear-driven weirdos who live here. And arguments against gay marriage do not pass that test – they only promote divisiveness and oppression of people who don’t line up with arbitrary social norms. There is a reflex to automatically treat religions as though they have the moral high ground, because for much of our history that was actually the case (hard to imagine, I know), but morality has continued to evolve, and the major religions have – through their harmful actions and their unwillingness to catch up with this forward progression – clearly relinquished the ground they once held. There is no moral high ground for those who discriminate based on sexual orientation. It is bigoted, it is logically indefensible, and it is wrong.

You know what this “I believe because I believe” bullshit reminds me of? A school bully in the playground, playing keep-away with the socially-outcasted kid’s hat. There is no rhyme or reason to this behaviour; the bully is simply afraid, and is trying to placate that fear by wielding power over others, since that is what his greater physical stature allows. He does it, because he can. But as is the nature of power, it does not release that fear, it simply feeds it, and causes it to grow stronger. The pursuit of control only highlights what an impossible goal it is, causing him to pursue it even harder, only for it to move even further away – and so the cycle continues. The bully becomes even more strongly attached to these behaviours he has developed to try and cope with his fear, and yet he does not understand why. The bully’s hierarchical worldview is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one, just like the religious argument against homosexuality is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one. People cling to these views because even as their fears are being fed, they are even more afraid of what would happen if they had to face these fears completely exposed, without the behaviours they have developed in the past to try and cope with that fear. But the funny thing is, if you stop feeding these fears, they will genuinely stop growing, and they will become easier to deal with. Over time, you will find that you are able to develop new patterns of behaviour, and if you meditate on the consequences of your actions, you can try and ensure these new behaviours don’t have negative effects on others. That is actually a key point, because actions which harm others will also harm you (especially if you follow your natural impulse to try and create ethical justifications for your harmful actions – ironically, you’d do less harm without an ethical approach). Of course, you will always continue to make mistakes, there’s no getting around that – but as long as you acknowledge and learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward, you will notice a gradual improvement not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.

In other words, if you stop trying to force morality onto others and instead just learn to chillax so that productive discussions can take place, and you ensure any high-minded ethical meditations are backed by an intuitive and empathetic approach in addition to a scientific understanding of human behaviour (not just one or the other), you will quite likely find that a lot of your fears are simply figments of your imagination.

Regression

April 21st, 2010 by Tim

I was listening to Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From A Memory the other day, for the first time in a while. It’s been almost a decade since I was first introduced to what most fans would agree is Dream Theater’s best album (it’s either that or Images And Words), but even today, it still sounds as sweet as it did back then. I don’t want to understate this: from a purely musical perspective, it is an awesome feat, and demonstrates the ability of metal to convey a wide range of emotions, far apart from the narrow and angst-ridden, anti-social view that most people have of the genre. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why I first became interested in metal, back in the day.

From a lyrical point of view, however, the intervening years have not been kind.

It is a concept album, recounting a somewhat convoluted story involving hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation, and just in general, what happens after you die. But whilst they might have avoided specific Christian imagery and instead opted for more of a generic spiritual…ness, make no mistake, they are a Christian band, and this album is a fairly transparent representation of their views. I mention this because the end result is actually a conveniently straightforward list of reasons why religion is still a Thing – so it may prove to be a useful resource for anyone who looks at these bizarre monoliths of ancient dogma still attached like barnacles to the whale of our glorious civilisation and asks the inevitable question: WHY?? (Especially if you want your ponderings to be accompanied by excellent music.)

I’m not going to bother with a detailed analysis of the lyrics, because it’s all fairly basic stuff (I mean, thematically – trying to follow the actual storyline takes a more concerted effort). If you’re pressed for time, though, then just go to the penultimate track, “The Spirit Carries On“, because it acts as the summary sheet for everything that you’re supposed to learn from this story. LaBrie even states quite unironically that he used to be afraid of death until arbitrarily deciding that some ethereal part of his being will survive into eternity, and then like magic, his fears disappeared. That’s religion in a nutshell, my friends.

The line that really gets me, though, is when he says “I may never prove what I know to be true.” No. Just… fucking no, man. Not being able to prove something is the exact opposite of knowing it is true. And I have to ask, if you’re just going to decide that something is true without any evidence to back it up, then why do you even care about proof at all? If the presence or absence of proof has no bearing on your beliefs, then the whole concept is irrelevant anyway. It’s as if he sees proof as some sort of window dressing that he is happy to display when it lines up with his worldview, but if it doesn’t, then, you know, whatever. It’s not important. Because he knows that he’s right.

The significance of this logical trap is somewhat deceptive, I think. People tend to see faith as either a sort of security blanket (the argument I have used in the past) or alternatively, as some sort of noble dedication to higher ideals. But I have come across a better definition: it is the only known cure for that most annoying of existential problems, doubt. In other words, it is one of the dumbest acts of self-sabotage you can inflict upon yourself.

Like most people, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time searching for ways to get rid of doubt. I can be quite hesitant and indecisive even at the best of times, I have social anxieties and other problems, and it just seems like everything would run a whole lot more smoothly if I could just jettison all that doubt and get on with things. But I’ve come to realise lately that that would actually be a disastrous achievement. Doubt is good. And the only reason we don’t realise this is because the only doubt we encounter on a regular basis is our own. Everyone else keeps theirs safely hidden away in their own minds, because we are all operating the exact same delusion – that everyone is more confident than us, and that our doubt is somehow unique. I can pretty much guarantee that the only people who don’t feel this way are those select few who are either too ignorant or too deluded to realise how frighteningly small their own depth of knowledge is compared to the unimaginably vast amount of information that exists in the universe. And while they may seem to be better off, with their false confidence and all the rest, they really aren’t. They are trapped in their own vortices of circular logic, which they will in all likelihood never emerge from. They will never get to experience the entirely new and uncharted delusions of the free-thinking individual, amiright lol.

So when you introduce faith into this equation, to quell that quiet voice in the back of your mind that is incessantly asking “but what if I’m wrong?”, what you are really doing is shutting down your capacity for growth. This is why religion closes people’s minds. You’ve found a nice little cottage, everything seems to be in working order as far as you can tell, so you just say to yourself, fuck it, I’m going to live here, I don’t care if there might be nicer places further down the road. Doubt, as it turns out, is actually the force that keeps pushing you down that road, because even if you passed some decent places along the way, you just want to go and check if there’s something better around that next corner.

Okay, yeah, people certainly have a right to set up camp wherever they wish. My main complaint here is just that it is just such a fucking waste. Billions of years of evolution have given rise to an immensely powerful tool which is, right now, decoding strange patterns in the beams of light being emitted from the screen in front of you and translating them into a language of its own devising, triggering a cascade of electronic pulses and chemical reactions which result in you reading a sentence about what is happening when you read this sentence. And that’s not even one of its main functions. I don’t care who you are, if you have a brain, you can do some amazing things – if you open yourself up to all possibilities, including the ones which make you uncomfortable or fearful. Which means that instead of trying to force everything to fit in with some kind of pre-existing idea, you have to sit back and let your brain do its thing. Your brain is designed to take in information, analyse it, compare it with information it already possesses, and finally, to produce new ideas from this raw data. That is its friggin’ job, and the delusions of faith and certainty only serve to hinder that process.

I mean, do you have any idea how incredible brains are? Just think about it, you guys. These things arose through entirely natural processes, with no guiding hand or pre-existing blueprint. That’s fucking amazing. Fuck! I’m tripping myself out just writing this, man. I’ve gotta go lie down for a while.

ETA:

Okay, I feel bad for ragging on Dream Theater in this post (I’m just frustrated because the music I like so rarely has lyrics I can relate to). There are a couple more points I should add: perhaps the most important being that their religious views played a major role in helping singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy overcome some pretty serious personal problems (specifically, depression and social anxieties for LaBrie, and alcoholism for Portnoy). When people find a way to deal with such problems, regardless of the nature of that solution, they tend to latch onto it wholeheartedly, and naturally become blinded to any faults present in their newfound beliefs. But for most people, this levels out after a while, and once they begin to feel like they’ve really put their problems behind them, they may feel comfortable enough to start asking some harder questions about their own views. I think, to their credit, you can see this evolution occurring in some of Dream Theater’s later albums, where they start dealing with some of the more problematic issues surrounding religion. They are still operating from a decidedly deistic viewpoint, but they are at least adopting a more questioning attitude, and personally I think there is only one inevitable destination once you start down that road, so long as you pursue it honestly.

So basically, it is interesting to compare Scenes From A Memory with songs like “In The Name Of God” or “The Great Debate” – and even more interesting to think about where these questions might lead them in the future.

Depression

March 2nd, 2010 by Tim

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

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