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Welcome!

This post is set up to float to the top. I'm getting a bunch of new readers lately, so I figured a welcome/orientation post is appropriate.

Welcome to my journal! (Yeah, yeah, I know, the cool kids call it a blog these days.)

I post intermittently, sometimes at length, usually about personal topics, sometimes about controversial ones. I love thoughtful comments, even (sometimes especially) when they disagree with me. Anonymous comments or private messages are OK, too.

I expect politeness, though -- especially to my other commenters. If you can't be civil, be silent. If I start getting a wave of hostile anonymous commenters, I will likely change my policy.

Some links I keep here for convenience:

Eight.

So, I thought I was done explicitly acknowledging these anniversaries, but, well, clearly I was wrong.

(That's fine, there's absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to acknowledge them explicitly. I just mis-judged where I was on this particular road.)

For those of you wondering what I'm talking about: eight years ago today I had a major stroke.
I got better.
If you want details, check out my "stroke/recovery" tag.

Here's what I'm going to say about it today:

I was enormously lucky to be able to focus all of my attention on recovery. I had work benefits that not only made the medical bills affordable but kept paying the bills while I stayed home, I had a partner who took care of everything around the house and drove me to all my appointments and put up gracefully with all of the fundamentally unattractive behavior that comes with major illness, I had competent and responsive health care... hell, even my insurance company was basically supportive. I pretty much didn't have to do or worry about anything but getting better, and I am more grateful for that than I can say.

It makes a huge difference, and not everyone gets that privilege.

I hope my country can transition smoothly and soon to a system that at least makes some of those privileges available to all of its citizens.

Myths and maths.

So, I'm friends with a lot of people who identify as rationalists of one sort or another. I went to a very technically-minded school, and my career is in the computer industry, and while not all of my friends work in science or tech it's generally the way to bet. So it's unsurprising that I see a lot of posts and shared articles on social media about how other people have their facts wrong... about science, about politics, about just about anything.

And that's great. Facts are really important. Engaging in rigorous analysis and exchanging the reliable facts that come out of that analysis is the basis of a lot of really good things we've created in the world, and we should be proud of that. And challenging other people's proposed facts is part of that process. We ought to be doing that, and doing it proudly and visibly.

But the problem I have with a lot of those posts and articles is the implicit and mostly unexplored assumption that it's the only thing we ought to be doing; that the stuff they condemn is a failed attempt at participating in this process, or a struggle against it, or in some other way should be understood in terms of that sort of rigorous analysis.

And the reason I have a problem with that is because, while it's a valuable and important thing to be doing, it's not the only thing.

We tell stories. We tell them to reinforce our understandings of who we are, and to challenge those understandings, and to communicate them to others. We tell stories to improve the social status of our selves and our allies and to diminish the status of enemies and rivals and potential rivals. We tell stories to give our aspirations and our fears concrete form, so we can engage with them concretely. We tell stories to build social constructs... to draw lines in the sand about what is acceptable and what isn't, what we value and what we reject, about who we are and who we want to be, about how we distinguish our families, our organizations, our groups and factions from everybody else. We tell stories to reinforce our relationships, and create and maintain shared understandings of what those relationships are based on and how they work and how important they are.

And those are important things. Some of them are importantly wrong, and we ought to stop doing them. Some of them are importantly right, and we ought to keep doing them.

"Sure, I've made my alliance with reason and science
and praise them for all that they've done,
but I've found me some flaws in those old Thermo laws:
I not only broke even, I won.
And I sure can't complain that I'm still in the game
when the game gets to be this much fun.

I keep getting more out than I ever put in.
They keep telling me that can't be done."

In other words: there's math and there's myth. And it's good for a culture to have a rich corpus of both to rely on. And I think we do, but we get the two confused a lot. And that's no good. When we try to build bridges using myth, our bridges fall down. When we try to build culture using math, we alienate people.

But, I don't know... somehow we seem to have ended up in this weird place where we get our myths and our maths mixed up. We tell myth-stories and challenge myth-stories as though they were factual analysis, and while the latter on its own is as absurd as objecting that Paul Bunyan and Superman couldn't possibly have done those things, the existence of the former makes the latter kind of necessary.

I'm not sure how we get out of that hole. But I wish we could.
I was recently reminded of the line from the Song of Solomon:
"שְׁנֵ֥י שָׁדַ֛יִךְ כִּשְׁנֵ֥י עֳפָרִ֖ים תְּאֹומֵ֣י צְבִיָּ֑ה הָרֹועִ֖ים בַּשֹּׁושַׁנִּֽים׃"

""Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle Which feed among the lilies."

This in turn reminded me of a time, back in my sleeping-with-women days, when I more than once considered quoting that line at some appropriate moment.

Ultimately I concluded that there were no such moments.

(It's possible that I concluded this empirically. I think the people most likely to have been my experimental subjects read my social media posts, for reasons known only to them, so perhaps they can confirm.)

I mean, it really does seem designed to elicit puzzlement at a moment when puzzlement is not precisely what one is going for. (Admittedly, this is true of my life more generally.)

Like, what the heck does that even mean? That they're pleasingly symmetrical? That they are adorably cute? That they're kinda wobbly? That he wants to feed them grass? What?

Is there some deep kabbalistic understanding hidden beneath the puzzling surface meaning? "צְבִיָּ֑ה" is TZADAI BEIT YOD HEI. From the specification of twins we derive a division of that into TZADAI-BEIT and YOD-HEI.

YOD-HEI is of course the first half of the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, from which we learn that her right breast (reading right-to-left, as one does, unless engaging in rear-entry, in which case her left breast) is like that of a demigod, which seems like a nice enough thing to say about a partner's breast.

But what of the other breast?

TZADAI corresponds to a fish-hook, which... no, I'm not going there.

But in the Sephirot, TZADAI is the eighteenth path within the tree of life. Eighteen, of course, is the age of consent in most of the U.S. It's also the gematria value of HEI-YOD, "חַי,‎‎" which means life. This is not a coincidence, because in Kabbalah nothing is coincidence, but also because it is the mirror-image of YOD-HEI as it would appear while examining one's breasts in a mirror. And thus we derive that consent is life!

At least when it comes to one's left breast. (Or one's right breast, when engaging in rear entry.) But of course since the two breasts are described as twins, what applies to one applies to the other.

But what about BEIT? In the ordinary sense this of course corresponds to the Hebrew word bet, meaning "home of" (often transliterated as "Beth" in the names of American synagogues). The Kabbalistic correspondence is obvious, and unpacking it is left as an exercise to the reader.

Admittedly, the bit just before it about her having a neck like the tower of David is even more problematic.

I mean, leaving aside the whole "is neck like bull!" thing... all the round shields of mighty men hung around her neck?

Is that a kinky thing? A gay thing? Is he admiring her necklace? I don't know!!!

Also I really ought to be getting work done.

On not being allowed to talk about it.

(What started as a comment in a conversation about "politically correct speech," and expanded because, well, I'm me.)

"what are you going to do when you are not allowed to talk about a topic because it is offensive to a conservative?"

This is, as far as I can tell, a sincere question.

This bewilders me a little, because of course, this is not some kind of hypothetical about the future. This has been true for large parts of my life, and is true for many people I know today, and is mostly no longer true of me largely because of where I've chosen to live, and is no longer true there largely because a lot of people worked hard and subjected themselves to a lot of suffering to create an environment where I have that freedom.

In fact, I just got finished saying pretty much that to you at some length.

But anyway, to answer your question: when it happens, what I do is I stop talking about that subject around conservatives who have any power to hurt me.

I'm good at that. I've spent much of my life practicing... at the family dinner table, in school, in temple, on the streets. At work, sometimes, though I had more control over what workspaces I spent time in, which made it easier.

Of course, just shutting up only takes me so far. So when I want to talk about stuff that I'm not allowed to talk about because I might offend a conservative, I seek out spaces where I can talk about that stuff in relative safety, to people I'm pretty sure won't attack me for my ideas or for the way I live my life.

Marginalized communities are accustomed to doing this.

And yes, I know, the "safe space" culture that makes this possible is part of the whole cultural shift you object to, part of what you call "political correctness." But when I am "not allowed to talk about a topic because it is offensive to a conservative," as you say, those spaces really are valuable.

That said, I understand that you probably don't want to use that strategy... you probably want to talk about whatever you want and have, as you say, a "civil conversation" without worrying about who is listening, or how they might react, or what they might do to you. That you think the loss of this freedom is a bad thing; that it is equivalent to the loss of free speech itself. That your inability to have such "civil conversations" with anyone you choose is a sign that "PC speech" is becoming fascist.

And I can understand the emotions that underlie those beliefs. Certain people in this country are accustomed to getting to talk about whatever we want to talk about, whenever we want to talk about it. And it's very frustrating to grow up being treated that way and then find that privilege suddenly being denied that in some areas. Scary, sometimes.

At least, it certainly was for me, growing up in the intersection of several marginalized communities in the 70s and 80s. It was for a lot of my friends.

Frustrating, and scary, and infuriating.

As I imagine it is for you now.

I recommend you get used to it.

I mean, I realize you don't like that. I realize you want to be able to share your view on same-sex marriage anywhere you choose and have a "civil conversation" about it without running the risk of offending anyone.

Me too, actually. (For much of my life, I didn't have that privilege. I have it now, modulo explicitly conservative and I enjoy it immensely.)

Or at least, without running the risk of suffering any consequences for having offended anyone. Hurting people's feelings might be OK, but if we can be reported to HR for having done so, well, that's something else again.

And I assume that seems fair to you... you want the freedom to do that, just like I can reliably share whatever opinions I might have about other people's wives, husbands and families without running the risk of offending anyone.

Except of course I can't actually do that. There's a million things we can't say about other people's families because it's considered rude to do so. We all grow up knowing that. That's part of what "civility" means, is that there are some things we just don't say.

If I'd told my neighbors when I was a child that they and their wives and husbands and children were an abomination before God and destroying the framework of civil society, my mom would have slapped me and fallen all over herself apologizing to them and felt like she'd failed as a mother, because decent people just didn't talk about other people's families like that!

Well, not straight families, anyway.

If I'd told my neighbors that it was nice to see them acting like decent human beings, marrying and raising a child together rather than running around in the streets like wild animals the way most of their people do, my mom would react similarly. Hell, if I'd talked about them that way at home, she'd do much the same, because talking like that was rude.

Well, it was rude if they're white, I mean.

Saying stuff like about queer and black families has been part of "civil conversation" most of my life. In many places it still is. People could say that stuff at the dinner table and the water cooler, newspapers and magazines could print it, preachers could shout it from the pulpit, and all of that was perfectly OK.

Not because speech was free... if that were true, then everything would be fair game to say at the dinner table. But not everything was. Saying the same stuff about straight couples and white families was rude, and well-behaved people didn't talk like that. That wasn't part of "civil conversation."

Not in public, anyway.

So no, it wasn't because speech was free.

It was because the straight white folks had the power to set the rules of social discourse. They got to define what was and wasn't "civil conversation" and punish public violations of those rules.

Which they did. All the time.

And the rest of us got used to it. We listened to those conversations at the dinner table and the water cooler, and we kept our mouths shut. We read those articles in the newspapers and the magazines, and we kept our mouths shut. We heard the shouts from the pulpit, and the "Amen"s from the congregation. And we kept our mouths shut.

For decades.

Because it wasn't safe for us to get frustrated, or scared, or angry.

Because it wasn't "civil conversation" when we said what we thought.

So, anyway, I don't really expect you to care about any of this stuff. I don't expect you to care about us. When the rules constraining civil conversation allowed people like you to say the stuff you wanted to say, you were fine with that... as far as you're concerned, that was "free speech," and all was right with the world.

And there's nothing exceptional about that. I mean, there are lots of marginalized communities still operating under those rules today, and there are many of them I don't pay much attention to myself. Most of us do that to some extent or another. My point here isn't to condemn you as an awful uncaring person or anything. I'm not in a position to cast the first stone.

I'm just saying: I don't expect you to care.

You only worry about the rules constraining "civil conversation", you only experience those rules as fascism, when they start to exclude things that you want to talk about. It's only a problem for you when you can't have a "civil conversation" about your views on same-sex marriage or climate change or whatever. It's only a problem when it starts to affect you.

And, again: I get that.
I'm not asking you to care.
I don't expect you to value other people's freedom to speak as much as you value your own.

I don't even expect you to notice that what you think of as the start of a fascist attack on free speech was for some of us the end of one... was the first time in our lives we were able to hold our heads up high and be ourselves in public. Even when I hold your hand and lead you through it, I don't expect you to actually think about it.

Frankly, I expect you've skimmed over the last few paragraphs hoping I'll eventually get to something interesting.

But I'm talking about it anyway, for a few reasons.

One of those reasons is because I want you to understand that this thing you're going through now? This worrying that maybe you can't bring up certain topics in certain places? This sense that there might be consequences to saying the wrong things, to believing the wrong things, to being the wrong things? These feelings of anxiety and unfairness and fear of fascism and lack of freedom of speech that you're experiencing?

IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN PRESENT.

It just didn't used to affect you, and now it does.

What's changing is that people like you are no longer quite so reliably and disproportionately the beneficiary of the rules about what kind of speech is OK.

And I recommend you get used to it, because WE ARE NOT GOING BACK TO THAT. Because we don't want to live that way, any more than you do, and we never have wanted to.

So, as I said at the start, here's what I recommend you do... what marginalized voices have done all throughout history:

1. Seek out private safe spaces where you and your fellow conservatives can say whatever you want, without having to worry about anyone else's feelings. (Yes, I know this is more difficult now that the office water cooler and the newspaper op-ed page and so forth are no longer reliably safe spaces for you. It's frustrating. I know. Do it anyway.)

2. When in public, pay attention to the feelings of those around you and avoid doing and saying things that hurt those feelings. (This is actually much easier now than it used to be, because we're more likely to tell you when you say hurtful shit. I know that it's hard to learn better when nobody corrects your mistakes, and for many decades we weren't correcting you. I'm sorry about that. We are now, though. You're welcome.)

Now, I expect you're probably thinking something about how this is not OK because it's polarizing and destroys the ability for people to share ideas and yadda yadda yadda and echo chambers and I'll be over here.

But there are ways to deal with that, too. Here's what I recommend:

1. When you want to learn what other people think, listen to them.
a) You can do that in public, initially, because other people are able to say some of the stuff we think there now, so there's more opportunity to learn.
b) They might suggest reading material so you can learn more. Read it.
c) If you're invited into their safe spaces, go there and listen some more.

2. When you want to teach other people what you think, talk.
a) You can do that in public, within limits.
b) If those limits are too constraining at first (which I totally sympathize with... they really can be, when other people don't want to learn what you want to teach), do it in safe conservative spaces instead. When you find the occasional liberal or progressive who genuinely seems to want to learn what you think, invite them to join you in those safe conservative spaces -- an email conversation with you, for example, or your own Facebook wall -- and teach them what you have to teach them.

Eventually, as you get good at this, you'll build up a network of mutually respectful relationships with people who may disagree with you, but with whom you can have civil conversations where you aren't saying hurtful things to them and you aren't worried that they'll report you to HR and you're both learning from each other.

Good luck!

Calibrating therapy

(A stroke anecdote I started telling in a FB comment, but was way too long.) 

One of the things that made speech therapy (which for me was less about speech and more about repairing cognitive deficits more generally) tricky was that calibrating with therapists was not a well-established thing.

Like, it's pretty well normalized that there are athletes, and there are more sedentary patients, and there are just very different treatment modalities for the two. Physical therapists know to ask and know what to do with the answers. You don't treat professional football players the way you treat someone who maybe goes for a long walk every now and then.

But the analogous continuum for speech/cognitive therapy is, um, less normalized.

My outpatient speech therapist, in our first session together, had me do a simple logic puzzle of the "alice, bob, and carol have an abacus, some bacitracin, and a coelocanth" variety, and she asked me if I was acquainted with the type of puzzle.

"Sure," I explained. "I do them all the time." And then completely failed to be able to solve it, because I had completely lost any ability to hold two thoughts in my head simultaneously. And after a while of my sitting there, muttering things and scrawling proposition logic notation on a sheet of paper and growing increasingly frustrated, she prompted me to "draw the grid."

And I said huh?

And she drew the grid, and I blinked and said "oh! Much easier that way!" and solved it. And she looked puzzled and said "You said you've done these before... how do you do them?" And I said "What do you mean, 'how?' I look at the puzzle and... solve it?"

So we did more of them, working our way up to greater and greater complexity. Towards the end it was really an exercise in maintaining focus for long enough to complete one of the really complicated ones, and we agreed that there was probably no point to continuing along those lines, but I mentioned that the edge of deficit at that point was often when I was fatigued, so maybe we could work on simpler puzzles while I was exerting myself physically?

So we went back to the simple three-statement versions, except she would read them out loud while I used the treadmill, and I would solve them in my head. And we worked our way up to five-statement or so versions, and I said "OK. That last one feels like something I would have had trouble with before the stroke, too... I think we're done."

And she commented that during our first session, when I'd talked about being accustomed to solving these sorts of things in my head, she'd figured I was just confused... but that no, it was obvious in retrospect that I'd had a very clear idea of what my deficits were.

And I was like, well, yes! Thanks for noticing!

Ferengi

Comment about the Star Trek Ferengi that got out of hand.

My problem with the Ferengi is twofold. First they are a broad ethnic stereotype, and that irritates me. But leaving that aside... they had so much potential, and it was all tossed away in order to make them clowns.

I mean, I would have loved to see the Ferengi played as unrepentant physical cowards who have mastered the art of the deal in the same way that Klingons have mastered warfare and Vulcans have mastered science and philosophy... not unbeatable, but the players to beat. Ferengenar as the center of a trading nexus that spans the galaxy, alongside the Federation but distinct from it, sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing.

From time to time the Enterprise finds a new planet and it turns out the Ferengi are already there, and have started to establish trade routes, destroying the local culture by selling them matter replicators and modern medicines in exchange for local art and other things they can sell to collectors on other planets, all of which violates the Fed Prime Directive and they feel compelled to interfere with, which they're entirely capable of doing -- a couple of warning shots and the Ferengi run away -- but nobody actually wants them there.

From time to time Ferengi enemies target the Federation, offering Starfleet admirals deals they simply cannot refuse for things that they want more than anything, or creating networks of alliances that the Federation never imagined possible, requiring our heroes to pull some seat-of-the-pants heroic diplomacy to save the day... or to trade away their ethics and just shoot the fuck out of a weaker opponent.

The Romulans declared war against the Ferengi five years ago. The Romulans won. Every battle they fought, the Ferengi retreated. The Romulans occupy every Ferengi colony. In season one the Romulans occupy Ferengenar. Also, the Romulans are dealing with economic collapse and enormous social unrest. In season two the Romulan empire falls apart altogether.

There's a faction within the Federation convinced that the Ferengi are the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, and within two centuries they will control everything valuable in the Galaxy by making canny deals, destroying the Federation like they did the Romulans. From time to time our heroes have to stop an attempt by this faction to blow up the planet or something. They're increasingly unsure that this is actually a good idea, but, they're not actually at war with the Ferengi! The good guys don't do that!

So much potential. Instead we got clowns.

"Burn it down and start from scratch."

(Putting it here, because responding to the comments that make me want to say it would be unhelpful. If you think I'm responding to you, you're probably right. Please appreciate that I have moved these thoughts into my space rather than placing them in yours.)

So, I agree that some people are saying "fuck it, let's burn it down and start from scratch" with respect to my society and its many, many flaws.

Some people have been saying that as long as I've been listening... for decades, now.

For my own part, I can respect anyone who says this and has an actual plan for how to get to somewhere better and why that's more likely to succeed after all we have to work with is ashes than it is now.

I don't require a detailed plan. A fuzzy vague napkin-sketch of a plan will do. I don't have anything better, myself.

Hell, I'm even willing to respect a "we don't have to see the whole staircase, we just take the first step in faith" type of plan, as long as I believe it's coming from a place of genuine faith, rather than merely using the word "faith" as a rhetorical tool for avoiding challenge.

And some people do, and I feel like it's important to acknowledge that. I may not agree with their plans or share their faith, but they're working towards something and that is worthy of respect. But for every person I meet like that, I see a hundred who aren't building a damned thing... who just seem to want to burn it all down and leave rebuilding it as someone else's problem.

And, look, I do get that even for them, their feelings of anger and frustration and betrayal and fear are real and important and legitimate, and I try to engage with them with compassion. (I'm very bad at this. I fake it OK as long as I don't get pushed too far.) And I'm aware, intellectually, that they also deserve respect. They are dealing with something very difficult, and they are dealing with it the best that they can, and we're all being human together.

But mostly, no, I am not able to respect them.

I'm working on that.

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