December 17, 2012

A Little on Tone Policing.

Tone policing is the term used for when an argument is rebutted by attacking its delivery style instead of its content. "Calm down, dear" is a form of tone policing. The reason that tone policing itself is so consistently flagged and criticised is because it is often used to derail an argument away from the points being made and towards the (technically irrelevant) tone of the critic. It's a frustrating tactic and often a cowardly method used by people who are happy to stoke the fire with pointed opinions but who cannot handle the inevitable flames. Most of the time tone policing is just a bad defence and, to the initiated, draws a spotlight of weakness upon those who use it.

Having said all that, tone is not always an entirely irrelevant part of an argument and whipping out the "tone police" objection at the first sniff of a tone-based argument may sometimes be hasty. When making or observing an argument, you need to consider what the objectives of the argument are and the environment of the argument.

(By the way, I'm using 'argument' in it broadest sense, be it a fierce disagreement or a more friendly debate or discussion.)

The environment of the argument is often where the fuzzy edges of the internet (where most arguing appears to take place these days) can make things confusing. In the real world (or the wonderful term 'meatspace'. I love how we've started to describe the real world with secondary terminology, like 'snail mail'), it's much easier to pitch your tone accordingly. If you're sitting across a table from someone to whom you strongly object it is unlikely you would put yourself with in inches of their face and start screaming at them. At least, I hope you wouldn't - this is pretty abusive behaviour. You are far more likely to scream and shout if you're arguing passionately to an audience, raising a rabble or leading a march. It's not uncommon for things to get enflamed even in a one-on-one debate, because you are performing for an audience and not scaring the shit out of just one person.

This is where consideration of the objectives come in: what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to change the mind of the one person to whom you disagree, or do you just want them to know how angry you are? Are you trying to convince an audience (be it a readership or physical spectatorship)? As sound and valid as your argument may be, it is naive to think you can be as effective in all situations with the same tone. It just isn't the case. While it is perfectly valid to shoot down tone policing from an opponent who wants to derail your argument, I don't believe it is as valid to shoot down an ally who wishes to strengthen the effectiveness of your argument.

I think we're too quick to do that.

This thought vomit sprang out from a discussion about Caitlin Moran over twitter. In Moran's case, she has shown that she is unresponsive to any form of criticism, aggressive or measured. In this case, what do you do? I think we have to accept she's not going to listen to those who think her dangerously narrow form of feminist philosophy is all kinds of wrong, so there are two contructive things we can do. The first is to deconstruct her bullshit for everyone else who may have read her work, or heard of it. This will expand the knowledge and understanding of your common audience and hopefully prevent or innoculate people from her bad rhetoric. The second is to let her know you disagree with her, and why (even if she'll ignore you). This will remind her that she keeps saying disagreeable things which may (optimistically) make her think a little harder in future. Firing abuse at her is not particularly useful or productive and does little more than ease the burning anger a little. There's being aggressive, and there's being a dick.

November 04, 2012

No Shave November

November is not just November anyone. It's No-Shave November. From my perspective, it first became Movember, a month for men to grow some hilarious moustaches and raise some money and awareness for male-centric diseases, like prostate and testicular cancer. In recent years, though, it has been co-opted by women as a way to be liberated from the trials of shaving their body hair. I'm not sure if there are any philanthropic attachments to the women side of No Shave November and that isn't important for the points of this post.

When I searched the #NoShaveNovember tag on Twitter a couple of nights ago, it was saturated with comments from all genders deriding women who choose not to shave their various bits and pieces.

Which is just... bizarre. And, for the sake of balance, I think some of the NoShaveNovember derision is aimed at men too, because... I don't know. Something about beards? Who knows what goes through these people's heads.

Let me get these simple facts into your head: people can do whatever the hell they want with their bodies. This is literally none of your business.

I can kind of understand the foundations of the sentiment if you're someone who likes to have sex with women, and don't like body hair and are a been grossed out by the fact that potential sex friends might be hairier than you prefer. I get that. I get it in the same way that I don't really like lip-piercings, I find them a bit icky. But for me: tough titties. Either I don't let the lip-piercing bother me, or I don't try and get it on with that person. They don't owe me anything; it's not up to them to try and sculpt and fabulise themselves into what I find attractive. Same with body hair: if you don't wanna sleep with someone who lets it all grow out, then don't sleep with them.

The weirder thing is the heterosexual women who lay into non-shavers as if that affects their lives in any way. If anything, it's going to increase their changes of getting their hanky and/or panky on if they believe (as their tweets suggest) that they are going to send men running in fear from the hairies. Perhaps they are afraid that the No-Shavers will affect some kind of social change! Oh noes! As if you're bothered by social change: some of you have bright orange skin and wear leggings that have a measurable denier. 

I grow a beard. I literally only grow a beard cause I hate shaving. It's uncomfortable, irritating and something I can't be bothered to do every couple of days. Luckily, there's not that much social pressure for men who are deciding between bearded and clean-shaven faces. The social pressure on women is far, far greater. But I'll tell you this: I know a few women who don't shave, and they've had next to no noticeable change in their social successes, sexual or otherwise. Possibly because they don't socialise with body fascists, or maybe because they don't let third parties dictate their body confidence and sexual prowess.

Basically the point of this blog post is that I shaved my face two days ago and my chin still itches like a motherfucker. Stupid shaving.

September 26, 2012


Today is my mum's birthday. Happy Birthday, Mum.

It's curious with people like your parents, who you spend so much time with over the years, how many things float around unsaid. Sure, your parents say a lot of things to you - that's their job; they teach you about the world, show you when you've gone wrong, answer you're increasingly difficult to answer questions. But, at least in my case (I'm quite a quiet and reserved individual, despite what my online persona might betray), there hasn't really been a lot said in return. I don't tend to say what's on my mind, mostly because I assume that it's obvious already and saying obvious things like, 'gosh, it's hot', are reserved for people you don't know well enough to enjoy comfortable silences with.

My mum is awesome.

Most people who have met my mum know this. Certainly people I know that have been lucky enough to meet her have told me how awesome she is, as if I didn't know. I wonder if she knows.

My mum's youth is packed with enough stories to make a boxset of indie movies. I won't embarrass her by retelling them here, but you might not even believe some of them if I told you. I've still got my work cut out for me to catch up with all the adventuring she undertook by her mid twenties. Even the story of how my parents got together reads like a script for Only Fools and Horses. If you run into her you should buy her a (non-alcoholic) drink and ask her about it. She's quite the storyteller.

I said you might not believe some of the her stories, but that's not because she's lost any of that sparkle in her middle-age. Sure, my parents are at the end of their mortgage with a grown up son and have lived in the same house for 30 years. But have you seen my mum's jacket that's made entirely out of sequins? Have you seen her ever-growing collection of animated, musical teddies? Have you seen her cry with laughter at novelty pens? Have you been with her to see ever Harry Potter film on opening day? Have you seen her Christmas earrings that flash? You really should. Just don't ask her to tell her favourite joke. It's... it's terrible. She told it to my friends about 12 years ago and they still bring it up, shrug their shoulders and say, 'I don't get it,' and burst out laughing.

As a mother to me, she balanced being an adult and 'fun' with what seemed like very little effort at all, teaching me and guiding me but also just going out for frivolity's sake. In a way, our relationship has the same kind of structure as it always has - she's a mother and a friend. We still go out to the cinema together, cause it's nice to. But she's still and always has stupidly supportive of me, endlessly patient, kind, and genorous while standing firm when she thinks I need a kick up the arse, which I often do.

It's weird: I've known this about Mum forever, but haven't really said it, because it just seems obvious. But maybe it isn't. And even if it is, it probably still needs saying every so often.

By the way, my mum is alive. I know this reads a bit like a eulogy, now that I think about it, but then again, Mum always wanted to have her funeral before she died because she didn't want to miss it. You should totally come to my mum's funeral, by the way. She's got it all planned out, it's going to be amazing.

Anyway. Happy Birthday, Mum, was what I was trying to say.

August 30, 2012

I Hope I Never Become a Cynic

There is sometimes a confusion or misunderstanding conflating skepticism with cynicism. While I'm a card-carrying skeptic (without a card), I am not and hope never to be a cynic. I don't know what joy there is to be had in cynicism, but I am regularly given generous helpings of it from a fair few twitterererers whom I do choose to follow.

In a way, there is a strange, social bonding to be had in cynicism. A coming-together through sneering, upturned noses, through a refusal to allow a smile or share the joy or potentially wonderful things, but instead to kick down sandcastles and revel in a strange nihilism. The twittersphere and neighbouring blogosphere a both packed with these folk and their jokery, knocking everything down a peg or three.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with jokes based in mockery or popping over inflated balloons. And there's nothing wrong with anger and scoffery, in general. But gosh, is there no joy to be had? And when you've knocked down crappy sandcastles, do you have any better ones to offer? Criticism is crucial, but being a grumpy old fart is not. There is something bothersome about people gathering to mock and laugh at things which may not be perfect, while those people don't even try to do what their mockees have done.

Boo to them. Rise up and take action. You don't like something? Make a better something. Or try and find something better. Jen McCreight saw something she was deeply dissatisfied with and crowdsourced something better. She wasn't sure if it would stick and she knew it would be difficult, but it's easier to stand on the edges and mock. It's harder to enter the ring and fight.

August 23, 2012

The Hardest Thing About Being a White Man... learning to shut the fuck up.

As a white guy from a rich nation, there's a lot of things I don't have to think about on a daily basis. I don't have to worry about getting catcalled on the street, bring groped or leered at, having my sex life judged or being profiled by my skin colour in job interviews or at security gates. I tend to get listened to quite a lot. Hopefully, people keep listening because I have something vaguely worth listening to, but I have no problem getting people to listen to me, because everyone wants to hear what the white guy has to say.

I've spoken before about recognising the weird subconscious part of me that tries to tell me that women don't know what they're talking about as much as men and there's a lot of societal brainwashing that goes along with that.

When shit happens, in politics, the internet or whatever, I often feel like I have something to say about it. I have thoughts. I has feelingses. You must listen to my thoughts because they are important and I'm totally adding to the discussion, you guys. And, as I said, being a white dude means that people tend to pay attention. But then, we all have thoughts and feelings on these hot button issues, so what makes me so important? Why should people listen to what I have to say?

When it comes to issues of sex, politics, race, religion, gender and a whole bunch of other important crap, I'm probably not the one to be listening to. There are a heckload of qualified, relevant people who can give a much more valuable insight than I ever can. Folk of colour, female folk, transfolk, disabled folk - a lot of people from a variety of marginalised groups. These guys don't get heard because everyone is listening to the white dude, who are so used to having an audience that they never shut up.

It's nice to be listened to. It's really nice. It's validating, affirming, confidence-boosting and generally gives you the fuzzy feelings. So it's hard to stay quiet. It's hard to sit back and let other people talk. But do you want the discussion to be as valuable as it can be, or do you just want to be listened to?

July 02, 2012

The Stupid Spat that Won't Die

This whole "people vs Skepchick and Freethought Blogs" thing is probably the stupidest, most childish, frustrating thing I've seen since following scepticism. Really.

As far as I can tell, the FtB / Skepchick folk have argued for harassment policies at all conventions in order to allow attendees to feel safe and to have a clear code of acceptable behaviour for the benefit of all. The opposing side seem to think that this pisses all over everyone's fun and that FtB etc are equivalent to nazis for continuing to argue for it.

I mean, honestly.

Here is an apt analogy: someone mentions that some conferences are held in buildings with inadequate fire exits or poorly sign-posted emergency exits and that this can be dangerous in the event of a fire. So a campaign begins to make sure all conferences are held in buildings with decent emergency exits and that the emergency procedures are explained to everyone at the start of the con.
People complain that this is an outrageous narky thing to do.

In reality, the organisers are just bringing the conference up to the minimum expected standard.

Having a harassment policy is expected. When you host a large, diverse crowd, you need to make it comfortable for everyone. Even sex parties have harassment and behaviour policies. And they have a great time, kissing and fucking to their hearts content.

What is so difficult about all this? I really don't understand.

June 27, 2012

What We Can Learn from the Feminism/Skepticism Debacle

Oh boy, oh boy. I'm not sure I've ever wanted to beat my head against my desk as much as I have in the utter shambles that is the 'debate' in the skeptical circles over women's right to feel safe. It all kind of took off (as far as I could see) with Rebecca Watson's elevator report and has re-exploded after Jen McCreight said a few words that led to people asking for better harassment policies at conferences. Now, I don't have much to say in the actual 'debate', though for the benefit of doubt, I believe: everyone should feel safe at conferences, that reported threats and harassment should be taken seriously, that the safety of attendees is far more important than the promotion of the events and that marginalised groups should be paid attention to. (And check your privilege!) So I'm generally in agreement with Watson, Zvan, Benson et al, and in disagreement with Groethe, Thunderf00t, Blackford etc.

No, what I want to talk about is what we can learn from the back-and-forths that have been going on regarding the issues brought up by the skeptical folk. Let's not make any bones about this: it's been a mess.

I think the first thing to take from this is the failure for people to check their privilege. I've said this many times and I'll say it again here: understanding the concept of 'privilege' has completely changed my approach to life, for the better. It's an important part of skepticism, too, as it's essentially an observer bias. We've each developed our own understanding of how the world operates based on our experiences and privileges and it's hard to shift that understanding to someone who has a different experience of life. As I said in my last post - we just don't notice a lot of things if they don't apply to us. I've never felt particularly unsafe in bars, on the street at night or at conferences. But that doesn't mean that other people feel the same. So, when Ophelia Benson - a woman who no doubts gets her share of aggressive misogynistic hate mail - gets an email that essentially boils down to, "watch your back", I'm not surprised that she plays it safe and takes it as a threat. Sure, from the point of view of someone who feels safe and comfortable, who never receives worrying violent messages, it might read as "No, really, watch your back - I'm really worried about you." But they don't have the same experiences as Benson, so maybe they should just shut up and listen to why she acted as she did.

Which brings me to my second point: shut up and listen. Everyone's so eager to shoot their mouth off about everything - even if it's things they know very little about. I was recently massively disappointed by Thunderf00t. His YouTube videos on evolution and creationism are very, very good. Sure, he's a bit arrogant, but he knows what he's talking about, so he's earned the right to speak confidently and with a bit of swagger. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to know very much about harassment against women and the movement to improve things, but he still carries he arrogant swagger into the argument. What he should have done is be quiet and listen to what women have to say about the matter, because these are the people who have to deal with this shit all the time.

It's a strange phenomenon that any kind of sociological issue is viewed as a free-for-all for anyone to air their opinion, even if they have very little knowledge or experience of the subject matter. I'm trained in maths and physics so I can have a decent discussion about physics in the news or whatever, but I don't go wading into Jen McCreight's evolutionary biology posts and start giving her my opinion on genomics, because I haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. Instead, I read with interest (and a little confusion) and feel happy that I've learned something. Similarly, when Stephanie Zvan gives the low-down on what it's like to be a woman at conferences and what's needed to keep things safe and happy, I read what she has to say instead of blabbering all over her blog. Similarly - I just don't know what it's like to be a woman all day, every day. So I have to learn.

This is basic skepticism. Understand the limits of your knowledge and do your research if you want to form a solid opinion. Listen to those in the know. Be aware of your biases. Be aware of the Argument from Authority fallacy. Just cause a big shot like Russell Blackford has something to say, it doesn't mean he's right. The surprising wrongness of Groethe, Thunderf00t, Blackford and Dawkins should hammer the Argument from Authority into your head: Do not just absorb high-standing people's word as gospel. They can be wrong. None of these people are experts in feminism and harassment. Be skeptical and check other sources of information.

Just because people are part of the skeptical, critical thinking community - it doesn't mean they will always be thinking critically and skeptically. This includes me and you. Check yourself. If you find you've got a very strong opinion about something, be sure you've got a good reason to be so sure.

We need to be better than this.

June 21, 2012

About the 'What About the Men?' Response

There's a common... conception among a lot of men that men have become the undermined sex, these days: that they are the easy target, that they can be the stupid characters in adverts, that jokes can be made about men without consequence, etc etc. So, whenever women complain about patriarchy and sexism against women and all that jazz, men rise up and start pointing out all the ways that men and maleness is being undermined.

And to some extent, they're right.

Wait, wait, bear with me on this. I mean, you must have noticed the "stupid dad" trope, common to a lot of adverts - that the father figure is a clumsy fool who can't do anything right and has to be saved by the resourceful mother character. And yes, there are a lot of jokes about men and how they only think with their penis or whatever. And there is some genuine debate to have about child custody, etc, etc. And these are just a few of the ways than men can be maligned by society.

But here's the important point - this doesn't wipe out the fact that we're still in a patriarchal society which still quite significantly favours men over women in a lot of ways. What's happened is that men notice when they are the butt of jokes, or if they are discriminated against in some way. Suddenly, it becomes a big deal. And this is a good opportunity to once again explain privilege.

See, men, we just don't notice when it's other people being maligned. Because we are privileged enough not to suffer in the same way as women: that we don't get looked over for better jobs as often, that our opinions are taken more seriously, that we get better characters in film and TV, that we don't have to be sexualised to be noticed, that we aren't expected to be barbie dolls, that we have to worry much less about being sexually assaulted, that our national-level sports are basically ignored, etc etc etc... We don't notice because it's not happening to us. But it is still happening and has been happening for way, way longer than any of these men-biased issues we've started to notice.

The balance hasn't turned in women's favour. Men just are blind to all the shit women still have to deal with. Check yo' privilege. Okay?

May 10, 2012

Obama can fuck off

So, Obama has officially come out in favour of same sex marriage. This is news. This is international news.

Some people are celebrating and, well, why not? After all, the president's endorsement might well move America closer to the total legalisation of same-sex marriage.

But I say this is bullshit. This is an embarrassing demonstration of just how slow the western world - and particularly America - has become. The fact that the supposed "leader of the free world" has to bother spelling out a matter of rights so simple that a 5 year old can grasp it is a very sorry state of affairs indeed. What the hell is going on? The man is four years into his term of office and people have been fighting for these basic rights the entire time. They just TOOK AWAY gay rights in North Carolina, yesterday. This Obama endorsement reminds me of the kind of humble, mumbling apology someone gives after days of cajoling by angry family members.

Well, I say it's too fucking late. He's had plenty of chances. His words are empty and useless. If he's had said, "of course everyone should have equal marriage rights, what kind of stupid question is that" on DAY ONE then that would be fine. But, Jesus, he might as well be endorsing gravity or letting women drive for all the slow-hand-clapping he deserves.

Does America realise that everyone else laughs at them? Do they realise that their refusal to accept basic science makes them the butt of jokes? That the fact that they continually vote AGAINST free healthcare makes us facepalm? We used to think they were leading the way, but now we just sell you shit and use your software.

Get your shit together for FSM's sake

May 02, 2012

London Elects

Tomorrow (Thursday May 3rd) is the London Election for Mayor and Assembly. Here are some top tips for all you voters.

  1. You don't have to vote tactically. You get a single transferable vote so you can vote for who you actually want first and play tactics second, if you so wish.
  2. No one is perfect. You probably won't find candidates that tick all of your boxes or will be able meet all of your demands. Which leads me to...
  3. Politics isn't a bloody premiership football match. Ignore the slanging rhetoric and Labour vs Tories nonsense and pay attention to the facts. These people aren't your friends or your team mates; they are your servants and they are presenting you with their CVs and manifesto and asking to serve you. If you're employing someone, you want someone who's got good experience and evidence to show they'd be awesome at the job; you don't hire a halfwit just because they support Chelsea.
  4. There is always going to be compromise. You can't make buses half-price AND double the tube service AND double the police officers AND do more bin rounds AND cut carbon emissions in half AND encourage more business AND build more cycle lanes AND resurface the roads AND provide energy benefits AND education benefits etc etc. If a candidate could do everything, cars would be make of magical flying chocolate (which is the key selling point of my own personal bid for Mayor in 2016).
  5. Remember there are other people in the area besides you. Do you care about them? Maybe you don't, and that's your prerogative, but if you do, then take on board how your vote might affect them, also.
So don't be a silly voter, be an informed voter! Vote for someone whose values match your own! Hooray!

February 20, 2012

Future is Meaningless

I was in Vue the other night (this is a cinema chain in the UK, and probably other places) where, before the film, they give us a little advertorial trailer thing about themselves, describing their super HD screens and Dolby megablasters as 'the future of cinema'.
This got me thinking about the overuse of the word 'future' in advertising. I get it: technology has moved beyond what you're used to and is now so amazing that it feels like you're in the future. Everything you were promised is now a reality. This is the future and it's happening now. But actually, apart from being overused to the point of making it a meaningless, clich├ęd buzzword, 'future' is a strange intangible concept.

You can never have future technology. Future technology is like 'tomorrow' and even little orphan Annie knew that tomorrow was always out of reach. Sure, that's what she loved about it, but Annie feared the future. She was a realist. Anyway, you know what you can have? Present technology.

If you think about it, Present Technology is the most advanced technology you can get. Anything less is Past Technology. Think about it. Now that we have self-driving cars, people-driven cars are so totally in the past man. GOD. Self-driving cars aren't the future. They are the present. In the future, cars will drive people (after the automobile revolution of 2021).

Now, I'm not just being pedantic. It's probably a better advertising technique, too. If they say 'this phone is the Future of phones', you might think, 'well, one day I'll be able to get that phone and I'll be awesome, but I'm happy to stay in the present. If, however, they say 'this phone is the Present of phones,' you'll think , 'shit, my phone is stuck in the Past! I have to keep up!'

We live in the Present. I want to buy stuff that occupies the same temporal location as me. You have to bring the Future to me in the Present. You have to tell me that hoverphones (previously in the Future) are now available in the Present. Then I will get one.

February 16, 2012

The Invalid Angels

You know what frustrates me? If you've been following my twitter you might assume the answer is "Apple computers". And you'd be right. But that's not what I'm talking about in this case.

I get over-whelmingly annoyed when a person or organisation has what I consider to be a good objective or, let's say, moral standpoint and then goes about achieving their ends in the most asinine, dishonest or ridiculous way.

Let's take PETA. PETA's goal, as far I understand it, is to convince the population to stop using animals for our own ends. Priorities are frivolities like using fur and ivory but they'd also want you to stop eating meat and cheese and a bunch of other stuff like riding horses, depending on how deep into their philosophy you go. I consider this a decent enough goal. I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm no fan of animal suffering and there are a number of studies that suggest an all-round reduction of meat-eating is beneficial for the environment. If this was as far as it went, I'd be happy to say, 'Yes, PETA, I think you've got a good thing going on.'

But, unfortunately, this is not where it ends. PETA don't want to convince me by having a decent argument and presenting evidence to the right bodies and working on a practical solution to move towards their goals. They just want to be loud and shouty and sexy. Their latest advert claims that turning to veganism will make you so veracious in the bedroom that you'll injure your partner. Not only does the evidence actually lean against this idea, but it's a pretty sick advert. And so are most of their adverts, which involve convincing sexy female celebrities to disrobe for their campaigns under taglines like 'I'd rather go nude than wear fur.' I lose a little respect for each of these celebrities when they appear in a PETA campaign. Basically, PETA's schtick is aggressive and sexual PR.

Good ideas (somewhat) in theory, but terrible implementation. I do not endorse PETA. They are idiots. They are also liars, but that's not the point  of this blogpost.

I don't endorse protestors who smash shit up and are violent against the police. Those people are idiots and do not have my blessing. I understand that legitimate protests become entangled with mindless thugs, but from a hypothetical standpoint any act of aggression is going to send you right back to the start again.

I guess my point is, stop ruining everything. You'll never make any headway if you don't argue the right way. It may be slow and grate on your patience, but if you shout and scream like an imbecile, people will assume your entire position is imbecilic. It's a dreadful ad hominem, but no one care and the damage is so easily done.

February 09, 2012

How to Tell a Rape Joke

With the UniLad saga starting to send out aftershocks following the initial twitterstorm, I am going to attempt to wade into into waters way beyond my depth and attempt the dangerous task of explaining how one might attempt to larf about horrific subjects.

I am of the belief that anything can be the subject of a joke. I don't tend to be the person to make these kind of jokes, as I don't trust myself with the material, but I believe it can be done. What I don't believe is that any joke is acceptable, just because it's a joke. Some jokes just deserve a slap*. A lot of the backlash against criticism of offensive joke material is that 'you can't joke about anything anymore' or 'people are too easily offended', etc etc.  But maybe people don't understand how jokes or offence work any more. So rape, eh? Let's dive in with a point-by-point guideline for those who really do feel the need to make a rape joke:

1 - Rape is Offensive 

Let's start with the obvious: rape is a horrific and terrible thing. It's sexual bullying, abusive and scarring both physically and mentally. It's about power and victimisation and is never ever acceptable. So if you're going to construct a joke about rape, understand that you will almost certainly offend some people, purely for making light of the subject at all.

Your joke will not be for everyone and you must understand this before you make your joke. As with any subject matter that crosses boundaries of taste and offence, actually make an effort to understand why these subjects are taboo and rarely to be toyed with. If you're going to 'go there', then have the decency to know what you're getting yourself into. Why do people find the subject offensive? Do you understand the subtleties of its contexts? Do you have a good knowledge of the statistics of rape and understand how most rapes occur and why?

Consider just how offensive your joke might be and then ask yourself: is the punchline worth a) upsetting people, b) the aggro that follows if you do end up offending a lot of people?

2 - Who is the Target of the Joke? 

A lot of jokes, especially satirical/topical ones, poke at something or someone; they'll unsettle a subject matter or individual for a larf. Sometimes the subject of a joke becomes grossly mischaracterised in order to make the joke flow. A lot of the UniLad jokes relied on redefining women as game (the hunting kind, not the Scrabble™ kind) in order to make their jokes. In these cases, the women were the targets and the lads/pseudo-rapists were the protagonists.

This is getting a rape joke wrong.

In this case, the audience has to sympathise with the womaniser/rapist-character and in doing so they must implicitly condone his** behaviour. Most people should be uncomfortable with this. If people are uncomfortable with the positioning of the joke then they are less likely to find it funny and more likely to find it offensive.

There are a few ways around this:
 a) Don't make the victim the butt of the joke.
 b) If the joke teller is playing the part of the predator, they should make it clear that they are playing the antagonist and the joke should either be at their expense, or...
 c) the joke should be so obviously ironic and satirical that the rapist's position as protagonist should be clearly absurd. In this case the butt of the joke is the horrific position of the protagonist. This is the most risky type of joke to make, so you'd better make damn sure you do it well as you can easily fall into being shitty and offensive.

The best rape joke should stick the boot squarely in the face of the rape apologist. They are the most mockable, stupid, nasty people in all of rape...ville.

3 - Who is Your Audience? 

Let me make something very clear: if your joke/column/blog/forum is on the internet, the answer is everyone. Everyone is your audience. It doesn't matter who your intended audience is, if everyone can see it, then everyone is your audience. This is the equivalent of swearing down your mobile phone on a commuter train. No one cares that your intention was to swear only at your crack dealer - you're pissing off everyone on the train and they all hate you.

Now, my friends and I make all kinds of terrible and potentially offensive jokes in each other's company, in private. We can do this because we know each other well enough that we understand very clearly when a joke falls into category (c) above. Not only that, we're comfortable telling each other if a line of decency has been crossed. In a small group of friends, there is a very clear understanding about what is happening.

Expanding this: if you go and see Frankie Boyle, there should be an understanding that he's going to deliberately cross boundaries of decency because that is part of his schtick. There is an element to the fact that Frankie Boyle should know that his stand-up might well spread beyond his stage and should be aware of this, but just go with me on this.

Be aware of who will hear/read your joke and, you know, try not to offend if you can help it. That's just being an arsehole. So, while you not be doing a gig at an abused women's shelter, you'd do well to understand that not everyone will appreciate your humorous take on rape.

4 - After You Inevitably Offend 

This is something you need to be thoroughly aware of and prepared for: if you're going to 'push the boundaries of comedy' (snort), then you probably will offend someone. Expect it. If you're surprised that a joke about rape caused people some discomfort then you're an idiot. Making light of rape is a very dodgy thing to do. And when I say to be prepared for criticism, I don't mean prepare a list of defensive rebuttals, I mean be prepared to listen to it.

Getting defensive and sticking your fingers in your ears to save your ego won't help you: it'll make you look like a massive dickhead. Instead, try listening to what they have to say. If you stay calm, you might get a decent discussion out of it and you can learn something about your subject material, about the boundaries of comedy and how to improve your material and delivery. You might not agree with everything they have to say about you or your joke, but that does not devalue what they have to say. There are reasons behind people's offense and they are important to hear.

And remember: apologising is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. If you're going to play around at the edge of common decency, you're probably going to fall off once in a while. Accepting that you got it wrong is fine. Just say, 'I was wrong', apologise and move on in the knowledge that you've become better through making mistakes and understanding how you went wrong.

And I'm going to say it again, because it's important. Is the punchline really worth the effort? It better be a bloody good rape joke, is all I'm saying.     

** or her, technically, yes.

Fighting my own Prejudices

I've been meaning to get these thoughts down for a while, but have hesitated because it's a personal thing that I feel quite guilty about. My problem is that there are certain things to which my brain seems pre-programmed to take the opposite stance to my own beliefs and ideals.

I'm just going to say this straight. I tend to take men more seriously than I take women. And I mean that in an 'initial mental processing' sort of way. It's a terrible thing and I hate it and I have to be aware of this at all times to make sure I consciously check my own thought processes to balance out this bias. And I do. I work hard to make sure I evaluate what everyone says on their own merits, and I work extra hard because I know I can't trust my unconscious mental processing.

Here's another thing I'm struggling with: non-binary gender language and constructs. I have a friend who considers and presently emself* neither as male or female. Those reading this who are unfamiliar with transgender issues might not know that to treat a transgender person with the all the wrong gender language can be very hurtful, to say the least. Check out Trans Media Watch if you want to know more about this. Anyway, this particular person has a biologically female-sexed body (I'm not even sure if I'm wording this right, tell me if I'm not) and my mind struggles massively not to categorise em as such. I know one day, I'm going to refer to em as 'she' by accident and accidentally cause offense, but I can't seem to get it into the unconscious part of my brain. Hopefully, one day.

A further thing, that I think is common among most people is what I'll call an Argument from Idolatry. If you like someone or an organisation, are a fan or fervent supporter, it's so easy to bias your opinions towards them when there is an argument or discussion about something. I guess it's a case of love-tinted glasses. When I'm trying to form an opinion or weight in on a topic of discussion in which my 'idol' has taken a side, I find it so easy to and along to their opinion before stopping myself and studying both sides. I've managed to get to a stage now where I try not to form an opinion immediately if there's a conflict on the internet; instead I'll just wait a little while and see what's being discussed. In doing so, I've found that - on certain topics - I've disagreed with people who I think are generally awesome and mostly right: Phil Plait, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to name a few.

Anyway, the point of this blog post (I think), is the importance of being aware of our biases, our privileges and our perspectives. I'm not proud of the fact that the hardwiring of my brain is a bit sexist and harbours a few prejudices, but that's kind of how brains work: they make connections and shortcuts to allow you to think fast and draw up conclusions easily. Knowing this gives me the power to think a little harder, more consciously, and to overcome this in-built deficiency. And hopefully, it makes me less of a douche.

*gender neutral pronoun. construct by using the 3rd person plural and removing the 'th'. Conjugate verbs as you would for he/she/it.

February 02, 2012

No Anger Here

I'm happy to point out where I think things/people/organisations have gone wrong - sometimes hideously wrong, to the point of causing an entire subset of people to suffer for it - my strong sense of atheism and egalitarianism makes this a daily occurrence. But what I don't do is get angry about it.

It sometimes feels like a strange state to be in, as the arguments from both sides of the kinds of discussions I'm interested in tend to be pretty gosh darn angry. The Unilad fiasco, which I watched from the sidelines (partly because I didn't have the energy to pitch in and partly because the whole thing was so blindingly obvious, I didn't have anything interesting to add) was a particularly angry affair. Feminists (and, to be fair, most decent human beings) were boiling at the contempt shown for women by the lad-culture website, while the lads were pissed at the feminists butting into their rape-joke party. This is a pretty obvious example of such a conflict, but you'll see similar things throughout politics, religious debate, science vs the sciencephobic, etc; people will get pretty angry about the consequences and attitudes of the other side.

Now, I'm not going to say anger is unjustified. A lot of these debates can centre around issues that can have devastating effects on real people; we're talking potentially life-ruining events in a lot of cases (depending on the topic). To feel angry about the parents being misled about vaccines, for example, is completely unsurprising and justified.

However, I don't really get angry. And I'm quite glad for that. There are two reasons I don't get angry: the first is that it's not really a natural reaction for me. I don't get visceral rises of emotion, in any direction, really. I accept facts and evidence and process them quite slowly, chewing over them for a while. This makes me terrible at verbal debates, because every time I'm presented with new facts I like to think about them for a little while before coming to conclusions. This brings me to my second reason for not getting angry: anger clouds your judgement. When you're emotionally charged, your entire being centres around your current position of thought and closes down all other avenues. It's very, very hard for someone to change your mind when you're angry and being charged by that ferocity makes you very defensive. I think the important thing to always bear in mind is that you may not be completely right. You may not be completely wrong, but it's very likely that a reasonable position lies somewhere between where you are and where your opponent sits.

Being angry isn't helpful in the context of rational debate. It's a hindrance to an open mind. Getting to a rational position can be a slow and considered process and that requires being cool and patient. This goes for personal arguments too. If you're in a face-to-face disagreement with someone and it ends up being nothing but a heated argument that goes nowhere, it's best to step back from it. I know the frustration of that verbal sparring and the whole things ends up about winning the battle and not about finding a truth - and the truth is the basis for the argument in the first place. When two people disagree it's because they see something differently so, while you're trying to convince them of your perspective, remember they are trying to convince you of theirs and so, together, you are trying to understand some objective truth to the matter at hand. Arguments should be about reaching an understanding, not winning a battle.

January 28, 2012

January 07, 2012

The Body Book

If you were my age then there is a chance you may have seen one of the best young children's educational books of the time. Lots of my friends reminisce fondly about The Body Book.

When helping my dad clear out a pile of junk 30 years deep in our our garage, I found this lying somewhere near the bottom and my heart leapt. I had to take it home to share it with the world and remind those of you who may remember it from your own childhood.

The Body Book is for young children: probably 6 - 10 years. It's a comprehensive, friendly but no-nonsense guide to the ins-and-out of the human body.

Every process in the body is explained in terms or the organs and body parts involved. It uses simple language, but does not condescend to its young audience - it's not afraid to go into detail about the slightly more complex actions inside the organs, like explaining what happens when you hear your stomach rumbling or how germs make you ill and what the body does to fight back.

It also breaks down the structure of the body into bones, muscles and skin in an attempt to explain how we move and stand and function, starting with the lovely opening, "Skeletons aren't scary. There is one inside you."

"Why do you have bones? (...) If you didn't have bones, you'd be as floppy as a jelly. Why do you have so many? So you can move about. If you had one big bone ... you'd be as stiff as a scarecrow."

It's just wonderfully readable and yet incredibly informative. It made the body easy to understand and gave me, as a young child, a confidence in its weirdness and a happiness in my understanding.

But it didn't just cover the biological make-up of your body. It covered emotional responses, too.

The "Thinking and Feeling" chapter explains how the brain is responsible for controlling your body - how simple actions such as taking off a shoe involves communication between the brain and the body parts that need to do the action. It explores how we emotionally respond to things and how that is all a natural phenomenon by running the young reader through an imaginary scenario where their mother disappears, but it turns out they only popped next door. It's clever.

It's not afraid to delve into evolutionary theory if it ever needs to explain the strange things the body does:

A lot of people remember The Body Book from the naked people. The book isn't afraid to show naked people changing through puberty to adulthood and detail all the changes they can expect to go through. It may have been through this book that I first understood the female body, I'm not sure.

And it doesn't stop with naked bodies - it dives right into sex as well, explaining cell-division, sperms and eggs and exactly how those sperms and eggs get together in the first place.

It's a little strange how it called a penis a "penis" but a vagina a "baby-making hole". I'm sure a lot of women will see it as a little more than that. Maybe that explains why I've never found a word for vagina I've felt happy with. OK, so the book isn't perfect. I hope little girls didn't grow up thinking of themselves as baby factories.

Lastly, it explains death. Yes, "Nobody lasts forever", it explains before leading us through the process of slowing down and dying.

 It explains funerals and grieving and even explains how bodies become a part of the earth once more. It ends on a positive note, explaining how we learn from our parents and grandparents and pass on that knowledge to our children and grandchildren so, through knowledge, people live on. Which is nice.

I love The Body Book. It's great. Apart from the 'baby-making hole' it never tries to pigeon-hole people into "husbands" and "wives" and doesn't bring spirituality or God into it. The book is from 1978 so maybe it wasn't ready to tackle the spectra of sexuality and gender identity so maybe that's what's due now.

The east Asian girl in the ginger family is never explained.

January 06, 2012

LG Launch Google TV, Misspell "Google"

I can be a bit of a grammar pedant sometimes; typos and stuff leap out at me, begging me to save them. I say this knowing full well how many typos this blog contains, by the way. Spotting your own typos is another matter entirely.

Anyway, I found this article about a new Google TV being launched by LG and the very first thing that leapt out at me? Look at this image:

This is one of LG's official mock-up images of their wonder-TV. You see the word "Google" right there under the Bookmarks section? No, you don't. You see the word "Goolge".

Perhaps they couldn't bear to have the letters L and G adjacent to one another without them spelling "LG"?

January 02, 2012

The Aversion of Labels

There are a couple of labels that I've noticed a lot of people are averse to stamping themselves with, despite the fact that if you expressed the label as a description of its philosophy, they would most likely agree with that. These labels are ones that I wear wholeheartedly and they are:

  • Atheist
  • Feminist


I think atheism is the more cut and dried of the two, purely because its definition is so simple. I've banged on about it before, but I'll quickly run over it again. If you don't believe in God, you are an atheist. You are only not a God an atheist if you positively hold the belief that a God exists. You don't have to have a position of certainly, you don't even have to have a position at all. You aren't making a statement about how you feel about religion, whether you are part of a religious culture or that you feel confident in evolution, the Big Bang or any other scientific explanation. Whatever your position on anything, if you don't believe in a god then you are an atheist. The word says no more about you.

In a way, cats and rocks and woodlice are atheists too, because they (as far as we're aware) don't believe in God either. They've probably never even considered the idea. Until you are introduced to the idea of God, you can't believe in it.

As you may know, I'm anti-theistic, anti-religious and pro-secularism but this is in addition to my atheism. I could be an atheist and love religion and love the idea of God and wish I believed in him if only I could be convinced. Being an atheist doesn't make you akin to a Dawkins or a Hitchens, or even a cat. I think this is the problem with the label - people are worried to be associated with the vocal proponents of atheism. I know a lot of atheists (most of my close friends) who really don't like Richard Dawkins, but they are still happy to call themselves atheist. In fact, most of them don't give a crap about the debate on religion and probably find my constant banging on about it on Facebook and Twitter utterly boring. But we're all atheists.


Feminism is a little more nuanced because it's a positive position and not a response to a claim, as atheism is. I can't go around calling people and things 'feminist' without having a decent understanding of their position on gender and society.

In it's most basic form, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal opportunities in society, life, education, healthcare, politics, etc, etc. Unless there's a very good reason to discriminate (an bad example would be 'being allowed to go topless'. A lot of women don't agree with not being allowed to go topless where a man would, but in this instance there is at least a tangible difference from which to work an opinion) then one should treat a woman as one would a man and vice versa.

An equivalent expression to 'feminist' (in a different area) is 'not racist'. Being not racist means you don't allow the differences in people's ethnicities to judge/treat them differently, and so it is with feminism and gender.

In a way, feminism is a bit of a bad word because it sounds like it's pro-women when, in a more accurate sense, it's pro-equality. More men would realise they were feminists, if they understood this. Hell, I've had women tell me they aren't feminists, but I'm pretty sure none of them would want their rights taken away from them or be turned down for jobs because they were competing with a male applicant.

Once again, like the Dawkins example previously, I think feminism is sold on its loudest proponents. The controversial quotes make the papers, the 'over the top', 'PC gone mad' hyperbole are reported. The bra burners and the 'man haters' are the very symbol of feminism to those who don't really understand it, so many people - including women - back away from the association.

The Point?

At the end of the day, labels are labels and the important things to consider are the philosophies. Do you believe there is a God? Do you think men and women should be treated equally? Maybe it's not super important that everyone agrees on a label if everyone can agree on answers to the questions.

But then again, a label brings people together. It's an umbrella that we huddle under, under which we unite, under which we can turn to one another and realise we are the same and believe in the same things. David Silverman brought up the point at Skepticon 2011 that we wanted people to recognise themselves as atheist. The people who labelled themselves humanists, secularists, freethinkers, brights, etc were all atheists (NB. This isn't strictly true, but it was mostly true. The atheist circle would gobble most of those groups up on a Venn diagram). They were segregating themselves and making themselves weaker.

I think feminism in particular would find a lot more people cheerfully labelling themselves as such if they recognised that they too were feminists all along. The labels do mean something, but they aren't loaded with anything bad. Be proud of your belief.

The great Satah has pointed me to the following two articles by s.e smith which are interesting and important takes on why people reject "feminism".
Why I'm Leaving Feminism on Meloukhia
I'm Not a Feminist and I Wish People Would Stop Trying to Convince Me Otherwise on xoJane

Both articles are quite "movement" based and I'm still thinking about them and will probably respond if I think of something worth saying.