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So I was recently reading this blog post. I am not, technically speaking, an FTM, because I am not heading in a manward direction, but if there’s one thing we know about my blog it’s that I love answering questions, so I am guessing I am in the intended group anyway
- Please explain in your own words what a “man” is and what a “woman” is.
Many people distinguish between “sex” and “gender”. Sex is the biological fact. In that sense, a man is a person with a testosterone-dominant hormone system, a beard, XY chromosomes, a penis, testes, and so on and so forth, while a woman is a person with an estrogen-dominant hormone system, breasts, XX chromosomes, a vagina, ovaries, and so on and so forth. These are clusters, of course, and not everyone fits neatly into one category or the other. For instance, many cisgender dyadic women have facial hair, while many cisgender dyadic men have breasts; many people have had their ovaries or testes removed, for various reasons; about one percent of the population is intersex; and trans people often undergo medical procedures that allow us to have some (but not all) of the traits of our preferred sex.
Gender is the social fact. You are a man if people agree you are a man, in much the same sense that cowrie shells or cigarettes are money if people agree that they are money. A cigarette that is agreed upon to be money is treated in a certain way (for instance, one may gamble with it, or a non-smoker may accept cigarettes in exchange for valuable items like hooch), while a cigarette that is not agreed upon to be money is not treated in those ways. Similarly, a person who is agreed upon to be a man is treated in a certain way (for instance, that person may be referred to with the pronoun ‘he’ or not sexually harassed on street corners), while a person who is agreed upon to not be a man is not treated that way.
Many people have decided that the compassionate way to classify people into genders is based on self-identification: that is, they consider people who want to be women to be women, people who want to be men to be men, and special snowflakes like myself to be special snowflakes. I generally support this plan; it seems sensible and humane, and involves significantly less telling everyone in the whole entire world about my genitals. However, it makes the whole men-are-people-who-are-agreed-upon-to-be-men business somewhat difficult to talk about and leads to recursive definitions. But “a man is a person who identifies as a man” is actually a meaningful statement; it says “I will treat people who identify as men the way I treat men.”
2. What is wrong with having breasts, ovaries, a vagina, a clitoris, and a period?
I don’t want them, and also I am a transhumanist and thus believe in my sacred right to alter my own personal body as I damn well please.
A. Many women find it uncomfortable having a period and having the equipment that can carry a pregnancy because this comes with lots of difficulties (being responsible for preventing pregnancy, being targeted for sexual abuse, cramping and bleeding, etc) What is the difference between you being uncomfortable with having female parts and the discomfort that most other women experience? Is it a matter of degree or is it a qualitatively different feeling?
I think that a lot of the difference is between instrumental values and terminal values. Many people dislike having a uterus as an instrumental value: that is, they don’t like it because they don’t like sexual abuse, pain, the side effects of birth control, and ruining their underwear. If having a uterus did not mean pain, sexual abuse, birth control side effects, and a large underwear replacement budget, and instead meant that you got ten thousand dollars every month and a free pony, they would be much more in favor of having a uterus.
On the other hand, many trans people dislike having a uterus as a terminal value: that is, they don’t like it just because they don’t like it. This might sound kind of arbitrary, but in fact everyone has terminal values: many people like justice, or being happy, or the welfare and success of their children, or chocolate, just because they like justice, or being happy, or the welfare and success of their children, or chocolate. For many trans people, if they were in the No Pain Or Sexual Abuse, Ten Thousand Dollars A Month and A Free Pony situation, they would go “wow, this is a super-nice pony, but I still don’t want to have a uterus.”
(To be clear, I’m a transhumanist, and I support anyone who wants to remove their uterus having a right to do so, whether it is a terminal or instrumental value for them.)
B. Have you ever talked with other women about their discomfort and have you found similarities and differences?
Yes. Some women have far stronger discomfort with their female sex than I do, and I consider it a tremendous injustice that it is much more difficult for a tokophobe to get a hysterectomy than a trans person.
Some women experience gender dysphoria but choose to continue to identify as women, and I respect that decision. Gender is a very personal thing and I would never presume to know what is right for someone else.
Most women are occasionally upset by the awful things associated with having a female reproductive system. Many women enjoy one-upping each other about how awful their reproductive systems are (“yeah, well, one time I had a blood clot the size of my HAND”). Many women I know consider the female reproductive system to be fascinating on a scientific level, and it’s amazing how we can build a person inside of us (I agree). Some women have this whole I Am A Mother Goddess Producer Of New Life thing going on, which I respect as long as they don’t characterize me as a mother goddess. (This opinion is shared by many cis women.) The vast majority of women do not want a hysterectomy.
People who are not gender dysphoric often do not place a terminal value on having a particular sex, and sometimes are deeply confused by the concept that one can place a terminal value on having a particular sex. However, many people who are not gender dysphoric do place a terminal value on continuing to have the sex they currently have.
3. If you could choose how other people treat you, while staying in the body you were born in, would you still need to transition? Let’s say everyone was willing to treat you “as a guy” even without taking testosterone. Would you still need to take it then?
Yes. Last time I checked, social acceptance did not give one the ability to have erections.
4. What does it mean to be treated like a guy? And for that matter, what does it mean to be treated like a woman?
There’s this thing called “patriarchy”. I understand that, as a radical feminist, you might have heard of it.
People treat men differently from women. Men are assumed to be incompetent at changing diapers and soothing boo-boos. Women get fewer parts in TV shows and movies. Men are more heavily criticized for being wimpy. Women are expected to sacrifice their careers for their children. These differences shape people’s lives.
Now, a lot of trans people’s preference to be trans is a terminal value, which is to say that they value being treated as men or women or nonbinary people just because they do, and not because of any benefits they would receive from being a man or woman or nonbinary person. (Being a nonbinary person does not get you benefits. It mostly just increases the number of tedious conversations you have to have about how difficult your pronouns are.) I admit this is a ridiculous preference, but nevertheless I have it. Sometimes people do want ridiculous things.
5. What does it mean to “feel like a boy/man”? Do you think it’s really possible for a female human to know what it feels like to have a male body? Or is it more like you believe your mind or personality are male? If this is the case, then please move on to question (6).
Here’s the deal: describe ‘happy’ to a person who has never experienced happiness and is skeptical of the existence of the emotion, without reference to things that cause you to be happy or the consequences of your happiness, in such a way that you manage to convince them that you’re not lying or making it up. Since you’re asking me to do it, it’s no doubt quite easy. Once you’ve done that, I will gladly explain to you what it feels like to be nonbinary.
6. What exactly is a “male mind” or a “male brain” or a “male personality”? Please describe.
A male mind/brain/personality is one which is attached to a man. In some contexts, this term may be used to discuss brain differences that exist in people of different sexes or the personality differences (a product of socialization and/or biology) that exist in people of different genders. In other contexts, “male brain” may be used as metonymy for gender dysphoria or gender identity. In still other contexts, this term may be used to discuss the theory that trans people are neurologically intersex, that is, that the reason people are trans is that our brains are similar to cis people of our identified gender, at least in some ways. It is uncontroversial that trans people’s brains are similar in some ways to those of cis people of our assigned gender; in this theory, a trans man does not have a typical male brain, he has a brain somewhere between the typical brains of cis men and cis women. While some evidence is suggestive, nobody knows what causes people to experience gender dysphoria or whether the neurological intersex theory will pan out in the long term. Of course, taking hormones causes neurological changes as well, which may cause cis people’s brains to be different from trans people’s of the same assigned sex.
7. What exactly is uncomfortable about hearing female pronouns? What do these pronouns mean to you?
Human cognition involves a lot of categorization. You know how when you look at a table, you think of it as a table, and when you look at a book, you think of it as a book, and when you look at a lamp, you think of it as a lamp? Most people classify others as male or female in a similar way, often as soon as they look at them. I strongly prefer to be classified as nonbinary. Of course, most people don’t have control over their instinctive classification system: if I say “it is very important that you think of this lamp as a table”, you might be able to refer to it as a table, but you’ll still instinctively classify it as a lamp. But I think I can at least ask people not to rub my face in their classification of me, given that it causes me a great deal of pain. So what being referred to by female pronouns means to me is that a person is deliberately choosing to disrespect my preferences, which is rude, and which means I don’t feel super-motivated to spend much more time with them.
Of course, there are exceptions. I have friends who, for reasons of deeply held principles, use female pronouns for me, and as long as they clear that with me ahead of time I don’t mind. And many people screw up my pronouns, and as long as it is an accident it’s painful (because I’m being reminded that you see me as a girl, which hurts) but I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. Shit happens and using the correct pronouns is hard; if you’re not deliberately being disrespectful, you’re not at fault. And of course some people mess up my pronouns but I trust they still see me as the correct gender, and then their pronoun mistakes cause me no harm whatsoever; like I said, I care about how I’m seen, not the pronouns.
8. If you are attracted to women:
A. What is wrong with being a lesbian, anyway?
Nothing is wrong with being a lesbian. I’m just not a lesbian, in much the same way as there is nothing wrong with being an ice dancer, a Francophile, or a collector of exotic geese, but I am not any of those things either.
B. What if there was no such thing as hormones or surgeries and you had to just live your life as a lesbian, how would your life be different?
Well, I used to live my life as a queer woman, so here are the differences I’ve observed:
The closest thing to being seen as nonbinary, if you’re presenting as a cis woman, is to be seen as a butch woman, so I made a lot of effort to be seen as a butch woman. I didn’t wear skirts or colors. I didn’t complain when I was in pain. I didn’t admit to liking Disney movies. I was very clear that typically feminine things were stupid, that most girls were stupid, and that I liked hanging out with men and my exceptional non-stupid female friends.
(It always confuses people when I tell them I conformed more to my assigned gender after transition.)
To be clear, this wasn’t conscious. I had no idea what a trans person was, back when I was trying to be a girl. I thought of myself as a woman. But on a subconscious level, I still valued not being either of the binary genders, and if the closest thing I could get to that was being a gender-non-conforming woman, then by God I would watch as many action movies and wear as much black as necessary to make this happen.
And then I transitioned and about six months into my transition– around the point where I realized that this really wasn’t going to go away and I could be nonbinary as long as I wanted– by some mysterious coincidence colors reappeared in my wardrobe, Alan Menken reappeared on my playlists, and I started whining like hell whenever I had a stomachache.
So there you go. I’d much rather not detransition. I think being a gender-non-conforming women should be left to people who actually want to be gender-non-conforming and actually want to be women, instead of to people who are putting up with it because it’s the closest you can get to being nonbinary.
C. To ask that same question in a different way, in case I get a more thorough response by asking it this way, are there any measurable or observable differences between your life and a lesbian life? Let’s say you are FtM and you live with your girlfriend in an apartment with your cat, and you like weight-lifting in your spare time and you enjoy having strap-on sex. What is the difference between what you’re doing and what every other lesbian couple is doing? Is the difference just “I identify as a man,” or is there anything else?
Well, uh, for one thing, Miranda Selmys aside, lesbians are very rarely married to men.
But looking back at my relationship with my ex-girlfriends… well, they wouldn’t have been much different if I were a girl. Of course, I actually don’t think any of my relationships with girls would have been much different if they were cis men either. We would… have fewer threesomes? In my experience, both sex and gender don’t actually have a huge impact on the people I’m dating. I mean I would say “we’d have to use barriers when we had PIV!” but like all my girlfriends were asexual or tokophobic or living in fucking Narnia so I’m pretty sure our sex lives would have been the same even if they’d been cis dudes.
My partners would probably have spent less time worrying that they were Fake Bisexuals? Eh, probably not. I have literally had someone explain to me that he’s a Fake Bisexual after having a threesome with a woman and a man, so the Fake Bisexuality worry seems completely immune to ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’.
D. In regards to your life outside of home, how would your work life and family life and hobbies be different if you were a lesbian instead of an FtM?
I am interpreting this question as saying “what if you, Ozy, were a non-gender-dysphoric lesbian and everything else was the same?”
My dad would no longer send me emails about how I was mutilating my body, but he probably wouldn’t have come to my wedding either and would have referred to my partner awkwardly as “your… friend” for the rest of time. My mom, instead of awkwardly attempting to understand my transness, would be awkwardly attempting to understand my lesbianism. So that’s a wash.
Work life: my boss would call me “she” instead of “they” and otherwise I can’t imagine how anything would change. My job is not one in which gender is involved very much.
Hobbies: I currently do not attend social events labeled For Women Only, even if the organizers assure me that it is actually For All People Who Aren’t Cis Men Only. So I would probably be more willing to go to things labelled For Women Only. I would also spend significantly less of my time talking to people who are considering transitioning, and my blog would be relatively more composed of mental illness, sex positivity, and effective altruism posts instead of transness posts. Maybe some of the super-cute lesbians I know who won’t date me because I’m not a girl will date me, which would be excellent.
E. If you felt uncomfortable identifying as a lesbian or being seen as a lesbian, why? Have you ever tried to work on internalized homophobia? Why or why not?
Because I am not a woman who is solely attracted to women? I am, like, missing both of the basic qualifications for lesbianism here. I have to say, if I met the qualifications, I would be super-happy to be a lesbian, on account of I really like Sappho and also lesbians have a bitchin’ flag:
None of my flags have a weapon on it! Totally unfair!
I have tried to work on internalized homophobia, because I am bisexual and suffer from internalized homophobia.
F. Have you ever spoken to other lesbians to find out whether they felt the same way you do about some of these issues? Why or why not? If so, what have you found out?
Most butch lesbians of my acquaintance are butch because they like being butch, not because they terminally value being gender-non-conforming. I agree that this is a much more sensible way of going about things. Some of them seem to terminally value being butch women in a similar way to how I terminally value being nonbinary, but few of them seem to feel that their lives would be improved by transitioning so that they can wear colors again. (Most of them don’t seem to show much desire to wear colors.) Some of them are really grumpy about being classified as butch lesbians just because they have short hair and a masculine build.
I am not sure that lesbians of any sort disagree with my assessment of what would happen if I were a lesbian or about whether my relationships would be different if I were a girl. Okay, probably the latter, some of those girls are really into The Innate Purity of Lesbianism, but I feel like that’s the sort of thing that’ll get sorted out once you actually date a girl and realize girls are just as likely to be dickbags as men are.
Lesbians agree with me that Sappho is great and the labrys flag is bitchin’.
This is a writeup of my notes on a talk given by Brian Kateman, founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, on marketing and public relations for effective altruism.
The first stage of any new project is information-gathering. Get to know a lot of people starting related projects: you can ask them to go out for a coffee, Skype with you, or call you on the phone. You never know where initial conversations are going to go; while some are going to be a dud, a lot of people can provide useful advice or help. Don’t be scared! People are usually excited and receptive: they love being able to share their insight and knowledge. Aim high: think about the presidents of organizations, great documentarians, and so on. They’re probably a lot more accessible than you think.
In this initial stage, create a platform to get people excited: for instance, a basic yet cool website, a prototype of a product, or an outline for a research initiative. Come up with something that looks exciting and awesome.
It’s okay to think that you’re awesome and it’s worthwhile for people to talk to you. What you’re doing matters, and you have to believe it’s a good use of their time for influential people who know and do a lot more than you do to talk to you. It’s totally fine to come from a place of doubt and insecurity, because people like being mentors and giving advice. But you have to be enthusiastic about your idea: if you think your idea is stupid, other people are going to think your idea is stupid too.
It’s important to develop social proof and authority. People base their behavior on the behavior and actions of others, so build social proof into your projects early on. For instance, Brian Kateman reached out to experts for testimonials. Don’t start with super-high-profile people– after all, there’s no reason for them to help you– but you can work your way up incrementally: Kateman started with Peter Singer, whom he knew through his connections in the effective altruism movement, and then used Singer’s endorsement to get endorsements from people like Richard Dawkins. It is always better to go for it than not to go for it. Make the ask. There’s no reason to be nervous. Once you have social proof, build it into your messaging and pitch.
Authority is seeming like you know what you’re talking about. Appear to be an expert, and get the initial credibility. For instance, Kateman got a TEDx talk by luck really early on, which made him look like an expert.
There is no one in the world you can’t reach if you’re proactive and smart enough about it. It’s possible to just guess people’s email: make a spreadsheet with a bunch of different variations of their name. Firstname.firstname.lastname@example.org is very common. You can also go to events you’ll know they’ll be at, like book signings or lectures or EA Global. Don’t stalk people: if you’ve talked to someone and they’re not interested, drop it. But feel free to send followup emails every now and then. Remember, they’re not celebrities, they’re just people.
Be willing to help your connections! By the principle of reciprocity, people are more willing to help you if you’ve helped them. If other people are promoting your pet project, promote theirs; if you have knowledge about some topic they’re curious about, share it with them. And try to approach your networking from a perspective of intentionally building up relationships with awesome people: it’s not about what they do for you, it’s about getting to talk to really cool people who are doing good things for the world.
It’s important to grow your platform and scale up through online advertising, conferences, social media, and traditional media.
The best way to get media attention is a good press release and a story to tell. You can do tactics all day long, but if your story is boring or sucks no one is going to write about it. Find reporters who have covered similar stories. Get to know them and email them; connect with them on LinkedIn. Try writing reporters fan letters: “I liked your article about X Related Thing, keep me in mind if you ever want to talk about Y Pet Project.”
To find their email, you can make a spreadsheet like that one above (be sure to try variations like @nyt.com), look for their emails on the newspaper’s webpage (Washington Post has them available), or buy media lists (although those can be quite expensive). To message a bunch of different people at once, use a mail merge: this automatically fills in key information like the person’s name and newspaper, so you only have to send one email to reach ten thousand reporters.
Smaller notes: Keep your elevator pitch short. Give yourself an impressive-sounding title. Sincerely compliment people like crazy: everyone loves to be appreciated. Don’t be ashamed to namedrop: if Richard Dawkins has endorsed your nonprofit or Peter Singer emails you regularly, say so. Read Robert Cialdini’s Influence for more advice; it’s a tremendously insightful book.
[Thanks to Braden and Ben for getting me books.]
Creating Capabilities: Martha Nussbaum is an extremely clear writer who regularly uses examples to make it clear what she’s arguing. I wish more philosophers would follow her example; it makes her books actually fun to read. I also wish more philosophers would follow her example of talking about cognitively disabled people in a way that doesn’t make me want to punch them in the face.
Nussbaum’s book might be interesting to effective altruists: her project is essentially outlining a strategy for telling whether a development program– whether done by an NGO or government– is working or not. She argues that societies should provide to their members certain capabilities, such as reading, access to nutritious food, and leisure time. She distinguishes this from requiring people to do things: being literate does not require that you read, and having access to nutritious food doesn’t mean you can’t live on Cheetos. She’s dissatisfied with utilitarianism for reasons I don’t find convincing (it’s fine by me if the reason we don’t have slaves is that that produces net unhappiness, and not that it is Just Wrong), but I think her framework works fine for most utilitarianisms– she’s talking about the details of what makes one life more fulfilling than another. Her unfortunately brief discussion of what capabilities animals need for a fulfilling life is very interesting.
How Children Fail: The observations of a teacher about school. Mostly, his observations are that school doesn’t work very well. Most of his students, despite being in fifth grade, have very little grasp of multiplication or division and some don’t even understand addition or subtraction; none seem to understand math on a conceptual level, as opposed to as a series of procedures done to meaningless lines that sometimes produce the meaningless lines which you are praised for. To cover their lack of understanding, children have a variety of inventive techniques, such as derailing the class, mumbling the answer and hoping the teacher will hear what they want to hear, observing the teacher’s expressions, and waving their hands around enthusiastically so the teacher will pick on someone else. He points out teachers’ role in perpetuating this state of affairs as well: for instance, ‘review sessions’ before a big test which mostly just allow students to cram enough to pass. Kind of cynical, very funny.
How Children Learn: The companion to How Children Fail, in which the author sings the praises of unschooling. While I have sympathies for unschooling, I don’t fully agree with it. I agree that self-motivated learning generally works better than non-self-motivated learning, but I also think that with clever environment design the educator can induce most of the children to self-motivate to learn the things the educator wants them to learn. And I worry that in unschooling math and reading will be neglected if the child happens to not take an interest in them. That said, these are pretty minor differences, and all things considered I am pretty much on board with the “learning things is rewarding to children and in an enriched environment with adult guidance they will naturally learn” belief set.
Unconditional Parenting: It is sort of weird to review parenting books when you are not a parent. You should really check back with me in ten years to find out my opinion. Anyway, Unconditional Parenting is all about how punishment is EEEVVIIIIIIILLL and rewards are also EEEEVVIIIIIILLL, because they teach children that being loved is conditional on behaving and they destroy intrinsic motivation. I am sympathetic to this argument; I certainly remember being a child, and being punished mostly just made me angry and taught me to be more careful to not get caught. But I feel like Unconditional Parenting leaves me with unanswered questions like “okay, how do I set boundaries with children then?” And I honestly don’t believe that all rewards will make people feel like love is conditional; surely it depends on the reward. That says, it has some wonderful one-liners:
However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet—or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me… I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child—from infancy to adolescence—is one who isn’t too much trouble to us grown-ups.
Most of us, I’m convinced, do indeed want our children to think for themselves, to be assertive and morally courageous . . . when they’re with their friends. We hope they’ll stand up to bullies and resist peer pressure, particularly when sex and drugs are involved. But if it’s important to us that kids not be “victims of others’ ideas,” we have to educate them “to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.
Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean—that is, to lie.
The Confessions of Congressman X: If I am informed that a book is a tell-all confession about Congress that is so salacious the author had to be anonymous to say it, I am really expecting something more scandalous than “congresspeople spend a lot of time campaigning.”
Daylight Atheism: Reading this book leaves one with the suspicion that it was written by creating a statistical average of every other pro-atheism book ever written. “Did you know the Bible contains violent and evil passages? Did you know that people have used their religious belief to justify atrocities? Atheists care about science, reason, and evidence! Faith and obedience are bad! I am going to present utilitarianism as the third way between divine command theory and moral relativism, with a vague air of presenting you with a stunning new moral system you’ve never heard of. Time for some vaguely deathist speculations about how we can have meaning in our short lives! What if we create a HUMANIST church?”
[here lies spoilers for the Stormlight Archive and Sacrifices Arc, as well as content warning for cannibalism, violence, and rape]
Sacrifices Arc: Very, very long fanfiction by Limyaael of fantasy rant fame. Harry has a twin brother named Connor who is the Boy Who Lived. Harry is raised as a child soldier to defend and protect Connor, so he can continue to be innocent enough to defeat the Dark Lord; this includes conditioning Harry to feel anxious and upset every time he relaxes and causing him pain so he learns to fight through the pain.
Sacrifices Arc is an extremely realistic depiction of the process of recovering from trauma, which is to say that characters repeatedly return to the same dysfunctional coping mechanisms, have epiphanies and then return to their old behavior, get halfway better and then stop, and have it repeatedly explained to them how dumb they’re being and refuse to listen. I thought it was great, but if you’re frustrated by characters behaving like idiots in ways that make perfect goddamn sense because of their emotional issues then this is probably not the book for you.
Sacrifices Arc is heavy on the politicking and intrigue; the author clearly had a lot of fun coming up with complex pureblood etiquette for Harry to manipulate. There’s some pretty clever prophecy twists and some really interesting details about the magic system. Harry is a vates, which means that he can break the webs of compulsion which enslave magical creatures such as house elves and unicorns; the vates can never use compulsion magic and must free magical creatures out of his own free will, not because there was a moral duty or compulsion to do so. Naturally, I think the whole concept of vates is awesome.
Harry has an absurd amount of magical power, so of course Sacrifices Arc makes sure that Harry never faces a problem that can be resolved by throwing raw magical power at it. (Or, well, he does, but he immediately resolves them and the plot focuses on something else.) This makes me want to hire Limyaael to write Superman.
Sacrifices Arc has absolutely delightful and amazing minor characters. My particular favorites: Rufus Scrimgeour, Head of the Auror’s Office, who does not want any Dark Lords or Light Lords involved in his ministry and who has the power of “oops, you didn’t fill out that form in triplicate… it seems we completely lost your file!” bureaucracy fu; Evan Rosier, the Death Eater who helps Harry occasionally because Harry is fun, and complains about being Crucio’d constantly by Bellatrix because ‘it’s boring’; Thomas Rhangnara, who has discovered a grand unified theory of magic which he wants to tell you about in great detail, and who once spends an entire battle scene attempting to question centaurs about their magic and occasionally sending annoyed hexes at the people who interrupt his research by trying to kill him.
Be warned that Sacrifices Arc starts out about as dark as Deathly Hallows and continues on to “the comic relief villain eats a child alive on screen”, “Death Eaters kill a baby in front of his mother and then rape her while Harry watches helplessly in horror”, “a major character is tortured to death by plants”, etc. While the ending is happy, the path to the ending can get very fucking bleak.
My one complaint is that the Draco/Harry relationship involved entirely too much tiresome bickering and by the end of the story I was rooting for them to break up and Harry to marry anyone else.
The Way of Kings: I swear, having a ten-book fantasy series with a thousand pages per book just spoils some people. There is absolutely no reason to have a few hundred pages of Kaladin Is Sad About His Lot In Life As A Slave And Cannon Fodder In Some Dude’s Army before we get to Kaladin Has Neat Magic Powers And Charismatically Inspires His Fellow Cannon Fodder To Escape Their Fate. Have you people never heard of in medias res?
Anyway, if you endure through the first two hundred pages of blah blah blah people are sad blah blah, it’s a pretty interesting fantasy series with a world I’ve never seen before. There are hurricanes every few weeks, except during a two-week period when it rains constantly, and all the life is adapted for this bizarre weather! And there are no birds, and giant crustaceans instead of horses and dogs, and a character remarks on how weird it is that the Exotic Far Away Place has grass that stays put instead of running away! Also they have neat gender roles where men are supposed to fight and women are supposed to study.
Words of Radiance: Brandon Sanderson appears to be setting up an Adolin/Shallan/Kaladin love triangle, and I will have none of this nonsense. If I have to read three more books of Shallan trying to choose between those two guys instead of dating both of them like a sensible Radiant, I am going to be extraordinarily annoyed.
Otherwise, this is a quite entertaining book and I was very sad when Syl died except then she turned out to not really be dead? I hate it when that happens. I would have much preferred if Kaladin never had magic powers or his friend again and he had to suffer through the consequences of his actions.
I recently read this blog post by Wesley Fenza. I agree substantially with two of his points. While monogamy is a valid relationship style, I think monogamous culture has some pretty awful norms that polyamorous people have been shy about criticizing for fear of coming off as nonjudgmental. And I agree that collectively, as a culture, we all need to calm down about STIs. However, I disagree with his middle point about not enabling cheaters.
I don’t think it’s obligatory to investigate thoroughly whether someone is cheating on a monogamous partner before you hook up with them casually. If someone at a party who is wearing a wedding ring is flirting with me, I will naturally assume that they are polyamorous and that their spouse is okay with it; I do not think I am required to go find their spouse and check that the spouse is okay with it before I flirt back. And there are some limited circumstances in which I think cheating is– not ideal, but the best way to deal with an awful situation. Obviously, it is not unethical to help someone cheat in cases where it’s not unethical to cheat.
I also think that commercial sex has different ethics from non-commercial sex. Frankly, if all sex workers adopted an attitude of “I won’t help people cheat”, then most of them would have to get second jobs shortly afterward. In the vast majority of cases, it is not the job of a person selling a service to check whether the service is being used ethically. Just as the restaurant owner does not inquire about whether I’m spending money in his restaurant that I should be saving for my children’s college education, the GameStop manager does not inquire about whether I am planning to give Chainsaw Death Mayhem III to my two-year-old, and the Home Depot employee does not inquire about whether I’m planning on using the Drano to poison my mother, the sex worker does not inquire whether I’m married and, if so, whether I have a justifiable reason for cheating.
Caveats aside: Fenza argues that the harm is in the proposition of infidelity; once infidelity has been proposed, there is no harm in committing it. This does not seem to be true to me. I am not monogamous, but my partners have made other promises to me. For instance, my fiance Topher has promised that he will not lie to me, even little white lies. It seems clear to me that, while Topher planning to lie to me is a violation of that promise, him actually lying to me is an even bigger violation– just as a lie that lasts ten minutes is less of a violation than a lie that lasts ten years. And while the violation is fairly severe if he intended to lie to me and was stopped by external circumstances– perhaps I already knew the truth before he could lie to me– it’s even worse if he actually does.
Partially, this is because many monogamous people are monogamous for reasons other than valuing their partner not desiring to have sex with other people. Many monogamous people are extremely averse to STIs or afraid that their partner will have a child with someone other than them. Other monogamous people fear their partner enjoying sex with someone else more than sex with them. Others do not want their partner to expend their emotional and romantic energy on another person. Still others feel a gut-level, arational revulsion at the idea of their partner having sex with someone else– a revulsion that cannot be explained or justified. (Of course, many monogamous people have more than one of those reasons, or a reason not listed, or have not introspected enough to know why it is valuable to them.) For all those people, actually having extra-relationship sex is a harm above and beyond the harm of taking steps to have extra-relationship sex.
I disagree as well with Fenza’s idea that we do not hold people responsible for enabling others to break promises. My friends do, in fact, hold me to my commitments. For instance, they have a commendable habit of frowning at me when I am tempted by egg-filled baked goods. Naturally, some of my friends don’t support animal rights, so they’re unlikely to take it much farther than a frown (by extension, there is no reason for someone who holds that it is perfectly fine to lie to your partners and break your promises to not aid in cheating– but this is an uncommon enough moral belief that I will skip over it). And I do think it would be a bit much for even my vegan friends to absolutely forbid me to eat egg-filled baked goods; they don’t get that much say in my life.
But if a vegan friend is treating me to dinner and I am dithering over whether I will order the deliciously egg-filled brownie, I think they’re well within their rights to say “I’m not paying for that.” They are causally involved in the obtaining-a-brownie process, and they have a right to prevent a thing they consider immoral from occurring. It’s not completely preventing the thing from occurring either way– I can pay for my own brownie, and the cheater can find someone more amenable– but people have a right not to involve themselves in situations they deem harmful.
Of course, one of the most important reasons not to help someone cheat is not that it’s unethical– just that it’s unwise. Fenza does agree with me here, but I’m talking about it anyway because it’ll be brought up in the comment section otherwise. Under most circumstances, a person who cheats on their partner shows that they are of poor character in a way that directly impacts such key relationship skills as “not lying”, “doing what you say you are going to do”, and “caring about whether you hurt your partner”. Cheating also means you will probably have to hide your relationship and that the cheated-upon spouse will probably be extremely angry at you.
A lot of comments on my last blog post were along the lines of “but humans are political animals, we have to have some sort of ideas about how society works, however poorly grounded in evidence.” So I think I’m going to outline my thoughts on how to reason about society as a whole without use of poorly grounded sociology. First, I’m going to talk about strategies for avoiding sociology entirely when possible; second, I’m going to talk about when we have to make generalizations about society and how to do it right.
Sociology is really complicated and hard. Therefore, whenever possible, we should strive to avoid doing sociology– the study of societies– and instead try to do something else.
The amount of amateur sociology in the rationalist community is dwarfed by the amount of amateur psychology. However, the amateur psychology is much less of an epistemic madhouse.
Nearly everyone can talk, in depth, about the psychology of twenty people; very few people can talk in depth about the sociology of twenty societies. For this reason, amateur psychology is likely to have a much better evidence base to begin with. A lot of amateur sociology is in the position of an alien psychologist who wants to try to learn how humans work, but only studies the one person they abducted, Joe, without ever referencing another human. Not only is this not a great way to understand humans in general, it’s not even a great way to understand Joe.
Furthermore, unlike sociology, amateur psychology can often be tested. If someone makes a claim like “we can polyhack!” or “to avoid getting in troubles because of what words you’re using, play Taboo” or “lots of cis people don’t really have gender identities”, then other people can try polyhacking, playing taboo, or introspecting about their gender identities. If an idea turns out to not work so well (remember polyphasic sleep?) then it eventually gets dropped; if an idea works really well (Beeminder), it is more widely adopted.
It is often possible to convert your amateur sociology to something narrower. Toxoplasma of rage may or may not apply to conversations in general, but it definitely applies to conversations on Tumblr. Insightful or interesting Tumblr posts usually get fewer notes than those which prompt a flame war; political groups have a depressing tendency to be represented, in the mind of the general public, with people who are trolls and/or literally twelve. The average Tumblr user has viewed hundreds if not thousands of Tumblr conversations, and has more than enough of an evidence base to conclusively state that this is true.
However, this description is strictly about the what, rather than the why. It is agnostic about what causes Tumblr to be this way. Perhaps it is a single instance of a general tendency for human conversations to favor the controversial; perhaps it is because Tumblr’s userbase tends to be highly combative; perhaps Tumblr’s design leads to controversy, because no one can argue with a post without showing it to all of their followers, who will want to reblog a sufficiently inflammatory post to argue with themselves. We do not have enough evidence to favor one of these hypotheses over another.
Nevertheless, it is very useful. You’re not engaging in conversations in general; you’re engaging in conversations on Tumblr. You don’t have to know whether controversial things gaining population is a general trait of conversations in order to notice the trend and take steps to avoid it, such as choosing to check whether people are trolls and/or literally twelve before you reblog that takedown that TOTALLY DESTROYED them. A surprising amount of work can be done strictly on the object level.
But sometimes you can’t make the idea narrow. If in your experience a lot of your relationships with men involve them relying on you for emotional support and relationship maintenance, then there isn’t a specific narrow context you’re talking about, in the same way that toxoplasma of rage can apply to Tumblr. However, there is a single narrow context that you can apply to almost anything: your life.
If you are like “this tends to be true in my life”, you can get almost all the benefits of applying the pop-feminist concept of emotional labor (which ought to be distinguished from the actual concept of emotional labor) to your relationships. You can say: “I wonder why I feel so drained every time I interact with that guy? Oh yeah! I’m performing emotional labor as defined by pop feminists! Recognizing this pattern will allow me to set boundaries much more quickly than if I had to come up with the idea from scratch every time!”
On the other hand, once again, you’re applying the concept descriptively to a relatively narrow domain. You’re not able to show from this that men as a class feel entitled to extract labor from women in their relationships. Of course, that might be the case. But it might be that men are less likely to have emotionally intimate relationships with other men, leading them to rely on women for all their emotional needs and to have less practice in returning the favor. It might be that you have internalized sexism which makes it harder for you to set boundaries with men than with women. It might be that you don’t notice all your emotionally draining relationships with women, because you are an evil man-hating feminist. It might be that you just met a bunch of asshole guys. And you certainly can’t generalize beyond men you tend to interact with: the pattern is likely to be very different for a person from a different race, class, ability, region and/or subculture.
Okay, so, none of those things work. You are pretty sure you have to know something about actual society. My first question is: do you? Really?
Like, honestly, I don’t know anything about foreign policy and I’m not really interested in knowing much about foreign policy; I am also ignorant of health care economics, macroeconomic stabilization policy, and a dozen other topics relevant to how society works. None of this astonishing ignorance seems to have had any effect of my life, beyond annoying my friend Keller. (Sorry Keller.)
A lot of people feel bad about saying “I don’t know and I don’t care to know”. It makes them feel stupid, or uninformed, or like a bad caricature of $PoliticalParty from a political cartoon. But honestly you can’t know everything. There is no shame in admitting that you are not capable of being omniscient.
Of course, it would probably be desirable for me to actually understand foreign policy and macroeconomic stabilization and so on. But the question isn’t just “would it be beneficial for me to know something about this?”; the question is “would it be beneficial for me to replace my honest ignorance with an opinion founded on little to no evidence?” In most cases (term papers and freshman bull sessions aside), the answer is ‘no’. At least in the former case you’re keeping track of what you’re ignorant about; if it suddenly becomes important that you know about the issue, you know that you need to learn about it, instead of having cached thoughts in the back of your head.
Eliezer once called emergence the junk food of curiosity; I think insight porn also qualifies. When you read Meditations on Moloch, it feels like you’ve learned something; you get the sweet, concentrated superstimulus of understanding a dozen different topics on a new, fundamental level. But you don’t really understand them any better than you used to; your actual knowledge of corporate welfare or the rise of agriculture, your ability to predict what will happen given certain situations, is probably about where it was before.
Just like Skittles are part of a balanced food diet, insight porn is part of a balanced intellectual diet. But it should be an occasional treat! Mostly, you should try to understand topics on a deep, nuanced level: understanding the various positions and the evidence behind them, knowing what has been established firmly and what is on shaky ground, being familiar with the research. Insight porn can never replace the virtue of scholarship.
In areas where you want to have an opinion but you are not willing to research enough to have a proper opinion, I would recommend attempting to discover the expert consensus and believe it. We do this already on a lot of topics: I suspect most people who believe in evolution, global warming, or fermions could not explain to you why experts believe in those things. Conveniently, philosophers have made their expert consensus clear; as far as I’m aware, other academic fields do not have polls about their opinions about the important issues, and one instead has to figure out what the consensus opinion is by (for instance) reading introductory textbooks.
It’s important also to note when there isn’t broad consensus in a field, because this is particularly common in the social sciences and humanities. Whether it’s psychology’s replication crisis, the wide-ranging disagreement in the Philpapers survey, or the fact that theologians still have not settled which religion is right, there are many cases where the expert consensus is “fucked if I know”.
How to deal with that is where I’m getting into the tenuous “Ozy is a hypocrite who uses amateur sociology” area. There are heuristics one can use to reason about society even under conditions of very great uncertainty. One is to attempt to make big changes slowly in a reversible fashion: don’t support open borders when you can support a gradual increase in immigration; don’t support eradicating zoning when you can support lightening it; don’t support revolution when you can support reform. In this way, you are more likely to notice unexpected negative consequences before they blow everything up.
Another heuristic is to attend to the easily observable first-order consequences and leave the second-order consequences to themselves. Allowing gay people to get married provides the benefits of marriage to gay people; not misgendering trans people helps prevent dysphoria. Is it possible that LGBT acceptance will lead to the destruction of the family? Certainly! But that is highly speculative, and so should be considered less important compared to the relatively certain benefits.
I know a lot of people who criticize the concept of punching up, a criticism most succinctly put as “whatever direction you’re punching in, you’re still punching people.” However, I think that “punching up” is actually a pretty reasonable guideline for ethics in comedy.
I’m going to assume, in this post, that we’ve all agreed that mean comedy can, in some circumstances, be ethical. I suspect the majority of my audience agrees with this, unless they object on principle to Scott’s blog post where he compared Amanda Marcotte to a Vogon. I’m also only going to talk about “punching up” as ethics for comedy– in my opinion, the concept is badly misapplied when you take it outside that area.
Reasoning With Vampires— a blog in which a woman copyedits Twilight– is pretty damn funny. Imagine that there was an identical blog, the same in every single post, except that instead of Twilight it was critiquing a twelve-year-old girl’s very first Twilight fanfic, which was solely read by her and her five closest friends. The first one seems to me to be fun, entertaining, good-spirited snark; the second seems cruel. Why?
Well, Stephanie Meyer is an adult, and the fanfiction writer is twelve. Stephanie Meyer’s book was professionally published, while the fanfiction writer posted it on Fanfiction.net. Stephanie Meyer has millions of readers and several movies adapted from her work, while the fanfiction writer has no readers she hasn’t personally met an the closest thing her story has to an adaptation is the time her best friend drew a picture of her OCs. Stephanie Meyer has written other books, while this is the first thing the fanfiction writer ever wrote. Basically: Stephanie Meyer has power; the fanfiction writer doesn’t.
That works for individuals, but not all jokes are about individuals. Can we have a concept of ‘punching up’ that applies to groups? I believe so.
Imagine a comedian who shows the audience pictures of drowning Syrian refugees and then makes fun of them for having such goofy expressions on their faces. (And not in a “ha ha isn’t it absurd to make fun of someone for having a goofy facial expression while they’re dying” way– the Syrians are the butt of the joke.) It seems to me that a lot of people would find that somewhere between cringeworthy and appalling. They’re literally dying! Why are you making fun of them?
On the other hand, if a comedian makes jokes about politicians having goofy facial expressions, no one would object.
Of course, there’s some problem putting “punching up” in practice. There are a lot of people who are like “I’m making fun of this misogynist by calling him a fat neckbearded loser who sits in his mom’s basement all day playing WOW! Punching up!” But that’s a problem with a lot of ethical rules. For instance, when we try to fairly represent people’s viewpoints, we’ll often wind up strawmanning people we disagree with and claiming the strawmen are a fair representation of others’ views. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to fairly represent other people’s viewpoints; it means that whenever you have an ethical rule, some people will try to break it and claim that they aren’t doing so.
It seems to me that mean comedy has to have some concept of “fair game”. Viciously mocking the powerful, particularly those of the powerful who have used their power to hurt other people, feels fair: they knew what they were signing up for when they became powerful, and at the end of the day they can comfort themselves with their gobs of money and social privilege; having a sharp joke or two directed your way is karma. But if you viciously mock someone who is weak, or if you look at someone going through a lot of suffering and then add insult to their injury, you’re not funny. You’re just a bully.
In school, you get a certain view of history. It’s very white, very straight, very male, and the only disabled person you ever get to hear about is Helen Keller and the story conveniently ends before she can spell out more than W-A-T-E-R and start having opinions.
But the thing is… nobody invented us in 1950. We exist. We have always existed.
And once you start looking, you see us everywhere.
Let me discuss neurodivergence for a moment, although the same applies to physical disability and to queerness.
Changelings are autistic children. There is art that looks like children with Down’s Syndrome. Socrates heard voices. Henry Cavendish may well have been autistic. Soldiers for thousands of years have experienced PTSD. The demon-possessed. Prophets. Acedia. The fool capering across a Shakespearean stage or a royal court. The village idiot. Asylums. CBT is Stoicism wearing a sciencey hat. Mindfulness therapies are Buddhism wearing a sciencey hat.
Thinking about history from a neurodivergent perspective is like putting on a pair of 3D glasses and watching the blurry lines resolve into the Millennium Falcon.
This is, in some ways, an ahistorical way of looking at history. Medieval people did not have the concept of “developmental disability” to apply to their changelings and village idiots and fools. There is no reason to assume we have the One True Ontology To Rule Them All, particularly in a science that is in the early stage that psychology is. But the brain difference that causes me to be autistic did not spring up out of the ether in 1944 when Hans Asperger published his first paper. Throughout human history, we have been here.
A lot of feminists have written about the harm caused to women by erasing our experiences from history. When Adrienne Rich wrote about compulsory heterosexuality, she mentioned the brutal ways in which women have been forced into heterosexual relationships over the centuries, but still she characterized compulsory heterosexuality primarily as an absence:
The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding…
I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is stranded on this shoal.
This robbery of our history may well be especially harmful for members of categories like disability and queerness, which are both rare and, while heritable, often not passed down parent-to-child. Not only is our history left out of the textbooks, but we cannot learn about it from our parents or from the adults we interact with day-to-day (particularly since queerness and many forms of disability are not considered appropriate for children). Our history, our culture, has to be discovered.
In my experience, a lot of queer and disabled people have a sort of foreshortened future. I know a lot of people who are twenty-five or thirty and think “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now. I never expected to live this long.” And I think a lot of that is that we grow up without a history or a culture. We grow up without a model of what it’s like to be a happy, successful, queer or disabled adult. As Just Stimming eloquently puts it:
At some point, and I’ve told this story so many times and it never stops making me want to cry, I started hearing about other disabled people. People who were older than me, people who weren’t about this thing is going to kill me one of these days, people who weren’t about living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease, people who were disabled and alive and not sick, not dying, but raising hell and building lives and screaming, screaming, screaming when we were being killed.
People who used words like we.
I thought, we, yes. We. Okay. We can make this work…
When you are disabled, when you are traumatized and vision-impaired and autistic, even and maybe especially when you haven’t been given those access codes yet, you learn to see yourself as the walking dead. You are vast swathes of nonexistence, cut off and left for dead at every missed milestone and swapped pronoun and bruised shin and scar on your face. There are Other People, Normal People, People, and then there is you, and you are defined by the parts of yourself that match to everyone around you, and then the vast swathes of nothing. Disability is absence, disability is inability, disability is death, and you are a woman in a refrigerator.
It takes you a while to learn that you aren’t the one who put you in the refrigerator.
It takes longer to learn that it wasn’t your body, either.
A lot of us never get to the point where we can say it was you, you tried to kill me, you made me think I was dead, you screamed about the injustice of putting me in a refrigerator while you, you were the one killing me.
But people have become happy, successful adults who happened to be queer or disabled or both. They’ve done it for thousands of years. Societies have found ways to incorporate us– sometimes horrifying, abusive ways, but ways. Some of our members have achieved great things.
We’re here. And we’ve always been here. And no one can take that away.
May you have a wonderful Christmas and go where no one has gone before.