Friday, 27 November 2015


Something a bit different today.

I shared a meme on Facebook.

First of all, why did I share it? Well, this one has always bothered me. I've had it explained to me many times, by very well-intentioned people, and last night was no different. The Christian friend who explained it went for the standard, orthodox explanation. The whole test of faith thing. OK.

There are two ways to look at this, and we'll do both of them.

The first way is to treat the story at face value, as a literalist Christian would, and examine the motives of God. Assuming the God in this story is the same God that people today pray to etc, and assuming there's only one, which is a big assumption in itself, but necessary for our purposes, then he had some reason to test Abraham in this way. One man. Just a man. To say he was putting a lot of responsibility on Abe's shoulders is a considerable understatement. He then had to make sure the guy was obedient. I get that. If you are planning on choosing one human being out of the entire human race and making him the patriarch of not only your chosen people but of religions and adherents yet to come, you have to make sure he's up to the task. He has to do what you tell him. And there can be no greater test than this. Additionally, many believers insist that the child was never actually at any risk, because God didn't actually let Abraham kill him.

The sacrifice went ahead, incidentally. If you are not familiar with the story, Abraham sacrificed a sheep instead. This goes right along with the modern view that we must take into account standard cultural practises of the time, such as child and animal sacrifice.

It gets more complex after that, because the Christians connect this to the sacrifice of God's son Jesus, while the Jews have several ideas on this but a big one is that Abraham knew the child was in no danger, while some say that it was his own idea to use his child, and not God's. This is the sort of thing believers love to argue about, and we'll leave them to it.

The other way to look at this, from a non-believer perspective is that what we have here is an interesting myth, packed full of symbolism. Remember, the Jews created stories to cement their place. It's all about belonging to that piece of land. They had a very tenuous grip on it at times, and in addition the people, the masses, weren't always all that interested in staying. It was their leaders, just like all leaders everywhere, who had to persuade them to conform, and these were the people who wrote the stories. We no longer live in the age of myth, but the same thing still happens, only we call it propaganda.

When I refer to this story as myth, believers are often offended. They refer to other people's ancient stories as myth, but they believe theirs to be different, special, true. This is where we tend to argue, and it's a pity because there is so much value to myth.

One of the things that happens in myth is that a group of people become one person. Several heroes, who each did maybe one memorable thing, get conflated into one legendary figure whose story gets passed down. Or, as in the case of Abraham, just people. The figure of Abraham represents the tribe. It is very unlikely there ever was a man by that name, with that role, who did any of these things. Maybe he's based on one or more leaders over time, who were memorable. Maybe he wrote stories. The point is, this event didn't actually happen. It's quite possible it happened in somebody's conscience. Maybe more than once. At 2am on a hot desert night, a man with a lot of responsibility could easily think to himself, what if? And a story begins. We have never lived in such circumstances and cannot judge.

These were not stupid people. They were unsophisticated, but the quality and genius of their stories tells you they were deep thinkers. They had a need for these stories, and they honed them carefully before they were written down.

Therefore, the meaning of the story - its purpose - was known to its writer (s). But since then, different opinions, and being out of touch with the lives of the writers and those who they wrote it for, leads us to guess at their motives.

The test of faith theory, in one form or another is the most logical one. Unfortunately, whether you see it as a true story OR an important myth, it leaves several questions unanswered.

The first one is that an omniscient God ought to have known BEFORE choosing Abraham whether he was the man for the job or not. It's not as if there was a line of candidates. This test should have been completely redundant. Any test of faith should be, if God knows everything. As usual, as with so many Bible stories, it suggests a God who can be fooled. Who isn't quite sure.

And why didn't God save the sheep too? Or at least scold Abraham for sacrificing it. It was totally unnecessary to kill the animal.

Let's now look at the circumcision. The modern view here quite often is that this practise was to do with hygiene, but it's probably a blood sacrifice ritual from earlier times. It certainly existed in Ancient Egypt and lots of African tribes have traditionally used it as a rite of passage into manhood.

It's not unusual for a concept (in this case sacrifice) to be repeated in several different ways in ancient stories. That was how things were taught. If you didn't "get" the idea one way, you got it another way. Creation myths are a good example of this. The story of Noah, which comes long after the early stories, is in fact another creation myth. Why are there two? Because none of these early stories were original. They were borrowed from earlier civilizations and altered to suit. Noah comes straight from Gilgamesh, with details changed. All of this is lost when the stories are read literally.

The concept of sacrifice is found throughout ancient stories, just about everywhere. It comes from pre-history, from superstition, and it hasn't gone anywhere. Animals are still sacrificed today by some Greek Orthodox priests, and it's a widespread practise in Africa and Asia. So we shouldn't be at all surprised that it was a big deal in stories written almost 3000 years ago.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving. A ritual turkey sacrifice. Don't laugh. The turkey was killed, the ritual was done, you'd better believe it is NOT a million miles removed. That's humans. We still like rituals. No, we love them. We are all about meaning and symbolism. Of course we are, we don't change much in a few thousand years. Some of us take it more seriously than others, and some.....some think God requires it.

Why? What possible use could God have for humans performing rituals?

When the meme said that this story is crazy. it was looking at it from the perspective of modern behaviour. If somebody today claimed to hear voices, we'd assume they had a mental illness. People who cut off parts of their body are considered at the very least to be a bit odd. And someone who said they were going to kill their child "for God" would have child services round so fast it'd be a blur. So, yeah, it was crazy. We allow it because it's an ancient story, and because generally today even believers have no intention of copying it. Well, hopefully.

Nevertheless, these stories are still told. Reasons are debated. Excuses are made. Apologists smirk. Non-believers smirk back.

The real test here seems to be one of credulity. I wonder what God would have done if Abraham had said "Not bloody likely! That's my son! He's precious!" That's a man I'd admire. I like to think that would be the outcome God would be pleased with. But then I never did like the Old Testament God. He killed a lot of children.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Calm Down

It's been a week since the attack in Paris, and the #1 topic in my online circles, and at my dining table too, is still the response to terrorism. It is uppermost in everyone's minds, because obviously you can't just pretend it isn't happening, but moreover, the sane people are having to invest a lot of time and effort into calming down those who think the sky is falling. Everybody has friends and relatives who are so worried about terrorists that they are saying silly things. Really, the big deal for us ordinary mortals is not so much "how to deal with terrorists", that's not our problem. We have the associated problem of "how to deal with people who are irrationally afraid of terrorists".

Yes, I said irrationally. Living outside of the middle east, the risk of being killed by a terrorist is so small it's not even worth worrying about. That's the reality of the situation. Every day all of us do things that risk our lives. Statistically you are more likely to choke on your lunch that be killed by a terrorist. That is a mathematical fact. I could list hundreds more examples. Even if you live in a major city, where most terrorist attacks occur, you would really have to draw the short straw to be in that "wrong place, wrong time" situation. The risk is so small that your fears are actually ridiculous.

But humans are strange. Our fears are frequently not logical. And people who are already living in fear for other reasons will latch onto more fear, because that's how minds work. They become overwhelmed and it's easy for more fear to creep in. This is not helped by those who deliberately spread fear, and use it as a tool for their own gains.

I'll tell you what I fear, right now, and that is fascism. Fascism is a response to fear, but also an excuse to spread fear. It's a bit of a chicken and egg at this point, because it's a spiral down. Even so, you only buy into fascism if you are very fearful. The protection against it is that age old mixture of logic and compassion - wisdom. Fascists are never wise. They are often cunning, not actually stupid, but they are never wise.

If you are afraid, right now, it's OK to admit it. It's OK to say "it feels like the world is on the brink of something, and it scares me". In many ways, it should. There is potential, right now, for great things or terrible things.

This has happened before. We get past it. We will again. But that's no comfort if you are right in the middle of it.

So how to deal with it?

I suggest, first of all, that you make a decision, and you commit to an ethical approach to all that you say and do. If that sounds like I'm stating the obvious, it has clearly been missed by many. Teach by example. Stay calm when you discuss things. Don't call people names just because they don't agree with you, even if they call you names. The ad hominem derails a conversation, but you can get it right back on track by ignoring it and not retaliating. Take the high road, and stay on topic. When you read or hear words that are harsh or cruel, and there is a tone of anger, recognise this as fear. A barking dog, no more and no less.

Don't be arrogant. Perhaps you know far more about the history and the politics behind the issue than the person raving at you. Don't talk down to them because of that. Accept that they are at a disadvantage, and that ignorance leads to fear. They will not listen to you if you take on a superior air. They'll simply tune you out. Education is the key, but it has to be offered in such a way that the listener doesn't feel belittled by your presentation.

Don't hate the haters. If you need to avoid them, do so. If their hatred is so great that it feels like a poison, then distance yourself from them, by all means. But don't hate them.

Don't even hate the terrorists. Yes, I'm perfectly serious. These are damaged people. You do not become a terrorist having had a happy life. Something has happened in the minds of these people that has driven them over the edge. It is impossible for most of us to understand. But there's something else. The vast majority of members of DAESH (the organisation that wants to be called The Islamic State) and other organisations such as Boko Haram, etc., have been born and raised without ever knowing love and peace. Think about that. Think how bloody awful that must be.

It doesn't excuse it, and I do not forgive them. But it has messed with their heads, and it has turned them into the perfect soldier. Nothing to lose.

Pity them, because our lives are absolute bliss by comparison. These are the dogs that the pounds put down, because they can never be rehabilitated. You can't negotiate with them, you can't reason with them.

But you can reason with those who are afraid of them. It isn't easy, but it's not impossible. And we must. We cannot let those who live in fear be sucked in by those who would take advantage of their fears, such as Donald Trump or Paul Golding. They don't see that the danger of fascism far exceeds the danger of terrorism, and we aren't going to teach them with anger and hate.

There are plenty who would sneer at any suggestion that we cannot defeat extremism with love and peace, but actually it is the only thing that defeats it. It doesn't mean "hug a terrorist" (although I'm willing to give it a try) - it means spreading the love and peace among the masses, the ordinary people, to counter the fear, and to send a message to our governments that we want them to proceed with caution. Above all, teach your children well.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Today, everybody is an armchair expert on international relations. I'm just one more. I'm no expert either, but I can vent forth with the rest. I do it here to avoid getting into fruitless arguments in social media, because I've seen feelings running very high. I prefer to keep calm and analyse. Because a lot of people are talking bollocks.

The argument du jour is that Paris is just one place that has been hit by ISIS, far from the worst, and is getting too much publicity, and everyone is forgetting about the rest. Well, some may be, I can't help them. There will always be those who live under a rock. But for most people, it is not a question of Paris being more important, but of the shock factor when the target is outside of the "trouble zones". If it had been Sydney, or Buenos Aires, or Oslo, or Tokyo, the reaction would have been the same. We don't expect it to happen in those places. We are used to seeing atrocities in the middle east and in Africa. It doesn't mean we don't care, it's just less of a shock.

Like it not, nobody, absolutely nobody, reacts viscerally to every news story of a mass killing, or even a natural disaster. Every single one of the people who are suddenly interested in the "whole world and not just Paris" have ignored deaths on a greater scale, somewhere else, recently, because nobody, not even dedicated journalists or activists with a human rights bias, have the time or the energy to respond to everything that happens in the world. There is a lot of it.

We react first and foremost to things close to home. Or places that feel like home. For me, personally, this was a "big deal" because I know Paris well. I love it very much. It feels like something that was "mine" that was harmed. For other people, even those who've never been there, it represents something special. It has a distinctive history of the people taking charge, and keeping it that way. It has a culture many are deeply fond of, even at a distance. In a way it seems familiar, even to Americans who've only seen it in the movies. It's not wrong to be upset about an iconic city. It's also not wrong to care about people even if their government may not have had a "clean" record in policy. I'll come back to that in a moment.

But the fact is that it's been proven time and again that we care more about things that look us right in the face. Charities know they'll get more money showing us ONE starving child, than if they tell us that 20,000 children are starving to death daily (they are by the way, are you "we love the whole world, not just Paris" people doing anything about that?). We react to visuals. To names. To personal accounts.

Just a few months ago nobody knew about the refugees from Syria. So nobody cared. Then we started seeing photos comparing the before and after of the effects of the bombings there.

.....and then we sat up and took notice. But some still want to send them back there!

No, it's sad, and it's wrong, but we become accustomed to news of tragedy and death. We scroll past it. It's just another one. Or another 5,000. We know, and we move on.

But there's actually a benefit here. Eventually something gets our attention. It becomes symbolic. It becomes a turning point that finally makes people think, and talk, and act. We have to hope they act well, because by the nonsense I keep hearing (more bombs! more bombs!) I don't think some of them have got it yet.

On a side note, this reminds me of other issues where a focus is criticized. Black Lives Matter is criticized for its focus on black people. "All lives matter", they cry. Yes, we know, but these are the ones who, right now, need more attention, because it often appears that they are treated as expendable. Feminism is criticized for its focus on women. "What about men?" they cry. Yes, men matter too, but women are the ones who, still today, are treated as second class. To reach equality we need to boost the status of women UP to that of men. Sometimes you have to focus on one area to get awareness, and you choose those who are suffering NOW. For example, all dogs deserve love and fair treatment, but right now we have to focus on the rights of Pit Bulls and similar dogs, because they are the ones being euthanized for no reason. "All dogs matter" isn't what helps the Pit Bulls. A focus on them is what is needed.

I'm going to borrow an analogy I read on this topic, because it's a damn good one. If you break your arm and take it to the ER, you expect the doctor to focus on your arm. If he X-Rayed your whole body, and put a cast on all your limbs, you'd ask him why. And if he said "all bones matter" you'd demand that he paid attention to the broken arm, never mind the rest right now. "But what if you break your leg next week?" Well, you'd deal with that then.

And to further this analogy, there are lots of other people with broken arms not being attended to by that doctor. Their broken arms matter too, but they have not presented themselves to him. It's not that he doesn't care about them.

Now, it has been said that the west is responsible for the rise of ISIS, and in inflaming tension in the middle east in general. Those with longer memories, or an interest in history have also noted that the instability in the middle east has long been affected by the actions of Europe and the US, and that ultimately you reap what you sow.

Obviously, there is much truth in this. Either directly or indirectly, outsiders have damaged not just the middle east itself but also Africa, and central Asia by self-serving policies, for hundreds of years. Colonialism was never a charity mission. We cannot expect that to be just forgotten, forgiven, and for everyone affected to just get over it. The damage is done, and it's extreme.

At the same time, we aren't going to make things better by making things worse, so, for example, insisting that French foreign policy is evil and it serves them right, is not a way forward. It's not a solution. It's just not helpful. Learn from mistakes, yes, most definitely. Then work towards a better future.

We are also not going to solve anything by blaming and persecuting innocent Muslims, which is the vast majority. Not only is it unethical, it's illogical. When something is both of those then it's simply wrong, and that's all that needs to be said on that topic, because I just can't waste my time on such nonsense. I have zero tolerance for that level of stupidity.

Of course a lot of knee-jerk reactions are caused by fear and ignorance. Perhaps we have to be a little patient with friends and family who are saying things we don't agree with. We solve nothing by fighting among ourselves over something none of us have any control over.

I'll leave you with this article, as it's one of the better ones I've read recently. There are plenty of others, and it does help us understand it a bit. But at the end of the day we have to accept that we don't and can't really understand this phenomenon. I sincerely hope that those who are working to overcome the poison that is ISIS know what they're doing, and I wish them well, because I wouldn't want their job for anything. Meanwhile if you are really so clever that you have a solution, do let them know, I'm sure they'd be pleased to hear from you.

Friday, 13 November 2015


Here's a thought for you today. What makes people intolerant?

Perhaps we need to define what that means, first of all. Here's the dictionary definition.

  1. not tolerant of views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one's own.
    "he was intolerant of ignorance"

It's important to remember that there is an unwritten meaning here too, that what a person is intolerant of is disputable. All of us are intolerant of things that are obviously wrong/bad/harmful, for example genocide. The only people who tolerate it are those who would do it. There are no absolutes in ethics, but there are plenty of examples of wrongs that the vast majority of people would never accept. So, while the vast majority of people are intolerant of them, we don't classify this as intolerance.

This gives us a clue. Intolerance seems to be based on perceived harm. Makes sense. Why would anyone tolerate something harmful? It would be foolish, crazy even to tolerate something we know will hurt us. But when we talk about intolerance as an issue, as seen clearly from the dictionary (and remember, dictionaries reflect common usage) we are talking about a perception of harm that isn't obvious, or that others simply don't see at all. In fact, it could well be imaginary.

Nevertheless, that perception must be there. There has to be some motivation behind it. I think we all instinctively understand that this is what is going on, and we have done so for a long time. I have read a lot of 19th century literature, and there are plenty of examples of people being asked "but where's the harm in it?" when they object to something. It is a pretty standard response to any criticism - "it doesn't hurt you." In other words, you are being told to get over yourself.

I wonder how many people are that easily shaken out of it. Would it make a difference if it were a very silly, petty intolerance? Would that be easier or harder to rationalize?

I posted a test here a few days ago that examined implicit bias. Recently, research has been done with tests just like this that seems to show that racism is pretty much endemic in white people. Not surprisingly there are plenty of people who object to that idea. It's really not a very pleasant thing to accept. How much of this translates into actual intolerance is quite another matter. People who don't believe they are racist, or who are trying their very best not to be, may well be avoiding displays or acts of intolerance, so it is possible to suffer from implicit bias without it having any real effect.

It is even possible for a person to be openly racist in their words, while not in their deeds. Much of human society gets by in this way, we are basically pretty decent to one another, despite the horrible things we say.

And this applies to all areas where intolerance occurs.

As usual, I choose to use a silly example to demonstrate what I mean, because if I choose a real one, too much focus is placed on it. I want my example to be placeholder for all types of intolerance, not just one. Therefore I shall talk about the problem of hatism. Hat prejudice.

In the fictitious town of Examplis there is a problem with hatists. They are insisting that the new trend of wearing a green hat is a problem, because in their day everyone wore blue hats. Needless to say, the people who wear green hats are insisting on their right to do so, and saying there's no harm in it. The hatists know that they can't actually go around stealing people's green hats, and in any case that would only solve half the problem - they have no way of forcing people to wear blue hats.

So the hatists do the only thing they can do. They attack the green hat wearers every chance they get. They tell cruel jokes about them. They slander them. They don't employ them, or if they do they don't promote them, and they pay them less. They won't let them into their clubs. They won't rent to them. Hatists in the police force do random stop searches of people in green hats, and pull them over when driving for no reason.

Green hat wearers, along with other people who preach tolerance, become activists. They pass laws to prevent actual oppression of green hat wearers, and they make criticism of them politically incorrect. The hatists can no longer openly speak their hatism, but they don't actually change their belief that green hats are lesser, and therefore wrong.

What's missing from all of this? Communication. Freedom for Green Hats activists decide that they won't make the same mistake that intolerant people make. They must discuss it and try to find out what's behind it. Why do the blue hat wearers hate the green hats so much? But as soon as they show they are willing to listen, a group of the Blue Hat and Proud Of It people, complain about being persecuted. They claim people are being intolerant of their intolerance.

Nevertheless, an interview goes ahead and the blue hat wearer who represents them, says it's all a matter of a slippery slope. If you let people wear green hats, what next? No hats at all? Or perhaps people will wear penguins on their heads, or model tractors, or cheese sandwiches. When the interviewer suggests that perhaps even this would do no actual harm, the blue hat wearer started to yibble and rant about the downfall of society, then accuse the green hat wearers of trying to take over.

Silly. It sounds silly because it is silly. But can you smell the fear? It's all about fear. Fear of "other". Fear of change. Absurd fears of everything falling to pieces. Fear, in fact, of the End Of Civilization As We Know It.

That, I truly believe, is what lurks behind intolerance. There has to be something, and intolerance simply can't stand on its own. It must be motivated by fear. It's why media bias deliberately and systematically tries to create fear.

It's why threats work, especially vague ones. It's why propaganda is so incredibly powerful.

When an animal is frightened it attacks. Humans do too, but are often more subtle about it. Intolerance is a type of fear-based attack. It is a sneaky, back-door attack. It is, in fact, the action of a coward.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Pondering The Negative Side of Normal

People fascinate me - because they're so weird - and that's why I love them so much. One of the key things that fascinates me is why people like what they like. Usually they don't know. Sometimes they think they like things (or pretend to?) because they are mainstream popular. That's a weird reason to like something, but people are often uncomfortable if they don't conform. I find that a bit sad. It's one thing if you are obliged to conform (office dress code) but to do it just to feel like you fit into society, well, that's a shame.

I like men in eyeliner. I really do. It probably doesn't suit everyone, but those who wear it seem to rock it. When I was discussing this with someone, she said "it makes them look like cats". I said "I like cats". So here's a question. Do I like men in eyeliner because they look like cats, or do I like cats because they look like they are wearing eyeliner? is probably far more it nothing to do with that at all, just "one of those things"? I'm also drawn to artwork with black lines in it, and I like Celtic knotwork and stained glass. Is there a pattern, or is it....just one of those things?

But there's another reason I like men in eyeliner, that's not an aesthetic matter. I like the rebellion factor. I like the way it draws out the homophobes, and I particularly like the way it makes beige people uncomfortable. I really enjoy making beige people uncomfortable.

If you don't know what I mean by beige people, you've obviously never listened to Billy Connolly, but it's an easy concept to wrap your noddle around. Beige people are the opposite of colourful people. Beige people never dare. They never do anything outside what they think of as safe and normal. This often leads them to use a lot of beige (or other neutral tones) in their wardrobe and decorating, because it's "safe". They enjoy bland. They are happy with dull. They PREFER boring. But it's not just their colour schemes that are beige. It's their food, their conversation, their musical tastes. Everything they do is unadventurous.

They are, mostly, harmless, so why do I like making them uncomfortable? Because they make me uncomfortable. Fair's fair, etc. They think I'm weird, and I think they are. We don't get along.

I would not hurt them. But I do like making them uncomfortable. I like forcing them to face things that they find too adventurous. You can think of it as mischief if you like, I feel that it's educational. Here's your "outside the box" moment of the day.

There are less beige people than there used to be. When I was a child there were far more. Especially older people. You could line up 20 older people at random and they'd all look roughly the same. Every so often there'd be one that stood out, and people would mock. They'd call them eccentric or worse. Those were the people I liked best. They were more fun, more interesting, more watchable.

On TV there were entertainers who were "over the top" but it was all forced. It was a show, an act. Take away the costume and the script and they were just beige too. Then there were a few who stood out, true colourful characters. I'm not sure at which point I decided I would never be beige, but it was quite young. So I didn't ever get into the habit of conformity. It never made any sense.

There were many advantages to this. Mistakes I didn't make from just trying to go along with the crowd. Never smoked, never did drugs. Didn't hang out in dangerous places with bad people. Those who did thought they were rebelling, of course. They thought they were being daring. I thought they were being fooled.

I just did my own thing, so you can imagine everyone's shock when I married young. In white even. IN A CHURCH. But you see, the advantage of not giving a damn what others think, is that everything is open to you. There is no need to behave in a wild way just to keep up an image. Doing things to keep up an image isn't authentic. It's just another type of conformity.

But the funniest part of doing your own thing is that the exact same thing can look like conformity or rebellion depending on perception. For example, I had 6 children. Some people saw this as terribly old-fashioned and traditional (which it it was once), while others saw this as quite radical (which it is these days). I saw it as just what happened, it wasn't a plan I had. Just how life worked out. But people "read" things that aren't there.

So, now, with all those years of doing things my way, and the person I am now as a result, I'm often seen as complex and interesting. Which I can assure you I'm not. I am quite possibly the least complex person you'll ever meet. I don't have any hidden depths. When you meet me you get to know me very fast, and there are no surprises afterwards. I wear my heart on my sleeve...look, I even write stuff like this.

And I keep running into people who are afraid to be themselves. Oh gosh, there are lots of reasons why, and some of them even make sense. But mostly I think our culture is just weird. People think it's normal, because it's familiar, but that's all it is. Habit. Comes from just doing things without thinking. Living on auto-pilot.

People do this because it saves effort. It's too much work to consider things, to compare, to rationalize, and above all to question.

So that's where I come in. Well, not just me. People like me. People who question a lot and find that habit is often very silly. We mess with their heads by forcing them to think, and they retaliate by calling us eccentrics or worse. Then we really confuse them by not caring about the insults.

Our culture is absurd.

Did you know that the correct answer to the old greeting "How Do You Do" was actually "How Do You Do". A greeting that is a question, for which the correct thing to do is not reply, but to ask the same question, which no reply is expected for.

This is completely and utterly ridiculous. At least (sometimes) these days we actually answer the question. But usually not truthfully. Usually when we answer any enquiry into our well being we say "Fine!" even when we are sick, exhausted, stressed, or simply having a shitty day. It's one of the quirks of etiquette that it's correct to ask how you are, but incorrect to burden others with your troubles. I have had several doctors in my life who would greet patients with "How are you today?" I think they forgot why people had come to see them. And yet I found myself saying "Oh fine thank you" and THEN explaining why I had just told a great big lie. I much prefer doctors who greet you with "And what is the problem today?" or similar. It makes so much more sense.

And I've told this story a million times but it's worth repeating while on this topic. I am English and I don't drink tea.

Before we go any further, let's consider what etiquette is. It's a pattern of habits designed to make things easier for everyone. In this way it's a very good thing. It's about hospitality and even actual kindness. The motivation is impossible to criticize. Somehow along the way, some people misunderstood it, and some aspects of it subsequently conflicted. You see, one of the central aspects of etiquette is to pretend you don't notice when somebody breaks the rules. It's all very complicated really, but it boils down to being nice. And it's assumed you've been learning this since infancy, so you should have got it by now.

Nevertheless, I had so many experiences of there being a problem over tea, that it formed a large part of who I am. I'm quite serious about this. Being a non-tea drinker in England helped create my personality.

Of course, if I had been the conforming type to begin with, I'd have swallowed the stuff regardless and probably got used to it. I daresay there are many people out there who have done this. There would have been parents who insisted they drink it, and so on.

But as it was, I was not the conforming type. I wasn't being difficult. All I ever requested as an alternative was plain water. And if that caused any inconvenience at all I would just go thirsty. Plenty of time I DID, because it was, apparently, too much trouble.

The routine would go like this. I would arrive somewhere, with my mother or grandparents when I was very young, and later on independently, and would be offered tea. That was the standard etiquette. A visitor was offered tea. Not "would you like a drink"? No. Just the offer of tea. I would then say "no, thank you", as politely as I could. This was almost always followed by, at the very least, "are you sure?" and I would say I was quite sure. But at least half the time, it was questioned. Because it was not normal to decline. It was normal to accept. Even if you weren't thirsty. Even if you hated tea. It was a ritual, not a REAL act of hospitality. That would involve actually finding out what your visitor needed, which may be something you weren't willing to give......

Back in the 60s, wherever you went, most people smoked. They never thought twice about it. Everywhere smelled of it, and sometimes it was overwhelming. Visiting my paternal grandfather I could have really have done with a gas mask or perhaps even an aqualung. For many places I went, if there had been such a thing as true hospitality towards visitors, and I'd been asked if I needed anything, the answer would have been "fresh air please". Of course, that would never have happened, it would have been "rude". Apparently choking your visitors wasn't rude. But that's how it was then. Children were expected to just tolerate it. No wonder my generation, now in power, has created so many laws to prevent that.

Then there was the temperature. As you arrived they would offer to take your coat for you. Had I said "no thanks, it's freezing in here, I'll keep it on" that would have been "rude". But it was perfectly OK to freeze your guests. It was also OK to let your poodle hump them, make them sit on furniture covered in dog hair, let your obnoxious nephew make airplane noises the entire time, or insist they watch your tedious holiday slides. This was all OK.

But you had to offer them tea.

The child who refused tea was often considered a bad child. I was not a bad child. Don't assume that because I was not a conforming child that I was a bad child. I was not "high-spirited". I did not touch what wasn't mine. I did not run about and knock things over. I did not interrupt adults who were talking. I spoke, politely, when spoken to. I had good table manners. I even ate all my vegetables. Nobody could call me a bad child. I was easily amused with a very small amount of toys, or a colouring book. If there were a few small cars to play with you wouldn't know I was there. If there was a garden to play in you wouldn't see me at all for the entire visit.

All I ever did to upset people was refuse tea.

And it did upset them. It threw them for a loop. Their whole routine had to change. They had to stop and think. Some people managed to find the cold water tap, but then didn't have a suitable glass to put it in. I was often given water in a teacup or a sherry glass. Once, the only thing that could be found was a cut lead crystal whisky glass, and my host watched me with hand outstretched at every sip lest I drop it.

Some people were more used to children, and would have orange squash available. If you've never experienced orange squash just think yourself lucky. It's a colonial thing, British, Indian, and Australian, what. I imagine that originally it was made from real oranges much like homemade lemonade, but in the 60s it was at least partially artificial, and yet somehow still contained debris. Not pulp, you understand, but who knows what in the bottom. Floor sweepings possibly. It was also almost always over-diluted, and never the right sweetness. Ever. It was always far too sweet, or somehow not sweet enough, there was never a balance. It was never good. And often it was vile.

So, the ungrateful child who had already refused tea, would refuse the orange squash too. That's when the dirty looks were pretty much guaranteed. Often the comments. Often the exasperated questions. All I ever asked for was water.

Through all this, I stayed polite. And resolute. Thanks be, my mother always supported me 100%. So, at least, when she was around it never got to the point of me being actually scolded by anyone. As I got a little older, and was visiting people without her, and people wouldn't go so easy on me, I got sarcasm and even criticism. Now, as far as I know, the Big Book of Etiquette (wherever it is) does not include either of those. Which tells you that this tea ritual is not hospitality at all. It's something else. A test?

I survived, obviously. I still hate tea. The world has changed around me, and it's been an awfully long time since I was offered tea. I tend to mix with people who offer wine to visitors. I have kids who like tea. They make their own.

Looking back, I learned an awful lot about people from this bizarre ritual. Most of it revolves around habit and expectations. I would see the look of discomfort on their faces as the dissent confused them. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I hope I did no real harm. I would like to think it caused them to re-think their attitude towards visitors, to actually realise what hospitality is, but I doubt it. I doubt they remembered it for long, and it certainly wouldn't have had the impact on them that it had on me. For cultural habits to change it takes time and repetition, and I was never a frequent visitor. Once I grew up I simply avoided visiting the type of people who would do this, and once you start on that road, it leads you to the fringe. The less you socialize with people of cultural habit, the less you can relate to them, and the harder it gets.

Here in the 21st century the freaks have risen. A lot of the rituals have melted away and there is far more authenticity in society. Everything is more flexible, people are more adaptable. People don't look shocked anymore when somebody is non-mainstream. There are still beige people, and they are allowed to exist. I just like giving them a little poke now and again, because had we never done so, we wouldn't have reached this level. It was the troublemakers that changed all the things that needed changing. The people who started the ball rolling over slavery were not beige. Revolutionaries are not beige. The women who fought for the right to vote were not beige.

Each event in history, especially in comparatively recent history, that has caused the masses to actually stop and think, and make changes which benefit everyone, began with a few people who didn't fit in, who thought outside the box, and who dared to suggest a different way of doing things. Hippies and human rights go together, and that shouldn't surprise anyone. They dared to grow their hair AND they dared to oppose war.

Beige people don't really do much harm, but they don't do a lot of good either. They are apathetic to change if not actually resistant. When people like me kick them up the butt by forcing them to consider the existence of men wearing eyeliner, there's always a slim chance it leads to other things. It might give them a push, you never know. We need movers and shakers, and they are rarely if ever beige.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history."

- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Loneliness of Authenticity

I'm currently re-reading a book that I've read countless times, and every time I read it I get something new from it. Wow, that must a deep, serious book, eh? Actually, on the face of it, it's anything but. It's a children's book, albeit for "older readers."

It's call "A Hat Full Of Sky" and it's by Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. Ostensibly it's a fantasy story about a young witch called Tiffany, her relationship with the Nac Mac Feegles, a race of tiny people, and an invisible antagonist, a "hiver". It's in the detail that Pratchett gets to you, and this time round at least, I'm inspired to write by a seemingly rather dull character, Petulia Gristle. She's a witch of Tiffany's age, with a lack of self-esteem, which causes her to agree with everyone. This can cause contortions in her mind, and a lot of spoken back-peddling.

It's an extreme, a caricature, but at the same time we all know people who are too polite or weak (which is it?) to express themselves fully and honestly, and most of us do it at least sometimes to avoid an argument. Petulia takes it to the nth, and does a complete about turn in her opinions, in order to please.

I've watched people do this. It fascinates me. Obviously, it's a good thing when people change their minds after they learn something, but sometimes you see it happen in real time, when the only thing they have actually learned is that their opinion was unpopular.

It's not easy having a very different opinion to those around you, especially if they are being forceful about it. If you are a true free-thinker, this can happen a lot. In fact, if you are fully authentic in your opinions, it can mean that there is nobody you are in full agreement with. There'll be bits obviously, but not enough. And so, there will always be "difficult" discussions. You'll be talking about something quite merrily, and suddenly the agreement comes to a full stop.

It's an extremely uncomfortable place to be. It can be temporarily awkward, or it can be a way of life. If you know your own mind well, and you don't capitulate to the ideas of others, it can feel like you are completely and utterly alone.

Not only that, it never gets any better. As you learn more about yourself, you naturally become less able to just "go along" with the crowd.

I therefore invite you today to make yourself more uncomfortable. Some people will resist. Some won't even take this test. Most of those who take it will not like the results, and many will dismiss it. In other words, expect denial. This isn't going to be fun.

I expect discussion, but I'll understand if you don't.

I'll return to the topic of authenticity later in the week.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Arguing Against Yourself

It's no secret I have my pet topics and issues. It's no secret I sometimes foolishly get into arguments on them. It's also no secret that I find myself sometimes feeling frustrated by those who argue, but aren't arguing against me, they are actually arguing against themselves.


No really.

Take evolution, for example. This really isn't something that you can choose to believe in or not at whim. It's a proven theory. A fact. Nevertheless, there are still people who deny it, and the reason is that they don't understand it. What they have in their heads as the details of evolution are all wrong. And they deny that. It's actually got to a point where I have lost interest in arguing it (yes!) because we're just not on the same page.

It's not just everyday idiots arguing the wrong idea either. In the US they've actually had "science advisers" (Republican, obviously) who say something completely inane about evolution, and then scoff at it. How a large and important nation like the US can allow this to happen completely baffles me - it's no wonder the world is in the mess it's in - but there it is. 21st century and you have people at that level failing to understand a scientific principle, and then arguing against their OWN misunderstanding of it.

It's usually a religious thing. Some religious strands have decided that the Bible is a better source of information than science, despite everything we know about how, when, and why it was written, and one of the main reasons they deny evolution is that they think the Earth is very young. So there hasn't been time for evolution. That at least is a logical consistency within their own belief system. Credit where it's due. But the Earth isn't young, and there has been time, so all the stupid remarks about things "suddenly" evolving are based on that nonsense.

These religious people tell me to read the Bible. I have. More thoroughly than many of them. I found all the scientific absurdities in it that they missed. But if I am required to read their book, could they not take the time to read a book I recommend? I have so far been unable to convince any of the evolution deniers to read Jerry Coyne's very well-written explanation of evolution ( I haven't yet read Bill Nye's book on the topic, but I'm told is also very good. These are not heavy, dry, academic tomes, but books suitable for anyone to read. I think they are afraid of understanding it. Probably for good reason.

Evolution is math. It's actually very simple math. Once you understand it, you have to be a special kind of stupid to deny it. But as I said, what they are denying isn't the actual theory of evolution, but some cocked up version of it that they've acquired, which is not the same thing at all.

Then there's feminism. This is a big issue for me because, well, duh, I'm a woman. And I'm a feisty woman. And I don't like the way women are treated in this world. I don't like that we have reached this point in our history and we are still seeing the most appalling oppression of women in many parts of the world, and we still don't have complete equality in the enlightened west. And the reason we don't is that so many people just don't understand what feminism is.

Oh, they think they do. They openly say it. They say things like "I support equal rights, but I don't like this man-hating stuff." Well, the man-hating stuff isn't feminism. Never was. There's nothing feminists can do about weird militant elements, anymore than any ideology can reign in its extremists. Every movement there ever has been has had it's lunatic fringe. You cannot blame the mainstream part of the movement for them.

No, those who argue against feminism are arguing against a concept of feminism that exists only in their own heads. Plenty of people do understand it. And, yes, plenty of them are men. Feminism benefits men. Well, most men. It doesn't benefit bad men, obviously, and nor should it. They are the reason we need it. And, yes, we do.

Being a woman, and being a feminist, helps me understand racial issues. It's not the same, but there is enough of a similarity that it makes actually no sense for me to be racist. It I were to discriminate on the basis of race, it would be ludicrous. I've experienced actual hate based on my gender, and I know how it feels. I also know what the very subtle sexism feels like, which is why I oppose the very subtle forms of racism. You can be racist without lynch mobs.

Because I understand that feminism is not, actually, anti-man, or anti anything - other than injustice, I understand that Black Lives Matter is not anti-white, or anti anything - other than injustice. When one group of people is being targeted, then any movement to change that has to focus on that group. You can focus on multiple groups. But focusing on humanity as a whole, as wonderful as that is, is not enough. Human rights are certainly part of the equation, but despite a long history of human rights, we still have injustice aimed at certain groups of humans, so we have to make more effort there.

Because I understand that the crazies that some people associate with feminism do not represent it, I also understand that the crazies that people associate with Muslims do not represent them. The great irony of all this, is that those who oppose feminism are the first to say "Not All Men Are Bad". And I've heard plenty of Muslim-hating Christians get extremely upset about Westboro Baptist Church or whatever...insisting "not all Christians are like that". So, they DO understand that an aberrant sub-set is not the whole deal. But they conveniently forget it.

Meanwhile, they fight a concept in their heads which is not reality.

The anti-feminists fight a concept of feminism, which is not representative of feminism.
The lunatic fringe of feminism fight a concept of men, which is not representative of men.
The anti-Muslims fight a concept of Muslims, which is not representative of Muslims.
The lunatic fringe of Muslims fight a concept of the west, which is not representative of the west.

And so on. They are all arguing against their own warped, weird ideas which were never the thing itself. This applies to so much.

Misunderstandings of the group or thing you oppose. Why do you oppose it? Because you don't understand it.

You are free to oppose anything you please, but if you do so based on misunderstanding, it becomes ridiculous.

And so it is with the topic of climate change also. Rabid climate change deniers have all sorts of "reasons" why they deny it, but all of them are caused by not actually understand the science behind it. "The models are wrong". Well, they were models. "Not all scientists agree." That's called science. "Natural cycles." Notwithstanding. "Ice is increasing in Antarctica." Investigate why. "LOOK I HAVE A SNOWBALL!" You're a fucking idiot.

And the same applies to much of the nonsense that we read everyday that we've lately categorized as pseudo-science, and of course all the conspiracy theories.

A few months ago I had to write a blog explaining how microwaves work because I had university educated friends afraid of microwaves, and their effect on food. Because these intelligent people had conflated radiation with radioactivity. Because they didn't understand, and this misunderstanding led to fear and opposition.

What did we used to call it when we didn't understand something, became afraid of it as a result, and then opposed it or avoided it? Maybe created elaborate systems to oppose or avoid it?

We called it superstition. Most religion is based on superstition, which shows you how pervasive it has been in human history. Superstition causes tremendous problems. We don't talk about it much these days, but it's still with us. Much of our prejudice and oppression amounts to superstition. Fear. Fear of things we don't understand. And especially fear of things we THINK we understand, but really don't.

It's no surprise to me that it's often the same people who oppose feminism, deny evolution, deny climate change, fear Muslims, and believe in a slew of other nonsense, because it's a personality type, or possibly a learning disability. It seems to be a requirement if you are a US Republican, especially if you are a presidential candidate. Fear, fear, and more fear. That's why they love their guns. They fear everything.

Maybe if they took the time to learn.........