Racism: Annoying and Tragic

This post is primarily to have a conversation with @dexdigi in bites larger than 140 characters. This is a dirty laundry post; management is not responsible for hurt feelings. But I plan to be vicious to myself, so maybe it evens out.

Hi Dex. That spelling is correct with the capital, right? I want to first make sure you’re aware of my previous posts, for obvious reasons. And you should also know that I gained respect for you in reading your pieces on Medium, but I hope I was clear about that on Twitter. Getting me to understand something so foreign to me, and even orthogonal to my worldview, is not a simple thing, but you managed it well. That’s why I’m suddenly so persistent, although I’m afraid I might be annoying you. My strength is in considering things at length, not so much in communicating well. And this paragraph may be an over-correction.

I found these links from Twitter useful:

  • Racism: A History – I can see from this a context where a modern progressive worldview makes sense. It hasn’t changed my opinions (yet), but it has laid a significant portion of the foundation for my understanding of yours.
  • ChangeTheMascot.org and Proud To Be – These, particularly the first, did actually nudge me toward agreement with them. I’m still undecided on the issue, because I find that I fall on opposite sides of hypothetical issues of the same general class (concerning rights of identity).
  • Wikipedia: Political correctness – This was useful for a bird’s-eye view of our positions. I actually chuckled when I realized you had jumped me down the timeline of the term.

Your other link, Books to read on racism and white privilege, is now in my bookmarks (and blog) in case I ever decide I like paper again. (How ignorant of me.)

Racism in Me


Now, despite what I implied on Twitter, I do find racism in myself, but I think I’ve done a decent job of shielding my worldview from it. That is, I think I manage to reprimand it before it changes things, although of course it prevents other things from being changed through conversation – because I don’t have a significant interracial life. But let me explain exactly what that means.

Speaking by race, I know a Filipino James and a Mexican Dave, I see an African Joe at work, and I live in an apartment complex dominated by Africans. (They’re all American.) I honestly wouldn’t be interested in knowing Joe regardless of his race, but I won’t go into that. I make a sincere effort to greet my neighbors as we pass, and, confirmation bias notwithstanding, don’t see the gesture returned. (I don’t know any white neighbors, either, being an introvert.)

But James and Dave are involved in a more interesting story. While Dave was absent, I confided in James and our white friend that I sometimes have trouble relating because of a measure of racism. This happened:

Someone is either a racist and therefore an inhuman monster, or they’re an actual, complex human being, and therefore, by definition, incapable of being a racist.

I spent a good deal of effort calming my two friends down after, as far as they were concerned, calling myself a monster. I haven’t had a candid conversation about race since, except with my very white, right-of-center, one-drop-of-Cherokee, very close friend.

And, like many institutions, my company has reliably selected for whites. I’m confident that’s the economy rather than my bosses, for reasons I won’t go into here. Let it suffice to say that the hiring patterns are very inclusive within other specific characteristics.

So I’m honestly not sure what you or others of your complexion expect of me or others of my complexion in personal conversation. As mentioned above, I am an introvert with social anxieties; it’s against my nature to go out of my way to meet people. I have standard social anxiety toward my neighbors, compounded by the issue of race. (Feedback loop!)

To offer something I think you can agree on, I avoid my neighbors partially because I don’t distinguish between them and the unpleasant issue of race. Yet I contacted you because you had already broached the issue. Annoyed by the wart of racism on my thoughts, I took advantage of that safety.

So for my experience, racism is decidedly annoying in at least two ways (intellectual and social), but then a third thing creeps in: I’m annoyed that progressives, after pointing out my privilege, insist that I use it to mitigate itself.

I’m really fine with it being mitigated, but generally those who benefit from something are supposed to be responsible for producing it. Despite understanding the dynamics of lingering segregation and that my “race” is in a better position to address the problem, I’m offended to be expected to work hard for the benefit of others.

It’s not that I have a problem with hard work for others’ benefit; that figures significantly in what I want to do with my life. When something comes up that would obviously be a contribution to society, I try to do it. But if someone tries to shame me into doing it, I’ll resent that, and I probably won’t do it. However, in this case the work is harder for me than recent examples; I might not have done it anyway.

So is this the idea, to shame white folks into ceding their privilege? I have to say I think we’re more open to diplomacy than to require that. But I understand why trust is lacking.

Racism in History


The videos about historical racism were very informative, but really they didn’t change my idea of what it is. They helped me understand three things:

  1. A whole lot more racist stuff was done than was ever hinted to me;
  2. The worst things I had known were worse than I knew;
  3. The solutions for the atrocious forms of racism seen in centuries past were consistently top-down, and appropriately so.

That third one is the important part. And I don’t mean governments decided on them of their own accords; no, they had to be harassed persistently before they bothered. But, once a solution was offered, a heavy-handed government agency was there to offer it.

This was significant to me because I had never understood why progressives take that approach to modern racism. I thought it was simply because they are progressives and top-down is all they know. And I have always considered it an affront to my conservative and, later, libertarian sensibilities. (Top-down is why I can’t stand Republican politics, either.)

Given all that, I still think bottom-up is better in the 21st century. Top-down solutions tend to address symptoms rather than causes. Historically those symptoms have been of extremely immediate concern. Some of the symptoms remain so, but would actually be addressed by less government – which I want anyway.

For example, the marijuana bans (in respective states) are totally absurd. Society would probably be better served if even some of the more harmful drugs were legalized with appropriate controls. Find any other laws that are used as excuses to unnecessarily toss people into prison and scrap them, too. (I’d be for a non-violent governmental reboot, actually. Refactor the Constitution, scrap the laws, start over with more citizen involvement.)

Another example (which follows from the first): We have way too many people in prison, especially black folks. A large portion of prison facilities are probably totally unjustified. These bandwagons are probably pretty easy to find, if I were to try.

But as for things like income disparities, I think any attempt to solve the problem tends to simply move it somewhere else, often aggravating it in the process. This particular opinion is a function of my belief in the free market, which is apparently an incredibly racist idea. Try harder to tame it and it will just throw you harder. (Yes, I’m from Texas.) I think we’re better off with grassroots social networking – the real kind.

And, despite the abundance of shallow online “social networks,” I think the real thing can be aided by technology. Just have it arrange personal meetings between total strangers (say, five of them at a time). Tune it to match people of diverse races and opinions, if you like. Get it mainstreamed and wait a while, and hopefully our stupid feedback loop of race is broken. Government efforts cannot address the problem at this level.

Racism in Conversation


OK, so this section isn’t really as labeled, but I liked keeping with the theme. First of all, the Wikipedia link you gave me for political correctness jumped to 1990, when it became charged with an anti-“liberal” connotation. The common thread between that and all its previous incarnations was “something politically inadvisable to express.” That is what I mean when I use the term, and what I understand when I read it. It fits nicely, and is equally usable from either side of the aisle (or any other position).

I want to pose a couple hypothetical situations and see how you would describe them.

At a Christian church function, one of the attendees happens to be an evolutionary biologist. Another member mentions creationist ideas as part of typical conversation, and the biologist explains that they don’t make sense. Social pressures are applied, and the biologist is successfully silenced. Ignoring his poor discretion, what did the biologist experience?

A few women are having lunch together, and one of them has recently had a miscarriage. Another is a mother of three, and she somehow mentions her children, not realizing how sensitive the issue is. The first woman is offended and the others join in shaming the mother after she has apologized. What did the mother experience?

I recognize that these are not representative of “political correctness” issues; I deliberately made them morally unambiguous in favor of the “victim” of… whatever you decide to call it.

An Update

This blog’s usefulness seems to be reemerging, so I should update my explanation of what I believe. It has solidified, pending new information, into the following:

  • For daily decisions, I am essentially atheist;
  • When interacting with Christians, I summon my former Christian self as a veil;
  • Philosophically, I am agnostic and a utilitarian specist;
  • When pressed, I admit to deism, as I think the universe implies an outside influence that could rightly be called God.

I still have some things to research, such as the feasibility of evolution and the historicity of the Christian Bible. But for now I’m reasonably confident that any sane God will be fine with how I direct my life. Given an insane God, I can’t conceive how I could adjust my life – other than to despair that a lunatic is in charge.

Art

Today I was thinking about the reasons for art – why it is produced and consumed, and how it can be used and abused. I thought of three reasons, all of them applying to both the producer and the consumer.

Information

I’m a computer programmer, so perhaps it’s only natural that I’m primarily interested in art for its information value – what message I can receive from the author. I’m generally not much of an artist, hence my focus on consumption, but these blog posts are themselves information-dense art. Art can be used to educate or to brainwash; they are the same act except one is honest.

Emotion

I tried to think of why people, especially those most interested in art, are often so interested in subjective “interpretations” rather than information content. The first reason I could think of is that art can manipulate a consumer’s emotions, and it might manipulate one consumer in a different way than it would another. I decided that consuming art for this purpose is equivalent to taking antidepressants, or less reputable drugs. This manipulation is important to art’s entertainment value, but making it the focus in production or consumption would be intolerably shallow.

Reflection

Then I realized that sometimes I learn about my personality or opinions by how I understand and react to art. When I understand art in a way that the author didn’t intend, I make a statement about myself rather than the art. (Of course, if the artist is unskilled in conveying the message, I am more likely to make up my own meaning, but this will happen some anyway.) The same applies to production of art; the characters in a story, for example, say something about the author. Perhaps only the author knows enough to understand what the characters mean, but they are a product of his personality and experiences.

Christianity

I should now explain what I meant by my “Christian” status being complicated. For much of my adolescence and early adulthood, I was rigid in my regard for the Bible as Scripture. I performed mental acrobatics to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, but certain pieces kept eating at me. I decided that the Old Testament was an expression of the same fundamental truths as found in the New, but that there was a disconnect such that I could not understand why the Old was appropriate to its era. Then my brother explained to me that he had given up that fight, and my house of cards collapsed. Questions flooded in and I decided all that I had believed was useless because I could no longer be confident of the foundations (as the New Testament required the Old and both were perfect).

But then I found myself becoming something I did not want to be. I had forfeited my reasons to be moral, so why was I disgusted at the prospect of becoming immoral? I quickly began trying to justify my ethics, and this meant reestablishing my belief in God without the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I described to an online atheist friend that I was stuck; I did not want to be where my questions (the worst of which I am omitting) had landed me, but I could not return to where I was before. My only option was to press forward in hope that the pain would ease further along the way. And I could not express any of this to any Christians except my brother. I had no right to lead others where I was until I knew I was going somewhere good. (I still don’t know that, but I trust people to not read this if they can’t handle it. The anonymity of the Internet is useful, since I can vent to few people personally.) And I didn’t want to tell my brother that he had hurt me by expressing himself.

At this time I had a habit of listening to free LibreVox audio books on my smartphone while lying in bed waiting to grow tired, as an alternative to using the computer which can make me stay up later. That night, after expressing myself to my online friend, I listened to The Princess and the Goblin, and this blog’s title comes from it. The enchanted spider-web is a plot device which leads the two protagonists to safety. It will only lead them forward and never back, and it leads one of them through an area of great peril to save the other from certain death. When I listened to that part of the story, I found it a very apt analogy for my recent experiences and what I hoped would be my future. I speculated that this might be an answer to my pleas for answers, aimed at the God whose I was uncertain of.

Within the next week or so, I found a way to ask a friend of mine whether he was in a similar position without causing him to be. To my selfish delight, he was. Finally, my misery had company!  I also overcame my reluctance to talk to my brother about it, and he didn’t even seem to realize he’d done anything that might be wrong. I was both relieved and offended, but I kept it to myself; it was a much less unpleasant secret than the old one. He believes that morality as universally understood is evidence of a creator and expressed in various religious texts including the Bible. The alternative sources for morality are evolutionary genetics and social convention, and he found them both unsatisfactory. I haven’t yet researched this for myself but it’s my working hypothesis for now.

Soon a Calvinist coworker attended church with me one Sunday, and I slipped up by revealing that I disagreed with Paul’s thing against women leading men in church functions. He pressed the issue on Facebook and I finally gave in, explaining that I didn’t believe the Bible like I used to. It was nice to express that to someone who would disagree, because it helped me understand my new opinions. On the other hand, I discovered some beliefs of his that I found unsettling, and I also found (and my brother later confirmed) that Christians can be surprisingly resilient in the face of reason. I didn’t know I had seemed so dense when I had been on the other side of the argument. But at least this saved me from the guilt of dragging him into the mess I was in.

My brother explained to me that he had come to terms with his unanswered questions, and I began to hope that I might do the same and thereby reconstruct some semblance of theology. At this point I think I’ve mostly managed that. I believe Jesus was basically right. Moses is an enigma; if Jesus knew what he was talking about he seems to have validated Moses, but their teachings seem at odds with each other. Everyone else’s writings are worth considering but sometimes wrong. I try to glean further explanation of what Jesus said from the rest of the Bible, and from literature in general. But whatever doesn’t further this end given my limitations, for the sake of morality I must not consider it Scripture.

Ethics

In my previous post, Caveats and Biases, I described my approach to conversation, relationships, and conflict. This post was supposed to explain why any of this matters – why I do not “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But it turned out as more of a big question-mark, a list of things I’m still trying to figure out.

I’ve really been thinking about this out for a few months now, and I’m not done. I started, naturally, from Christian deontology. I’ve never agreed with Calvinism or proper divine command theory, but I believed that we knew fundamental axioms of ethics from the Bible and our consciences. Conclusions such as murder being wrong while capital punishment would be okay were explained by what I understood to be utilitarianism. That always seemed awkward, considering the generally low opinion of utilitarianism among Christians, but I never looked much into ethical theory until recently. Currently, non-absolutist deontology seems the best fit for my beliefs. I don’t yet understand how an absolutist would justify war and self-defense; wouldn’t he be forced into the Society of Friends by his beliefs? Nor do I understand the logic that allows deontology to be non-absolutist.

I consider the best possible welfare for the most possible people as the self-evident goal of ethics, and I believe each person has a duty to promote it. However, I also believe that the naive pursuit of that goal can undermine itself. If a person is in a catch-22 such that he must either violate his fundamental principles or allow havoc to transpire, he must allow the havoc rather than betray his principles, because by betraying principles he weakens his discipline and causes himself to be unprincipled. (The only way out would be to find a good reason to adopt different principles, but I couldn’t trust myself to judge that in the moment.)  Some ends justify some means under some circumstances; more precisely, principles must be prioritized and the higher must always determine action.

But why does duty matter? Why not shirk it and do what I want? I could never be proud of that; I need to believe that I have done well and done right. Additionally, I do believe in grace, faith, and works as they are explained in the Christian Bible, and I believe in Heaven and a hell which annihilates its inhabitants (because I disagree about how to translate Jesus’ words on the subject). I don’t think of the hell part often, but I suppose it’s a subconscious motivator – to desire to do good rather than to do good begrudgingly. That desire is the faith which, without works, is dead; without faith, works are pointless. More about my theology is forthcoming, within a few seconds in fact.

Caveats and Biases

I think I should explain myself here so I can link to the explanation later.

I believe in utterly honest conversation, admitting biases and mistakes. That’s one of my fundamental principles, and it’s why I’m making this post. And sometimes I violate it.

When I do something wrong, please call me out. (You can tell I’m sane and clear-headed when I’m saying self-obstructing things like this. I do not trust my future self.) I will surely draw out the process of very reluctantly examining myself in light of your accusation. This is both because of my pride and because I find introspection a very tricky process. I probably did do what you accused me of, but I must come to my own conclusion and not lazily rely on you to think for me.

I am stubborn, power-hungry, undisciplined, and self-righteous. Actually I’ll grab any excuse I can find to consider myself better than you, not just righteousness.

I was raised by two Christian, Republican, religious-right parents. For most of my life (or at least the part where I remember thinking about abstract concepts) I have been all three of those things. First I divorced myself from the Republican Party because I disagreed about economic issues. I proceeded to argue with myself about the social side of the platform and I now have unconventional (as in, neither left nor right nor middle) views on abortion and LGBT issues. Somewhere in there I decided religion and politics make a dangerous combination. As for the only remaining label, “Christian,” it’s complicated.

And yet I still think the way I was raised to. I still agree with my native culture on several issues. One of my lifelong quests is to chase my biases, to rehabilitate myself from insufficient examination of ideas. On the flip side, I sometimes appoint myself as an ambassador toward people from other cultures who don’t seem to understand how we think. I seek relationships where each member teaches of himself and is studied by the rest.

But why bother? That’s what I intend to cover in my next post.

How important is copyright?

I’m a software developer.  Copyright on all my code has been transferred to my employer before I write it.  Yet it is still relevant to my work; I get commission on smartphone app sales, and my employer’s income is my job security.  Granted, my works, being compiled to binary and mostly locked away on iDevices, are less accessible to customers than print media or professional blogging.  Regardless, how important is copyright to society?

Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, is a prominent figure within my primary special interest group.  However, I lean more toward the Open Source side of the fence, don’t observe all the pedantry (RMS, chill out about GNU being used in all Linux distributions), and prefer the Republican or Libertarian party to his Green.  Yet I have long respected his opinion on copyright and patents as they apply to software, and as a result I’m surely more receptive of his other opinions, which are numerous.  I’m also a sucker for the American Constitution, and libertarian trimming of institutions both government and corporate.

So it’s not surprising that I would prescribe his opinion on copyright law with no salt.  As that page explains, copyright as it is currently implemented is vastly bloated compared to the constitutional intention, and unjustified by constitutional standards.  I welcome objections to his argument, but if you simply don’t agree with honoring the Constitution then we have nothing to discuss.  But this post will address the crux of the “anti-piracy” argument: that livelihoods are threatened by copyright infringement.

(To reiterate Stallman’s point: I will go out of my way to avoid calling it as piracy or theft, or the work as intellectual property.  I don’t agree with copyright infringement, but a copyright is an expression-monopoly.  The expression is not property in any meaningful way; it cannot be damaged or stolen.  Its market value can certainly be lowered, but that is competition rather than theft.  A copyright is a monopoly on an expression, granted by the government for the public’s benefit.)

I won’t address the corporate-interest angle (CEO versus grunt) or the flawed implementation of SOPA/PIPA.  (The OPEN Act may not be all that great either.)  My focus is on the equity of the trade Mr. Stallman explained.  He suggested shortening the very long longevity which copyright currently enjoys, from [artist’s death] + 70 years (approximately 1.5 to 2 lifetimes, for works produced by younger artists) to 10 years or less, depending on the industry.

Mr. Stallman’s focus was on getting the most new works for the least public liberty – maximum efficiency, not simply maximum output.  Does anyone disagree with his guesstimates?  Specifically, I wonder how much we should be concerned whether copyright can sustain someone’s entire living income.  Perhaps it would be better for society if some arts were only viable as side jobs or hobbies.  Would the decreases of input and output be equitable?

Redistribution and modification of copyrighted works are the two freedoms spent.  Firstly, the widespread infringement targeted by the bills represents a deficit of those works which are being infringed.  Copyright is, in my unprofessional opinion, only suitable for reigning in sparse edge cases, not reversing an entire culture of habitual infringement.  If artists’ funds are being restricted it is the responsibility of executives (or a surplus of artists).  Copyright is far too strong, and forbids access to far more works than are encouraged by its most recent expansions.

The primary argument for “anti-piracy” legislation is that we should preserve copyright because otherwise the artists won’t be able to support themselves.  I’m sure the artists would find ways to support themselves, although they might produce less art or even cease to be artists.  I do not believe a reduction of copyright would starve these artists; this is not an issue of human rights.  At worst, it would require them to switch industries.  I say this not to be cold-hearted, but because I think this point deserves attention after such a long period of widespread neglect culminating in our current crisis.