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On Fandom and Ethical Responsibility

I made a mistake today, internet – I read a thread on a forum, all 300+ posts of it. In this particular thread, some entitled manchildren were chittering their outrage over the fact that responses to “GamerGate” have painted gamers with an overly broad brush; moreover, they were offended that so many individuals seemed to be endorsing a “You’re with us or against us mentality,” and the shouting was just alienating them.

I’m not sure these people are worth caring about, and I say that specifically as someone who has previously discussed the existential absolutism of Alan Moore’s V. I’m also the same person who specifically examined the moral dilemmas raised by popular, reactionary activism as well as the underpinnings of existential responsibility on a social scale. I’ve also made it clear that on a personal level I have zero problems with drawing a line in the sand. I’d link to my track record of criticizing fanboys, but then I’d be here all day adding links.

As much as moral absolutism might raise troubling questions, I have problems giving a single fuck about people who feel that the criticisms of a fandom have unfairly victimized them. Because geekery has always been a rather cesspooly place to be; the internet has only made that more immediately visible, and attempts to change that have all-to-often resulted in pushback not only from the frantically masturbating fanboys, but from the creators behind them (the issue of Spider-Woman’s posterior on a cover being a recent one that springs immediately to mind).

I’m sure some of these people taking offense are perfectly good people in some respects – perhaps they do indeed find racism and sexism objectionable. Yet by taking umbrage because they’re accused of “not doing enough,” or because they think they can remain uninvolved, they are engaging in various degrees of moral cowardice, an accusation I have exactly zero problems making.

When it comes to culture, there is no neutral position. None. Zip. Zero. A bagel. Culture is not something we are simply passive consumers of, but something that we all have a hand in creating. So when your policy is to choose to not be involved, you are actively making the choice to allow the existing culture to continue. You can whine all you want, but that makes it no less true. Of course, there’s always that old chestnut, “Should I not engage in things I like just because they’re problematic?”. We can of course choose to ignore the fact that these things are problematic, or we can be somewhat less shitbaggy and admit that even though we enjoy them these things are indeed problematic.

We can also make the choice to not engage with these things whether or not we enjoy them because of their problematic nature. There are games, books, comics, etc. that I pass on either because I find their nature problematic in and of itself; or perhaps like the work of Card, Miller, or Goodkind the work is simply a mouthpiece for the creator’s infantile views; or because I simply find the creator, be it an individual, company, or even someone involved, to be so reprehensible that I won’t support the project, and thus given the impression that I would support future projects (Tom Cruise movies being a case in point – I find Scientology even more reprehensible than the Randian wankfest that is libertarianism, and his status as an actor has enabled him to serve as its face). I find the idea that we should avoid moral decisions that might in some way be detrimental to us to be a baffling one. If your values hinge on the condition that you never be negatively impacted as a result of holding them… saying that I am unimpressed is an understatement of near-infinite proportions.

There are people I like, and who I not only don’t think are bad people, but are people who actively speak up against injustice that I don’t associate with as often as I once did, or at times would like to, because my association with them is largely prefigured around mutual “geeky” interests; thus my interactions with them involve stepping into cultural milieus that I am increasingly uncomfortable with being an active part in. I don’t limit that to simply denying myself the products of fandom. I’ve lost friends because I’ve pointed out that I find someone’s  course of action morally objectionable. I wound up homeless for a while because I wasn’t willing to subject myself to a situation and persons I found morally objectionable.  Thus I’m willing to walk the walk, even when doing so has cost me in not-insignificant ways.

So when there are people out there taking the brunt and being shit on because they’re not male, not white, not straight, or whatever other factor and they dared to have an opinion about fandom or the products of its adulation, I’m going to give zero fucks about your bruised feels and desire to curl up in your fortress of solitude and not hear about it. Does this mean that each and every person must of necessity be out there on the “front lines.” No, there are perfectly good reasons for not doing so, though as I’ve pointed out “neutrality” isn’t one of them.

There are no isolated ethical actors, and there are no isolated ethical actions. Choosing not to be involved is an action, and it is the action of a coward. So if you want to get offended because you didn’t like someone’s tone, or thought they were shouting too loud, or are made uncomfortable because they’ve forced you to confront your morally bankrupt cowardice you are worth giving exactly zero fucks about, because you are not simply tacitly endorsing, but are actively creating the culture that you (might) claim to find objectionable.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Activism, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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We Insist on Ethical Perfection in our Icons

I’m not talking about the kind of icons who run spandex-clad across a comics page, or slaughter legions of brown people on the silver screen. I’m talking about the sort we have in our workaday world; politicians, actors, it doesn’t matter. We raise them up on pedestals, and we insist that they be morally perfect. When they fail to maintain a standard of behavior that we don’t hold ourselves to we pretend to be shocked while our secret hearts consume every detail of their falls with masturbatory glee.

I think Laurie Penny overlooks this in her recent article on Assange in the Independent. She’s not wrong in that we can, and should, insist both on freedom of speech and transparency of governance as well as women’s rights. I’m not trying to “mansplain” her argument away, because I, personally, find no tension that must be resolved within the idea of acknowledging the good that Assange has done via WikiLeaks, and insisting that he be called to account for any rape or sexual assault he might have committed.

Unfortunately, most of us are brought up to believe the ad hominem argument is a valid form of argumentation. For those not familiar with the ad hominem it translates as, “argument to the man.” It’s a tactic in which rather than addressing the substance of the argument you attack the character of the person presenting that argument. In short, “Assange is a rapist, so obviously his work, and thus the work of WikiLeaks, cannot be trusted.”

It doesn’t help that Assange and WikiLeaks have themselves presented the charges pending in Sweden as being exactly that. Which among other things doesn’t help the cause of feminists and social justice workers, because whatever Assange’s intentions, whether or not he’s guilty, dismissing the allegations as simply part of a smear campaign add to the already problematic environment that surrounds rape prosecutions. To put it another way dismissing these charges contributes to the perpetuation of rape culture.

But this post really isn’t supposed to be about Assange per se. It’s supposed to be about his supporters. The ones Ms. Penny talked to, and the ones pontificating in the media. Is there some misogyny in play? I do not doubt it. Are we seeing rape culture at work? I would be the last person to say no. Yet equally at play is our refusal to accept the fact that Julian Assange is only human, and might very well be a shitbag of a human. After all, we ask ourselves, could some rapist shitbag really be a hero?

The answer is that, no, a rapist shitbag can’t be a hero. Rape, alongside slavery, is the most morally abhorrent crime that one can commit. It tops murder by a wide margin. If Assange committed rape we shouldn’t regard him as any kind of hero… but that doesn’t invalidate the message he spread through WikiLeaks.

So long as we insist on moral perfection in our icons, and believe that media delivered ad hominems are a perfectly valid claim none of this is going to change. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Julian Assange or K-Stew. Nowhere on this planet is there a morally infallible human. Quite frankly the vast majority of us don’t even follow an internally consistent ethical system, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that as a culture we find the equivalent of, “Eww, Billy eats boogers; he can’t be my friend!”, to be a valid justification for claiming we should ignore accusations of rape.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2012 in Activism, Pop Culture

 

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To be Rational is not, I Fear, Even on the Same Continent as Being Virtuous

It has been a while since I posted anything. Truth be told, I haven’t had much to talk about. While I have had one request to talk about The Punisher, I’ve been slow to move on it for a number of reasons (like the fact that so far the only thing I’ve come up with is wondering if Frank is even sane enough to be counted as a moral agent). This is not, however, a post about Frank Castle, or even about comics. Rather, this post is about atheism and rationality.

I make no secret of the fact that I am an atheist. I’ve criticized religion more than once on this blog, from both Nietzschean and non-Nietzschean perspectives. In particular, I’ve talked about the fact that I believe that religion is one of the primary offenders in shutting down our capacity for individual moral reasoning in favor of adopting a dogmatic view.

That said, barring the occasional comment I generally avoid engaging with the skeptic and atheist communities either online or off. Though it is by no means the only reason for my doing so, a large part of why I have no desire to engage with my “fellow free thinkers,” is that a good many of them crow their own rationalism, and believe that this is sufficient to qualify them as virtuous, and magically excuses their bad behavior(s).

Let us start with the most recent example, being, as it is, the example that inspired this post. A 15 year old girl decided to post about a Christmas gift on the r/atheism section of 4chan’s poor cousin Reddit. The resulting shitstorm featured a good many participants talking about how they would like to have sex with, or simply rape, a 15 year old girl. You can read more about it over at Skepchick.

The misogyny on display in this instance is pretty sickening, as are the attempts to blow it off as “just being the internet,” blaming the victim for posting her picture, or attempts to deflect the blame from the skeptic/atheist communities because it’s a problem for more than just these communities. This last point is true, because these things are problems in society as a whole… the point is also absolutely and utterly irrelevant, and a rather pathetic attempt at having to take responsibility for both our own behavior and the policing of our own communities.

This is not, however, an isolated instance of misogyny in particular, or bad behavior in general among atheist and skeptical communities. Obviously there are exceptions, and my personal experience does not qualify as universal experience, but I have continually seen a sense of entitlement in which atheists and skeptics adopt the stance that “Because I am a more rational person than you I am a more virtuous person than you.”

Yes, not believing in superstition is better than believing in superstition – one might even call it a virtue. Being possessed of a single virtue is not, however, anything like being a virtuous person.

This problem is nothing like new. Let us wind the clock all the way back to Aristotle. Yes, the man who for all intents and purposes invented the discipline of logic. Aristotle was a pretty logical guy… he was also cool with slavery. Yes, yes, I know philosophers like to leap to Aristotle’s defense by claiming that the Greek conception of slavery was not the same as our conception of slavery. So let’s look at Aristotle’s paraphrased defense of slavery, shall we? “Non-Greeks are not rational in the same way that Greeks are rational, thus they are not human in the way that Greeks are human and it is perfectly cool with me to have non-Greeks as slaves.” This is meaningfully different from the justifications that Europeans used to enslave Africans how, exactly? (Hint: It isn’t, and Aristotle’s justifications for slavery read almost identical to the justifications used by Europeans hundreds of years later.) It was logic, logic that for Aristotle formed the foundation of human virtue, as it was for Aristotle the uniquely human trait, that gave him this conclusion.

Arch-logician Kant, another soul for whom virtue was to be found solely in reason, was also a raging racist with deep seated issues about sex.

Yet if logic, as some have liked to claim, is not only transcendent, but the foundation from which virtue springs, how could two highly logical men have reached these conclusions? Should we hem and haw and try to condemn the views without condemning logic to a non-transcendent state?

No, no we really shouldn’t. Logic, like every other facet of human experience, is conditional. It has no transcendent basis or properties. Aristotle was okay with slavery, and Kant was a racist with bedroom-related issues because logic, transmitted as it is within an overriding cultural framework, told them that these things were the logical conclusions.

We are not creatures whose unique inherent quality is to be rational; we are creatures who are taught rationality tied up with all sorts of presuppositions, assumptions, and utter nonsense. Yes, rational thinking can be useful in a number of ways, and can even allow us to engage in a virtuous behavior in avoiding falling into the trap of superstition/religion. That neither makes rationality itself a virtue, nor does it make people who behave rationally into virtuous people.

Atheism and skepticism help prevent us from engaging in the bad behaviors encouraged by religion and magical thinking; as the most recent example of behavior on Reddit, as well as past examples of behaviors elsewhere demonstrate, none of that prevents us from acting like assholes in entirely different ways. So before we start crowing about how our rationality makes us more virtuous than those mired in superstition we should take a step back and make sure we are actually behaving in a virtuous fashion.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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An Unjust man of Just Reputation

A while back I talked about how one of the themes in Garth Ennis’ The Boys is a platonic reflection on how it is better to be an unjust man with the reputation of a just man than to be a just man with the reputation of an unjust one. Unfortunately, the real world has served us up a rather disturbing, and disgusting, example of exactly this. I speak of course of Joe Paterno and his firing from Penn State.

For those who have remained blissfully unaware of the events, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky is accused of molesting children over a period of approximately 15 years. At least two of the incidents are said to have happened on Penn State property. In at least one case, a graduate student, a former football player who worked for Paterno, is said to have walked in on Sandusky in the act of molesting a child. This graduate student did not intervene; rather, he left the room, called his father, and then called Paterno. Paterno is said to have kicked it up the chain of command, which according to his defenders somehow absolves him of blame.

“Joe Pa” was aware of the accusations. He was aware that the administration of Penn State elected to keep quiet about them. The graduate student who did nothing not only continued to work for Paterno, but received promotions in exchange for his silence.

If Joe Paterno was a good man, he would fired the graduate student. If Joe Paterno was a good man he would have told the administrators of Penn State to go fuck themselves, and taken the information to police and prosecutors himself. If Joe Paterno was a good man he would have done these things even if they cost him his job and his reputation.

However, Joe Paterno is not a good man. He is not a humble man. He is not a man worthy of respect or admiration. Because to him, protecting his reputation, and the reputation of Penn State and its football team, were more important to him than doing what was morally right. He is an unjust man with the reputation of a just man, and that reputation has benefited him greatly. One merely has to look at the people leaping to his defense, frantically searching to place blame on anyone but their beloved “Joe Pa.” One merely has to look at the money he brought in for Penn State, and for himself.

Are the trustees and administrators, the graduate student, and anyone else who was aware of this also to blame? Of course. I don’t defend them in the slightest. Yet none of that absolves good ol’ “Joe Pa” of what he has done. For those who have made the claim that we can’t judge the man without knowing him: yes, we can. Because this cruel, calculating man has shown the world exactly who he is when you take the reputation for being a just man away; Joe Paterno is a man who allows allegations of child molestation to go univestigated for the sake of preserving his “good” name.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Philosophy

 

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The Ethical Dilemmas of Activism

Anyone who reads this blog on even a semi-regular basis likely knows that I am not a big fan of the status quo, and that I advocate for social justice. I see the world as it is, and want to replace it with the world as it could be. Sometimes a course of action is pretty clear, such as when someone is discriminated against for being the “wrong” color, or the “wrong” sexual orientation. Yet is it always so simple as standing up and saying, “This shit is wrong, and must end immediately!”?

Let’s take a quick  look at agribusiness and the food industry, and see if that can get us anywhere near an answer.

Agribusiness, as currently practiced, is for the most part some horrible, horrible shit. Animals are treated in inhumane, torturous fashions. Fertilizer runoff causes algal blooms which create hypoxic zones and causes die-offs among marine life. Safety conditions for both workers, and consumers, are, to put it mildly, suboptimal. The United States government has long since caved to the pressure of lobbyists and made it almost impossible for the FDA to do a thing about any of this.

All in all I think most people could agree that the situation in the food industry is disgusting. Our methods of food production and consumption are unjust and unethical. So we should shut them down, right?

….

Now that you’ve shut down food production what do you do? Buy organic? First, you should probably make sure that your product isn’t produced by one of the companies you just shut down; because it has proven profitable, many of the big business involved in the food industry have been expanding into the organic market. Also, are you certain you can provide enough of it to meet people’s needs. I don’t mean demands, I mean needs. Did resolving the ethical injustices of our current food production methods cause a lot more people to not have enough to eat?

How are all the people who are now out of work going to support themselves? Can your new “organic” farms provide jobs for them all? Because it isn’t just corrupt CEOs that are out of jobs now. It isn’t even just the people who worked directly in agribusiness; what about all the companies who rely on the products of agribusiness, or who sell their products to agribusiness? Is each and every person who is involved in the process and product of agribusiness, no matter at what level, deserving of uncaring sanction? If so then don’t forget to include all of us who consume its products, as we’re as guilty as anyone else.

I freely admit that this is just a short list of examples. I also want to make it clear that I am not in the least bit discouraging activism. When shit is wrong we should address it. My point is that we should never address injustice reflexively. We most certainly should act on those things which outrage us, yet acting without though can be as harmful as not acting. As with our lives, we should always address our activism in a reflective fashion; meeting ethical injustice with ethical injustice is not the answer.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Activism, Philosophy

 

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V’s Vendetta: Virtuous vel Vicious?

I begin this post back in June of this year. Since that day it has pressed its nose against the glass like an annoying puppy. Perhaps it is time to finally let it come inside, though if it pisses on the floor I’m taking it to the pound in the morning.

As the title of this post might suggest, I want to talk about Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In particular I vaguely recall reading an article back in June, and it once again struck me the way that many people regard V as an unambiguous hero. This seems to happen most frequently with those who are only familiar with the watchable, though much inferior film version of Moore’s story, but I’ve seen it in those who have read the comics as well.

It is true that Norsefire is an evil organization. Norsefire has engaged in a pogrom designed to remove “deviants” from society. It engages in propaganda campaigns, and closely monitors the words and deeds of the English public. It is unsurprising that the actions of Norsefire closely resemble those of the Nazi party, as Moore was one of many who were disturbed by the creeping overtones of fascism that were becoming increasingly common in Thatcherite England. (Though it should be said that Norsefire is not presented without humanizing features. Unfortunately, a deeper discussion of that element is beyond the scope of this current post.)

At first blush it seems unsurprising that we here in the West might respond to V as an unambiguous hero. He is, after all, going after fascists. Despite the misbehaviors of our own governments, we’ve been taught that this is a cause we can unambiguously rally behind, right? I’m quite fond of kicking fascism in the teeth myself, as is Mr. Moore. Despite his feelings on fascism, Moore does not present V in an unambiguously heroic role.

Throughout the course of Moore’s narrative, V makes it clear that he is a kind of arch-existentialist. He is concerned that mankind through off their shackles, all their shackles, and if we aren’t willing to do it ourselves then he will give us no choice but to confront the horrors of existential freedom. This in and of itself is a rather glaring question, and one Moore would return to in later work; is it ever ethical to force another person to confront their own freedom? Telling people about existential freedom and what it means, even guiding them toward a recognition of that freedom is one thing. What V is doing is wrapping the people’s chains in philosophical C4 and blowing them into the stratosphere whether they want it or not.

As someone who works with existentialist ideas, who as both philosopher and human thinks that confronting the terror of Nietzsche’s abyss and the horror of Sartre’s existential freedom is a good thing… I’m conflicted about this. The goal of these confrontations is supposed to motivate us towards is that of authenticity; yet if we force another into this confrontation, if we take the choice to move toward authenticity away from someone, can the result still be said to be “authentic” as such. I must confess that my general inclination is to say no.

That said, V’s philosophical ambiguity has its physical analogue. We can take the classic route and argue that those who work for Norsefire, even if they are not secret police or members of the party’s ruling echelons, have sealed their own fates. They knew what they were getting into. Their actions, however innocent they might consider them to be, support a fascist regime. As such, their deaths are necessary, and even just. Even here I don’t think Moore is unambiguous, but again for the sake of space this particular element will have to be tabled for another time, because even if we were to accept this simplistic view, V’s predations are not limited to those actively in the employ of Norsefire.

In particular, part of V’s plans to bring down Norsefire’s corrupt regime is to instigate food riots. It is certainly true that Norsefire is harmed by this action. Norsefire’s control of the populace is weakened, and various soldiers and police are either actively injured in the riots, or forced to focus their attentions on rioting areas. It is quite clear that the general populace of V’s England suffer their own losses because of V’s actions. People die. People suffer injury or lack of food. V is… unconcerned with this. For V, if you are unwilling to accept the enlightenment he brings, you are part of the problem, and if your life is lost in pursuit of his goal then your life is lost in pursuit of his goal.

Again, this is something I find troubling. It raises that classic question; do the ends justify the means? V reduces human lives to the status of objects, of tools to be used against Norsefire. This is not an unambiguously heroic action.

I also believe that Moore deliberately invokes V’s ambiguous status. V tells his protege that he (the V that is) is the destroyer; he tears down the evil that is now; while she (the V that will be) is the creator; she will guide (but not lead) us from the rubble toward a brighter future. I think it is clear that Moore is telling us that just as Watchmen‘s Adrian Veidt is a villain, but not one whose actions can be regarded as the classic, simplistic mustache-twirling villain, V is not a knight in shining armor. He engages in acts that are morally questionable at best, morally objectionable at worse. I also suspect that if we limit ourselves to reading V as unambiguously heroic Mr. Moore might tell us, in his inimitable way, that we are missing the damn point.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Alan Moore, Comics, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand

The latest news to be making the rounds in that Orson Scott Card has finally let the full extent of his batshit crazy see the light of day. Card has been on the “it’s not okay to be gay” train for a while now, but he’s, for the most part, manage to disguise the worst of his froth behind a faux-civility. Sure, he was talking shit, but at least he wasn’t rabid (at least in the examples I’ve personally read, it is entirely possible that there are earlier examples of batshit crazy that I’ve missed).  In case you’ve remained unaware of his crazy, he decided to (poorly) re-write Hamlet as an anti-gay screed.

This has prompted discussion about how we should look at Card’s earlier work. Admittedly, this is not a discussion that is limited to Card, and frequently pops up as a topic of conversation whenever “Person X has previously enjoyed the work of Person Y, but is currently reevaluating that enjoyment upon discovering that Person Y is a dick.”

A common response is that if we enjoy the work we can continue to enjoy it without agreeing with Person Y’s beliefs or dickish behavior. In some cases I agree. There are any number of people who I think are asses as human beings, but I can read/watch/etc. their work without suffering moral quandaries. Card is not one of those people.

First and foremost, Card’s behavior goes well beyond being a dick, and into the area of preaching an anti-human stance. Not only does he hold these beliefs, but by joining such hate groups as the National Organization for Marriage he actively seeks to turn his morally reprehensible beliefs into action. Even if he wasn’t, we should always bear in mind that a person’s beliefs guide their actions, guide their way of being in the world. Even if Card was not active with groups like N.o.M. his way of being in the world would still be guided by a set of beliefs that no human being should ever, under any circumstances be willing to support.

Yes, I enjoyed Ender’s Game. I used to recommend it to others. I will no longer be doing so. In supporting Card’s work, any of Card’s work from any point in his career, I am supporting a stance I find unsupportable. I can try and justify it all I want, I can add all the disclaimers I want; in supporting that book I am supporting Orson Scott Card. All the justifications do is allow me to avoid feeling guilt over my moral failing, and personally, I don’t consider it a small moral failing in this case.

I don’t claim to be morally perfect. However, this is not a subject on which I am prone to bend. I don’t read the work of Terry Goodkind both because he’s a tedius writer, and because like Card’s screed his books are a thinly veiled bully pulpit for the moral slime that is Objectivism. I consider Scientology to be nothing but a virulent poison, and as such will not support anything even tangentially related to it.

I’m all for allowing dissent, and have no desire to stifle the ranting of any of the people mentioned above. I’m perfectly willing to forgive human foibles. However, there has to come a time when we must say enough is enough. If we believe that the words and actions of a writer such as Card are morally reprehensible, then there is never justification for supporting their work. Because in doing so, we are in action, regardless of our words, enabling the very thing which we claim is a source of disgust to us.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Activism, Pop Culture

 

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