Unskeptical Complaints

If you’re reading a blog as small as this one, chances are you know about the problem of online harassment of women, trans* people, people of color, LGB people, and other minorities. It’s a problem in just about every subculture with a significant online premise, from the skeptic/atheist community to comic fans to video game nerds to sci-fi/fantasy buffs, and so forth. Different groups are attacking the problem in different ways, but there’s a pretty general understanding among social justice supporters that this is a symptom of larger problems that will only go away if the overall culture changes and the systems of kyriarchy are dismantled. In the meantime, we need to find a way to deal with the trolls, harassers, assholes, and disingenuous arguers that flood various timelines and hashtags. One such stopgap solution is the Atheism+ Block Bot, helmed by Oolon1.

The Block Bot grew out of various needs in the social justice wing of skepticism/atheism, and the problem of online harassment has grown large enough to garner international attention, which led to a media promotion of The Block Bot on BBC Newsnight. It’s nice to see this issue getting mainstream coverage, and hopefully it’ll lead to more substantial action.

Skeptic activist Tim Farley took issue with the idea of the Block Bot as a general-usage or all-purpose solution to the problem of online harassment, and there’s a kernel of truth to his complaints. The Block Bot isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, even though it has grown and expanded its scope since its first appearance (I’ve noticed people in the comic fan community using/talking about it, for instance). Most of Farley’s complaints rest on that premise, which is a little like complaining about your toaster because it doesn’t accommodate every kind of baked good. That’s not what it was built for or intended to do. It’s the “Atheism+ Block Bot” for a reason, though the basic principle could be adapted for most groups.

The issue I had was with his “Problem 5.” That is, his second “Problem 5.” The first “Problem 5” is problematic as well–“blocks have consequences” he says, and I say “so should being an annoying asshole online.” If you’re worried about ending up on a Level 2 or 3 block list, maybe don’t say the kinds of intentionally ignorant, antagonistic, baiting, or bigoted types of things that lead to people wanting to block you en masse.

Which is where his Problem 5b picks up. Farley takes issue with the point that many of the people on Levels 2 and 3 aren’t “just anonymous trolls that deserve it.” The problem is that his entire objection is built on a mountain of logical fallacies, at least one of which is belied by the example he led off with2.

The problem isn’t just anonymous trolls. In fact, I suspect it’s rarely strictly anonymous trolls and far more frequently pseudonymous trolls, but that’s pedantry. Anonymity is a convenient shield for trolls and harassers to hide behind, but not everyone feels the need to do so. There are plenty of people on the Block Bot’s lists, and on the various pages documenting this harassment who are perfectly willing to say abusive, offensive, and antagonistic things right next to their real names and faces. Anonymity is a red herring.

And Farley should know this, since he begins the post by talking about his dealings with Dennis Markuze/David Mabus, who spent decades abusing, harassing, and threatening people on the Internet under a stable pseudonym, and who wasn’t stopped or mollified once his true identity was known. Markuze is a special case, being more prolific, more overtly abusive, and more clearly in need of help than most of the people on the Block Bot’s list, but he’s still a stunning example of how anonymity/pseudonymity is neither necessary nor sufficient for this kind of behavior.

But Farley’s justification is a stunning example of Skeptics Being Profoundly Unskeptical, which I think I’m going to have to make into a post category for how often I talk about it. Here’s the relevant bit:

However, just a casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. They include:

  • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
  • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
  • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
  • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
  • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
  • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
  • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
  • A TED Fellow
  • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
  • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people. Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

This would make for a great game of spot the fallacy, wouldn’t it? Farley lists all these qualifications, but none of them are “noted anti-spam crusader” or “longtime anti-bigotry activist,” not that those would be excuses either. See, none of these qualifications are inconsistent with “abusive […] anti-feminists, MRAs, or all-round assholes” or “annoying and irritating”3. It’s possible to be an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedian and also be an annoying asshole who delights in baiting feminists with disingenuous arguments, just as it’s possible to be a Ph.D. biochemist who believes in intelligent design. This is a pro hominem argument, an argument from false authority, that these people’s lofty credentials make them somehow incapable of being bigots, jerks, trolls, abusers, or just antagonistic assholes to specific groups of people.

The last paragraph there is a doozy of arguments from ignorance and unstated major premises. “I see little evidence” is very different from “there is no evidence,” and the mechanics of Twitter mean that offensive tweets are often lost to the depths of a person’s timeline after a relatively short amount of time. But there’s plenty of evidence that prominent skeptics are capable of being petty, antagonistic, obtuse, bigoted (both in overt and unintended/unconscious ways), and asshole-ish. Some skeptics love poking various hornets nests, some love directing snide comments and thinly-veiled insults at people/groups they disagree with on social media, some keep dredging up sexist/racist/homophobic arguments and tropes time and time again even after hearing repeated responses/debunkings, some hyperbolically respond to the slightest criticisms with howls of NaziCommieStasi witch-hunt inquisitions. Farley’s right, they’re probably not going to be arrested anytime soon, but that’s because being an annoying, antagonistic asshole isn’t a crime.

The unstated major premises here are that “only anonymous trolls (and certainly not people I consider friends) behave in ways that would merit mass blocking,” which I dealt with above, and “only behavior that is illegal merits mass blocking,” which is the usual response to those complaining about harassment: if it’s not illegal, it’s not really harassment; if it was real harassment, why didn’t you call the police? I’ve responded to this notion, so has Stephanie Zvan, and the fact that Farley is able to spout off with it in such a casual manner shows just how insulated from this stuff he really is.

There are degrees of harassment. Some of it is criminal, some of it is civil, none of it is pleasant for the target. Blocking someone on Twitter is not a punishment that requires a trial and a sentencing phase. And if you were receiving the same disingenuous arguments, the same JAQing off on Twitter day-in and day-out, you might not see it as all isolated innocent incidents. The dude who wolf-whistles at a woman walking down the street might be just one dude, whistling at just one woman, so that’s clearly not harassment, right? But if it’s the thirtieth time she’s had to roll her eyes at that on her walk to work, it takes a different tone. One guy asking a person of color if they wouldn’t rather wash all the color off and be white, or touching their hair and talking about how much they admire it, might be an act of clueless ignorance, but if it happens over and over, it doesn’t matter to the target that the act is being committed by different people. People get worn down. Why should every person have to deal with each individual ignorant microaggression as if it were the first time they’d experienced it? Why would you begrudge people the option to avoid those microaggressions, even if it’s only in one forum? Don’t other people deserve the same ability to check their Twitter mentions without seeing harassment, insults, slurs, ignorance, and abuse that Tim Farley has?

The Block Bot is not a perfect solution for everyone. It’s not meant to be. It’s a decent stopgap for the people who are tired of dealing with harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes. If you think it’s a problem in and of itself, the solution is to change the culture so there are fewer harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes, not to buy into a set of fallacies that makes you think only anonymous other-people are capable of that behavior, and that being a prominent speaker (or worse, a friend) puts a person above that capacity.


1. Full disclosure: I don’t use the Block Bot, though I have some of the same people blocked. I do, however, follow the Block Bot and its related Twitter accounts.

2. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. It’s a myth rule. Get over it It is a thing you should get over.

3. The actual descriptions of Levels 2 & 3, from here.

An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

and…
6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched Hotwire.com for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

A follow-up

You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.

I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.

Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.

In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.

But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.

This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.

What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.

It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.

Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.

All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.

That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.

When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.

This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.

Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.

I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?

This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”

Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.

It makes you a good podcaster.

Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.


Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.

You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.

That’s Strange

Huh. Looks like an old adversary is blogging again.

Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Manly Must-Reads

I’m not sure where I found the link, probably on Twitter, but I ran across this list of must-read popular science books. It’s definitely not the list I would have compiled (though I admit that my pop-sci reading history is somewhat paltry). I count only two books on the list that I’ve read completely (John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, though his follow-up is on there, and I expect to devour that when it’s in paperback), four other books that I’ve started and not finished (Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, which I’m going to go back to when I finish Richard III), and four more that I either own or wanted to read before seeing the list (The Selfish Gene, Mistakes Were Made, Supersense, and Nonsense on Stilts).

Many of the authors are recognizable, though the choices seem a little odd. Take Dawkins, for instance: I typically see Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow on lists like these before River Out of Eden. I would think The Panda’s Thumb or Full House would top Stephen Jay Gould’s list before Wonderful Life.

Then there are the glaring omissions. Not one Carl Sagan book? No Death from the Skies? No Neil deGrasse Tyson or Lawrence Krauss or Michio Kaku? No A Brief History of Time? No women?

Okay, that last one isn’t fair. There are indeed women on the list. Two of them: Carol Tavris and Mary Roach, out of 34 different authors, by my quick count (some books had multiple authors; some authors were on the list multiple times, including Marcus Chown, a name that was previously unknown to me). Somehow, when compiling “must-read” popular science books, three books by Marcus Chown and two “very short introduction” books merit inclusion when books like Silent Spring and Gorillas in the Mist don’t.

Off the top of my head and Amazon wish-list, I came up with this list based on books I’ve read, bought, seen elsewhere on “must-read” lists or in prominent bookstore shelves, or known because of their huge impact on science and society:

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
  • My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics by Jennifer Ouellette
  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall
  • Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

That’s really not much, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a world-altering book like Silent Spring doesn’t merit mention over, say, The Violinist’s Thumb, which has been out for less than a year. It isn’t a matter of intentional sexism, but it’s this sort of casual blindness to gender imbalances that helps to create and perpetuate the myth that science is “more of a guy thing.” Correcting that image is going to take a good long time and a lot of work, but little steps–like making sure that your “must-read” popular science book list isn’t a giant sausage fest–are not that difficult, and do add up just as the little omissions and microaggressions add up on the other side of things.

Turn it Around

One common refrain in the gun conversation (such as it is) is that if someone wants to kill people, they’ll find a way, guns or no guns. Now, I’ve talked already about part of why this is ridiculous–namely, that guns make it way easier to kill people than most things (see the recent knife attack in China for proof of that: 22 injured, none killed)–and there are plenty of other reasons as well. It’s a weird combination of a perfectionist fallacy and slippery slope, for instance.

But the weird thing is how they never apply it to their other arguments, namely the one that says more guns would prevent this kind of incident.

When people advocate gun control, shooters become these industrious madmen, bent on killing, and willing (and able) to do it by any means. Guns are illegal or hard to get? They’ll find a way, the crafty devils. Maybe they’ll get guns off the black market, or maybe they’ll make bombs using common equipment, or maybe they’ll resort to a knife or a fork or a pencil, but by gum, they’ll find a way!

Their one weakness, apparently, is the presence of armed civilians. See, when the premise becomes arming everyone, these gunmen suddenly become super-rational actors, who can and will always weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. “One of my targets may be armed,” they think. “If that’s the case, they may shoot back and I will get hurt. I’d better not go on a killing spree today, it wouldn’t be safe for me.”

But why not turn the argument around? Arm everyone, fine. These guys aren’t dumb, they’ll find a way to kill people anyway! Maybe they’ll dress up in body armor or use tear gas or smoke bombs to prevent other people from shooting back! Gosh, why does that sound so familiar?

See, here’s the thing: either the shooters are perfectly rational beings who will reasonably weigh the risks and consequences of going on a shooting spree (in which case they’ll prepare for those risks, like the Aurora shooter did) or they’re people who want to kill no matter what and will find a way (in which case armed targets won’t be a deterrent).

Or, as is more likely, some shooters belong to each camp, and others don’t belong to either.

But one thing we do see with these spree killers and mass murderers is that they’re not usually real concerned with their own safety or mortality. Many of these things end in suicide, or at least the death of the perpetrator. The ones that don’t? They take precautions to limit how much their targets can fight back, and how much damage they could do.

This idea that concealed carry or open carry is some kind of deterrent–especially to these would-be mass murderers–is as much a myth as that of the person who could’ve stopped it if only they’d been armed. And it’s perpetuation in our culture and the halls of power is only going to result in more dead kids and more dead adults until we recognize the correlation between stricter gun control laws and fewer gun-related deaths, the way that every other damn civilized country has.

Point and Click

I recently purchased an iPad Mini, and put some e-reading apps on it. With 1-click purchasing enabled on Amazon, I’ve found that it’s really easy to make an accidental, unintended purchase. Accidentally touch “Buy Now with 1-click” instead of “Add to Wish List” or “Send Sample Now,” and you’re either stuck with something you might not actually want, or you have to go through the cumbersome refund process.

It’s true that I could still make that purchase if there were more obstacles in my way, but it’d be considerably more difficult to make it without putting some serious thought into it, or doing it accidentally.

But whenever gun violence erupts like it did yesterday (and too many other times this year) and sensible people talk about gun control, about putting the “well-regulated” back into our conversation about the 2nd Amendment, we hear the same chorus of responses to the notion: “why not ban cars or forks or some other ridiculous thing? You could kill people with those too! If a person is determined to kill people, they’re going to find a way!”

So, apparently, we should make it as easy for them as possible?

Look, it’s true. If someone is determined to commit murder, they will find a way. But guns, especially assault rifles or automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines, are one-click killing. The ease with which they cause death make it ridiculously easy to kill accidentally, to kill in large quantities, to kill without putting a lot of thought into it.

You’re not going to kill someone with a fork or a pencil or something ridiculous like that without putting a good deal of thought and effort into it, and you’re certainly not going to be able to kill ten or twenty people that way in half an hour. You want to kill 20 people with a knife? You become a serial killer and do it over the span of years. You don’t get to saunter into a school or temple or movie theater and do it indiscriminately and quickly.

Even with a car, it’s hard to cause a lot of death as quickly and easily as it is with a gun. You can’t conceal a car. You can’t bring a car into a building. When a car is coming for you, there’s some warning.

The car is not the preferred weapon of people trying to commit mass murder. That’s not a coincidence, it’s by design.

It’s true that people who want to commit mass murder will find a way. But when you buy lots of fertilizer, you end up on watch lists. When you buy lots of cold medicine, your license is flagged. There’s a reinforced door between you and the pilot of an airplane. When people want to kill in those ways, we recognize the need to put obstacles in the way, to make people have to carefully plan their murderous activities over longer spans of time, to alert authorities to potentially dangerous activities.

Why on Earth does that reasonable impulse disappear when the topic is guns?

No Joke

I’ve recently been rediscovering some of the music that I liked as a kid. Since I listened almost exclusively to “oldies” as a kid, it means I’ve really been enjoying a lot of music that my parents grew up on, which is a very strange sort of nostalgia.

But I was listening today to the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke,” and it got me thinking. I’ve always kind of liked the song, and read it as the lament of an asshole getting his due. But listening it tonight, it occurred to me that it could easily be about a bigot, or bigots in general. Let me lay out my (kind of silly) case.

I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.

“I started a joke, but it actually caused harm to people.”

But I didn’t see
That the joke was on me.

As people got wiser, became better, they realized that the real joke here was the bigot, the backwards asshat who thinks it’s funny to judge and dismiss a group of people because of some common trait.

I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing,

Ultimately, the only rational response to bigotry–and to the overly dramatic gymnastics that bigots engage in to claim that they’re the real oppressed victims–is ridicule.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

This all could have been avoided if I’d realized in the first place that bigotry is fucking terrible.

I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.

But instead I got overdramatic, thinking that the whole world was out to get me, thinking that my petty problems matched the difficulties faced by the people I demeaned, and attributing any difficulties I had to my willingness to speak truths that other people found uncomfortable or impolite or politically incorrect. It never occurred to me that I was just a jackass.

Til I finally died, which started the whole world living,

Old bigots die. The problem with bigots is they tend to get entrenched in their beliefs, and they tend to get entrenched in positions of power within the existing social structure, allowing them to get their bigoted beliefs embedded in the social structure. It’d be nice if those old bigots could realize that they’re wrong with the ease that younger generations tend to, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Consequently, the solution has long been to allow the old bigots to gradually die off, taking their bigotry with them, and leaving the society in the hands of people who largely see that bigotry as a relic of an unenlightened past. The change comes slowly, the change comes painfully, but it comes.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

It’d be nice if that weren’t the case, but bigots cling so desperately to their beliefs. As they dwindle in numbers, they become increasingly ridiculous. And increasingly pathetic. They become increasingly the punchline of society’s joke.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.