Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antinatalism and Comfort

Comfort is low-variance pleasure. It's pleasure and pain within narrow parameters. When someone is dying, their comfort is our priority, not their capacity for great pleasure; and the opiate medication we palliate them with serves this purpose.

The conservative ethos, broadly speaking, is generally one of preserving a state of comfort at the expense of the possibility for great pleasure or pain (since great pleasure, biologically speaking, tends to have a cost). Risk aversion in humans is a preference for comfort over possibility, and risk aversion is universal, at least among those not currently suffering a great deal.

Assuring the comfort of others is a very humane value.

Here is a problem, though: openness to experience is a highly attractive trait that correlates strongly with certain other highly attractive traits, such as intelligence and youth (and associated neotenic traits). If we are brave and open to experience, we wish to push out of our own comfort zones; think of people you know who choose comfort over adventure, and how you feel about them.

When making moral judgments, we of course wish to display our own highly attractive traits (or even front like we have attractive traits we do not really possess). What better way to signal our own adventurousness than to appear willing to impose it on others?

But is there an important difference between being willing to accept risk ourselves and being willing to impose it on others?

Defining comfort as I have as a state of low-variance pleasure, the ultimate comfort would be the never-born state - pleasure and pain tightly bounded at zero. Creating a person by definition means pulling him screaming out of a state of comfort (negative bliss, as Jim puts it) and pushing him into a state of great risk. Whatever the costs and benefits of this unasked-for adventure, I suspect our feelings about the morality of forcing risk on others function as a (costless, to us) way of signalling our own willingness to take risks.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rape, Humor, Liberals, and the Sacred

This is a response to a piece by blogger Bacchus of the awesome Eros Blog (NSFW) entitled On Not Speaking Up.



How Rape Humor Enriched My Life This Week


We have this friend, and everybody likes him. He's sweet beyond sweet, kind to everyone, and I think his main motivation in life is to meet, hug, and have long, intimate talks with everyone in the entire world. A few days ago my boyfriend and I were on our way to a party at this friend's house to play Magic: The Gathering,[1] and we were talking about Posnerian rape licenses[2] (like you do), and my boyfriend mentioned how sad it would be if our friend were a rape licensee - because he'd never find anyone who disliked him enough for sex to be non-consensual! He'd just wander the world sadly, "but he'd never go so far as to not be nice," my boyfriend added. Could this same information have been communicated as well by just saying "wow, isn't our friend super nice?"

So later that night, at our beloved friend's house, I was watching two guys play Magic, and it was a fairly even game until one of them played a "Grimoire of the Dead" card, which I am informed is a "mythic rare" card of unimaginable power. "Wow, I'm about to get reamed, aren't I?" his opponent said. Could this same social information, with all the good sportsmanship I think it conveys, be communicated as well by just saying "wow, I'm about to lose, huh?" In fact, when I was in the process of destroying[3] my boyfriend with a hastily-constructed deck and a shaky understanding of the rule set, I noticed myself saying "I think I'm going to fuck you with THIS card" - the obvious hyperbole takes the edge off of competition that would otherwise be uncomfortable, somehow. This is what I am reminded of when Bacchus (NSFW) talks about online gaming boys using the phrase "rape your face" to describe combat victory. It has nothing to do with women and everything to do with navigating complicated group-belonging and status dynamics.

Do you know someone in a relationship of habit, with no particular intimacy or frisson? Our term for this - to distinguish it from the kind of satisfying, kinky, intimate relationship that is greatly preferred - is a "rapeless marriage." As in, "she was trapped in a rapeless marriage for ten years." Could the social information and pleasure of this phrase be conveyed as well another way?

I Promise I Am Not A Misogynist Monster Here

Notice that, in the above examples, no one was actually raped.

I am a girl. I have never been raped, but my close female relative (within two degrees of separation) was raped under circumstances making it unclear if she would survive. She was raped by a stranger, and when he was done she managed to convince him to abandon her alone in the desert rather than murder her outright.

Another woman in my life was drugged and gang-raped by boys she knew.

Are those of us who joke about rape somehow adding to the suffering of the real-life victims of rape?

As I have mentioned before, I grew up in Northern Idaho among rednecks, and I was horrified when some of my little redneck friends' redneck parents would say things to them like "You do your chores right now or I'll beat you bloody!" My little redneck friends were not disturbed by this in the least; it took me a while to realize that nobody was actually beaten bloody at any point. My own parents used the more genteel (but still terrifying) "unknown punishment" - the details were left intentionally vague, and I was probably in high school before it dawned on me that the threat was empty and the "unknown punishment" didn't really exist. Does the specificity of "I'll beat you bloody" make it genuinely objectionable in a way the "unknown punishment" is not, even though both parties understand that there will be no blood?

Liberal Sacredness

Jonathan Haidt has identified five primordial moral foundations upon which humans base our conceptions of good. These range from Harm/Care (caring about others, protecting them from harm) and Fairness (treating people justly and fairly) to Loyalty (to your in-group), Authority (respecting the established social hierarchy), and Purity (avoiding the pollution of sacred things).

From the Wik:

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.

Haidt identifies liberals as more oriented toward what I think of as REAL morality - treating others fairly and not hurting them. Conservatives seem more interested in what I think of as bogus morality - respecting authority, being true to your school and loyal to the Packers and America, and not queefing in the holy water.

But I think that this misstates things a great deal. My beloved Internet friend Rob Sica says that, as a liberal, he tries to expose himself to those with more conservative moral foundations - loyalty, purity, authority. I think that's laudable, but we as liberals are still human, and experience all the foundations to some degree - we just need to know where to look.

In my own heart, I noticed a strong (physical) sacredness reaction to the beating of Robert Hass at Occupy Berkeley. Thinking of the jackboot bruising Hass' precious ribs made me understand how a Christian could get riled up thinking about the jackboots whipping Jesus. It's hard not to fantasize about violence under such circumstances. It's intense, physical, not subject to rational correction. Yes, Robert Hass is just a man, and lots of other real people's ribs suffered equal or worse abuse. But they don't make me want to punch a police officer in the face; without the sacredness induction, I feel almost as bad for the pathetic pigs as I do for the protesters.

PC is our way of doing sacredness. But we need to recognize this and stop doing it - because sacredness is bullshit.

Framing Sacredness as Harm/Care

Arguing in favor of calling out those who use rape humor, Bacchus refers to a feminist treatment of the rape humor issue that argues that rape humor is wrong because rapists think rape is normal, and rape humor enforces this belief.

The writer of that piece cites (unsourced) the fact that rapists think rape is normal. "In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again," she says. Let's accept this as true for now. What this doesn't prove is that thinking rape is normal is what causes them to rape. It doesn't prove - can't prove, because it's not true - that an increase in rape jokes leads to an increase in rape.

What we see happening here is a move from a genuine harm/care foundation - don't rape people, don't hurt people, don't put people in camps and kill them - to a sacredness foundation - the idea that somehow just talking about the taboo subject will make the tabooed subject occur. Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!

Blogger Bacchus[4] takes on "Jew humor" as his personal crusade in his online game, even though he candidly admits he doesn't currently have any Jewish friends. I personally hardly have any non-Jewish friends, but I can't say I agree that enforcing a taboo on antisemitism's "sacredness" will actually do anything good for individual Jewish folks, or even Jewish people in the aggregate. In fact (and I'm about to give you a real citation, coincidentally via aforementioned Rob Sica, and not just say "studies show over and over again"), making a token gesture may actually make us less likely to act when it's important. In her paper "Vicarious moral licensing: The influence of others' past moral actions on moral behavior," Maryam Kouchaki reports on five related studies that all demonstrate that being told you're not racist, or taking actions that convince you you're not racist, actually make you act more racist. For instance,

In Study 1b, when given information on group members' prior nondiscriminatory behavior (selecting a Hispanic applicant in a prior task), participants subsequently gave more discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant for a position stereotypically suited for majority members (Whites). In Study 2, moral self-concept mediated the effect of others' prior nonprejudiced actions on a participant's subsequent prejudiced behavior such that others' past nonprejudiced actions enhanced the participant's moral self-concept, and this inflated moral self-concept subsequently drove the participant's prejudiced ratings of a Hispanic applicant.

So not only does preserving a zone of sacredness around rape and Judaism NOT prevent harm to actual women and Jews, it may actually make us feel fine about harming or allowing harm to come to these groups. (See also Dorothy Thompson's brilliant essay "Who Goes Nazi?" from 1941.)

Snuggletown Has Boundaries

One of the liberal values I find most questionable is that every environment (or even most environments) should be welcoming and inclusive to everyone. (Related: Five Geek Social Fallacies.) Social belonging is something we all need, but I question whether social belonging can be achieved at all without exclusion.

In college, I got used to seeing, appended to event announcements, "please honor this as a woman-only space." That't pretty vomitrocious, but no one had a problem with it. Why not? Perhaps because we recognize that special, fragile women need to be "honored" (sacredized) as the special, fragile creatures we obviously are, without dirty boys contaminating our space with their cooties. No one has a problem with this kind of exclusion; women need a place to talk about mascara and tampons and stuff, without boys intruding.

But what about 14-year-old gamer boys? Don't they need to define for themselves their own space?

American children in the past had much more unsupervised time away from grown-ups. They created their own social orders and spoke their own language, with little interference from adults.

Now that adults are expected to supervise every moment of children's lives, we expect them to develop a kind of egalitarian, welcoming social order that we cannot even develop for ourselves. And in trying to prevent pretend harm, we may be doing real harm.




1. Not joking, as you will see.

2. A long time ago Richard Posner wrote a lot of things about "efficient rape," including a thought experiment in which some individuals who rape might not be merely avoiding a market in sex, but might actually prefer rape to consensual sex - so much so that their pleasure in raping people outweighs the suffering of the victim. Such individuals could be allowed to purchase rape licenses from the government to maximize everyone's utility. Many people, in hearing about this, feel the same kind of sacredness violation that they feel upon hearing rape humor.

3. Is "destroying" preferable to "ass-raping" here? Is there a good reason why murder humor is acceptable where rape humor is not?

4. Who for the record I would totally smoke a bowl with
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