Monday, July 28, 2014

Animal Form and Function 8: Vertebrata

The last session in my dissection course is a two-part dissection of a pig and a frog.  This one goes into much greater detail than any other dissection in the course, so there's rarely time for a protracted video presentation at the end.  Still, I keep a good selection of surprises for my students.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Big Tent, No Flap

Every young association, whether as trivial as collecting fans of a particular author’s writing or as grandiose as an emergent political ideology, sooner or later has to decide how it feels about issues outside its original mandate.  Labor unions have to decide how they feel about the food in workplace cafeterias.  Book clubs have to decide how they feel about treating gay people badly.  Political movements have to decide how they feel about anthropogenic climate change, whether their country should react to the ongoing clusterfuck in Ukraine (and if so, how), and whether they think it’s okay that American political orthodoxy still imagines that preventing pregnancy in the unwilling isn’t part of the healthcare system’s responsibilities.

And the atheist movement, if there is a single thing that can be called such, has had to sort out its sentiments on a variety of issues.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Answering 10 Questions for Every Atheist

TodayChristian.net seems to think they have a set of questions that “Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”  They’d better be very interesting to warrant that mess of capital letters and using the word “atheist” like someone who doesn’t know English very well.  Let’s see what these stumpers apparently are.

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
2.       What happens when we die?
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
7.       Where did the universe come from?
8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

Sigh.  Here we go.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Identifying as Disabled

It might seem strange, but I went a long time without identifying as disabled. Let me start from the beginning. I got diagnosed with Arthritis in 2006, my hip was permanently damaged in 2007, and I got a diagnosis for Crohn’s in 2008. Those dates of course suggest nothing of the pain and hardship that I went through getting the diagnoses and living with the various illnesses and impairments.
When I first started getting sick, my end goal was to get better. It was to get back to what life used to be like before I got sick. I always looked at everything that was wrong with me and kept thinking “someday I won’t be like this. Someday I will be normal”.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boosting You Up By Punching Them Down

One of the challenges of being involved in a social justice movement is avoiding the temptation to boost someone up by punching down at an equally or perhaps even more vulnerable population. What’s worse is that sometimes punching down can look like punching up, until one stops to consider that all important concept of intersectionality.

We see this in feminism. No, I don’t mean when women make fun of cis men and male privilege, but rather in the existence of TERFs (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists), the tendency to take a cis-centric approach to feminist issues, and a tendency to practice white and abled feminism that ignores how certain issues affect women of colour and disabled women differently or more often. You see this also in atheist movements in the tendency to ignore how religion impacts women and other minorities differently than they do white, cis, middle and upper class men. Or in the tendency to ignore prejudice and bigotry within their own ranks under the guise of being too reasonable or skeptical to be influenced and complicit in the society we live in.

What’s more insidious is how easy it is to punch down, without even realizing we are doing it. Many prejudices are so ingrained in our society that we don’t even recognize their racist, sexist, classist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, or other roots.  Becoming a good skeptic is about examining our initial perceptions and assumptions to find these roots and address them. It is about taking off the rose coloured glasses that tells us we live in a just society or that everyone is equally badly off, and instead realize how our own treatment might be privileged along one axis, even when it is not in others.
It is so easy to forget about our own privilege. Take this image for example:

blond white girl of about 4 fishing off a pier with text "girls that fish are cuter than girls that twerk"


 It is a picture of a little blond white girl. She is wearing a dress while sitting on a pier. She is holding a fishing rod, straining under the weight of having caught a fish. The little girl is somewhere between 4 and 8 years of age, it is unclear. The picture includes the words: “Girls who fish are cuter than girls who twerk”.
On the surface the picture makes a strong point about femininity and taking part in actions that are classically considered “male” pursuits. Her actions, fishing, are outside what is considered the gender norm, and yet she is still presented as being feminine. Engaging in these activities is shown not to affect her gender presentation, or even how she is socially perceived. She is still cute.

An innocent and harmless picture, empowering even right?

Unfortunately this picture actually perpetuations racist and sexist standards and double standards.
The phrase “cuter than” establishes a hierarchy with one being better than the other: namely fishing is cuter than twerking. People who engage in one are better than people who engage in the other. But who are these people and what else do we know about them? Fishing as a hobby, as opposed to a profession, is more commonly associated with being a white man’s pastime. Twerking on the other hand has its origins in African and Black American culture. Although men twerk as well, it is from my understanding more commonly associated with women of colour, although more recently it has been appropriated by white artists like Miley Cyrus.

The hierarchy becomes between a white man’s pastime and an element of black culture, with the “white” pastime being preferential to the “black”. The fact that the girl pictured is a white girl with blond hair only serves to underline the difference.  

Although presumably not the intention of the picture or those who share it, it plays into problematic ideas that consistently rate black culture as being inferior to white. It plays into racist ideas that white in general is better than black.

Besides the racial implications of the post are also elements of objectification and also modesty-culture/slut-shaming. Twerking, although it can occasionally be about objectifying women’s - especially black women’s - bodies, can also be about sexual empowerment. It can be about a woman owning her sexuality and sexual potential.  Part of the implication of this post is that there is something wrong with expressing your sexuality and sexiness; that by owning your sexual power renders you as lesser than a one who is doing something completely unrelated to sexuality and dressed modestly. It reinforces the idea that there is something wrong with being sexual or sexy. 

The fact that the picture uses an example of a pre-pubescent girl also serves to disturbingly sexualize a child. As the term “girl” is culturally applied both to adult women and also female children, it doesn’t serve to distinguish between a 4 year old child and a woman in her sexual prime. That the two are in any way comparable is disturbing to the extreme. If we assume that the picture is comparing two 4 year old girls, then even then it serves to sexualize children’s bodies; as though a child, by virtue of their perceived and presented gender, can be a sexual object even before they are fully developed.

The sexualisation of children’s bodies in turn is often a trope trotted out in victim blaming culture, where an 11 year old girl can be accused of seducing or leading on grown men of 18, and that idea used to defend the gang rape of said girl.

Furthermore the phrase reinforces the idea that a woman or girl’s primary concern should be whether or not they are “cute”. That they should prioritize their activities based on whether or not it will make them more or less socially attractive. It reinforces the objectification of women.

There are elements I haven’t even discussed including the classist undertones that prefer an activity that requires money to be able to visit nature, own or rent necessary equipment, over an activity that can occur no matter what your economic status, as well as the cis-centric idea that a person with long hair and a dress is assumed to be a girl/female.


In a picture that on the surface was meant to empower one marginalized population “Girls who fish” “girls who enjoy nature” “girls who participate in activities that are usually reserved or gendered as being for men”, the end result was the punching down of women of colour, of women in general, and many other populations as well.  

ADHD and the Best Chicken Impression You've Ever Heard

Hmmm I should work on a new blog post. Ok open up word, oh hey that’s right the sci-fi collaboration I am supposed to be working on. *opens file*. Hmm but I should really get another post up on skeptability… oh I love her hair! I should cut my hair, but I want to have it long when I get married. I am not even engaged yet, why am I worrying about this. Because I am 27. Tee hee divisible by 9, 18, 27, 36, 45…. Oh yuck my coffee is cold. Should I order another one? What time is it? Alex gets off work in two hours. I could wait here till then and then go pick him up. That works. Oh wait do I have money for another coffee. Ok… I have this much in my bank account and these are my bills, this is how much money I should be making from this and that and … oh god oh god oh god, nope don’t get anxious about money. Grrrrr concentrate, wait what was I doing? Oh right I was going to write the next scene of my fantasy novel! Wait is that right? Holy Crap when did it become 4:30? I have to go!  
This is just a fraction of what it feels like in my brain whenever I try to work on something. The harder I try to concentrate, the harder it gets.

Monday, July 14, 2014

One School System

One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools.  With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire.  No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage.  The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge.  The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences.  Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.

A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society.  In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways.  The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.

This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society.  Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems.  In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy.  In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap.  In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society.  This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems.  Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.

This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was.  As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture.  It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions.  School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system.  But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shifty Lines 13: The East African Federation Revisited

[Shifty Lines 2 was about the East African Federation, but that piece was woefully inadequate.  This is my effort to remedy that mistake.]

Most of the stories in Shifty Lines are and will be about separatist conflicts.  Particularly in Africa, though, the simple separatist concept does not accurately reflect the goals of the border-rearrangement movements.  While this is fairly obvious in North Africa, where two of the major ethnic groups with nation-state aspirations are spread across multiple countries, eastern Africa presents a different case.  In East Africa, like the Caribbean, a large-scale effort to combine several countries into a single federated state is underway, and stands a decent chance of success.

The flag of the East African Community, with stripes of various widths and a centered emblem with a map of the existing Community surrounded by branches and underlined with a message in Kiswahili.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Handle Effect

There’s a platitude that believers like to use to comfort each other in the face of adversity: “God only gives us what we can bear.”
Text over the image of a Christian cross: "God won't give you more than you can handle."

I shudder every time I hear that.  Like Søren Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Johannes de Silentio, I skip whatever solace believers find in that idea, and go straight to the horror.  It’s poetic shorthand for a longer thought: “This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.”

Think about that.

This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.

Out there somewhere, a cosmic calculator has determined that I have some threshold of suffering I can endure without breaking, and has responded to that information by burning my crops and giving my mother cancer.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Caring So Much It Hurts

[Spoilers for Series 2, 3, and 4 of Doctor Who follow.]

Ania and I watched the new series of Doctor Who a while back.  We never finished it, though.  We had a lot of trouble sustaining interest through Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor.  Eleven was a cocksure weirdo who spent entirely too much time leading armies into battle while wearing “pacifism” like a badge and not enough doing the things that made us fall in love with David Tennant’s version.

The Tenth Doctor cared so much it hurt.

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