Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it


July 13th, 2011 Posted in General, Psychology

I was going to post this a while ago, but I thought the topic had died away. However, seeing as it’s back, here’s my thoughts. For those of you who haven’t heard, check out the original thread on Skepchick here, and the offending posts on Pharyngula here:

If I understand this correctly (and I’m willing to accept I may have completely missed the point – I am unfortunately one X Chromosome short of the optimal number) an analogous situation might go something like this. Imagine I’m off on holiday, so I get the train to the airport with my backpack, and wander into the arrivals lounge. I’m feeling a bit hungry, so I drop my bag down, and wander off to the nearest shop to pick up a pack of crisps and a Mars bar. After queuing up for them, and picking up a PC magazine that I’ll read five pages of then immediately regret buying, I return to my previous place out in the airport terminal, and I notice that there’s a ring of security officers around my bag. In my absence, several members of the public freaked out because they saw my bag lying around unattended, presumed the worst, called security, and they came over to fence off the article and were about to evacuate the airport.

So what did I actually do wrong? I think this is why it’s been so difficult for some people to accept the other side in this issue, because in this situation I’ve obviously done nothing wrong whatsoever. I don’t think that I would be worried to let my children play with the children next door if someone told me that their daddy was “the kind of guy who occasionally left his backpack lying around to go and buy some confectionery.” In fact, I’d rather like to share the world with people so trusting that they don’t assume that those around them will steal or damage their stuff. But the issue here is that a person’s actions need to be interpreted inside the greater social context in which they were committed – in this case, that context includes an irrational paranoia of terrorism and hence a seemingly abandoned bag in a major public area could (perhaps justifiably) cause panic and chaos on the off-chance that it might imminently go boom.

So we should be interpreting our actions not just as isolated decisions that can be evaluated on their own merits, but in the social context in which they will be interpreted by a reasonable human being experiencing them. Hence, making overly forward propositions to single girls in lifts is probably a no-no, quite aside from the obvious mild creepiness of it. But that’s not to say that, in any pure moral sense of the word, the anonymous proposer did anything wrong – I’m sure his intentions were entirely above-board. Maybe he was a star-struck admirer who just happened to grasp what he believed might genuinely be the only chance he would ever have to spend some quality time with a woman adores? Maybe he wanted sex and nothing else? Either way, once he heard “No”, that was the end of it.  But obviously there’s a social context that most men (including myself, up to a few days ago) probably don’t fully appreciate: being overly forward to women can appear menacing or threatening, even when you’ve not been outwardly threatening in your actions or words – the confrontational nature can be entirely situational.

Of course it’s not just women who feel threatened sometimes, though of course men don’t suffer anywhere near the same level of harassment that women do. For example, if I’m walking alone down a street late at night and a bunch of boisterous, drunken skinheads start walking towards me, I (perhaps justifiably) will start to feel scared, despite the fact that I’ve never had any problems in such a situation. But does that mean that it’s immoral for men of a certain physical appearance to walk around in groups late at night?

Or let’s take the hypothetical case of a bearded middle-eastern gentleman who innocently boards a plane and takes a seat next to a terrified passenger who has been watching too many Fox News specials on Islamic terrorism. Is it wrong for this man to fly, just because it puts a few people in genuine (though unjustified) fear of their lives? One might argue that this isn’t a rational response, but based on statistics, are any of these responses I’ve mentioned rational? What fraction of backpackers travelling through our airports are actually carrying bombs? What fraction of men are rapists? I don’t think that rationality is really what we’re talking about today – what we’re discussing is emotional response to the actions of another human being, and emotional responses are rarely rational.

So I don’t think that this issue is as clear-cut as some people have been saying (in either direction). Once you start claiming that we need to take into account all the interpretations of our actions when we perform them, and that an otherwise harmless action can become harmful when one considers the social environment in which it occurs, you’re placing an extraordinary burden on the actor not just to be aware of all these implicit interpretations, but to be able to consider them all before acting, and (where necessary) to match them off against each other. Also, there’s a danger if one takes this argument too far, of implying that perfectly harmless, caring, kind, law-abiding citizens should behave in a certain way because of the subconscious associations that others may rightly or wrongly make about them. I hate the fact that, if I walk back from the station late at night and there’s a lady on her own in front of me, I feel morally obliged to slow down and let her pull away in case she thinks that I’m stalking her. And the fear is natural, of course – after all, I feel it too when I’m walking back alone and I hear footsteps behind me – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a moral obligation for me to go out of my way to avoid other people leaping to unjustified associations.

So yes, we should definitely consider whether our actions are making other people feel uncomfortable. Of course we should!  But that’s not really the whole story, because there’s a limit to how much you can reasonably expect people to go out of their way to make you feel comfortable.  It is definitely not a simple question. The one thing that has surprised me most is the rather horrifying selection of sexist abuse suffered by some prominent skeptics.  I’m certainly grateful to Ms Watson for describing the harassment that she suffers, which I can genuinely say is a complete shock to me. It’s deeply distressing to me to hear that a community of which I proudly consider myself a member can behave so terribly to one of their own. And it’s clearly not just the skeptic community – there’s still a surprising level of discrimination and oppression towards women of which I was almost entirely ignorant. So that’s a genuine benefit of this whole debate, that it’s raised the awareness of this ongoing issue.

But to me, one deeply disappointing aspect of this whole discussion has been the reaction of the skeptic community to Richard Dawkins’ comments on this issue, which has been bizarrely irrational. Maybe Dawkins missed the point on this one, or maybe he’s just not able to put himself in the shoes of another human being and hence he’s reacted without the empathy that he should have shown. Certainly his comments seemed rather ill-judged. But either way, the rational response is to calmly show him where he’s wrong, and to accept that sometimes people don’t see eye to eye.  The irrational response is to fly off on a raging rant and vilify someone who has selflessly served this community for decades and has arguably had a more positive effect on the topics about which we most strongly care than any other human being alive. What I saw from a minority of people was a combination of the tired-old “resentment  of the rich and intelligent” mixed with a bizarre frenzy of iconoclasticism. It was just a minority though, so I guess it’s another case of how a vocal few can sometimes colour the impression of the majority. I think we need to be ultra-careful about that kind of thing because image is incredibly important.

Anyway, as I said, maybe I’m missing the point again. Feel free to prove me right or wrong, depending on how you feel.

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