The Inheritence Of loss

“The fact was that one was left empty-handed. There was no system to soothe the unfairness of things; justice was without scope; it might snag the stealer of chickens, but great evasive crimes would have to be dismissed because, if identified and netted, they would bring down the entire structure of so-called civilization. For crimes that took place in the monstrous dealings between nations, for crimes that took place in those intimate spaces between two people without a witness, for these crimes the guilty would never pay. There was no religion and no government that would relieve the hell.”

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Fuzzy Logic and Sam Pepper

[Update: this was written before I was aware of any of the allegations of rape and assault – beyond the video. I’ve fixed certain parts within the post, but keep in mind that I wrote this responding to the videos. Which I thought was the extent of the controversy. Clearly he is much worse than I thought]

If you have gone anywhere near Youtube in the past week then you might have heard rumblings about a youtuber facing charges of asexual assault after posting a ‘prank’ video on his channel depicting him touching the behinds of several unsuspecting women. The person’s name at the center of all of this drama is Sam Pepper. I’ve never liked Sam Pepper. More than a few times I’ve voiced my concern in the comment section of his ‘public kissing prank’ videos where he walks around Venice beach approaching women and ‘asking’ them for a kiss, or to make-out with him.

The first in a series of three shows him groping the bottoms of unsuspecting women. The second, released days after,  shows women groping the bottoms of men. Like the matrix movies, the third installment sucked. In it he claims that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax to highlight the disparity between attention given to women suffering sexual assault and attention given to men suffering sexual assault. He shares experiences where he was the victim of groping and inappropriate touching at conventions and meet-ups. Prominent You-tubers like Laci Green have come forward in support of the women in these ‘pranks’ and the very reasonable request for him not to be so shitty to people, regardless of gender. Many well-thought responses have already been made, and you can find some here, here and here.

There’s been plenty of debate about the ethical implications of what Sam did and the legitimacy of his claims of forethought and intention. It appears as though the ‘consent’ he had gotten from the women in the first video was acquired after he actually groped them – contrary to what ‘they all knew what was happening’ implies.

What I want to talk about is the way in which many people have responded to these claims and his videos. From prominent youtubers, the response has been split. Some, like Hank Green were less understanding of what Sam did, while others, like Laci Green, were very empathetic and showed restraint and wisdom. When something like this happens to a community it does split up opinion. I don’t condone what Sam did, and I’m actually glad that he is being forced to reconsider his Youtuber aspirations, but I don’t condone a witch-hunt either. Most people, even Hank, were understanding and precise in their criticisms. Even still, mob-mentality can get the better of a community quickly. And since this community is largely young people, the risk is even greater.

So why is this a risk? If Sam Pepper really did do the things he’s accused of (including new allegations of assault of underage girls ) then why shouldn’t he be shamed and outcast?

Well, here’s the controversial thing I want to say. I’ve tried writing this a few times, but I just can’t seem to find the right words. I don’t want to give the impression to anyone that I’m condoning what Sam did, and accepting assault as normal behavior. When a thief steals he should have to give back the money he stole. The methodology for responding to thiefs is pretty straight forward. Stealing, while an offense, and not bereft of ethical quandaries, is more understandable than sexual assault. That’s why thieves generally don’t have a difficult time assimilating back into society and the culture of perhaps even communities victimized by his theft. However, there aren’t legitimate protocols for responding to someone stealing. We know to call the police, and the police know to detain the thief and charge them as they see fit. But beyond legal proceedings there isn’t some rule for us, the public, to follow responding to the thief. That’s where the division and polarizing originates. Some people who perhaps had to steal can empathize with the thief and see no point shaming them into oblivion. And some people are ignorant of the causes behind stealing and take umbrage reflexively with anyone who deviates from the norms of their life. There is no appropriate way to respond.

What happens when someone does something more dangerous and shocking, as Sam has, is that people respond according to common sense. As Laci Green put it in a tweet responding to Sams’ fans telling her to kill herself, “this is just basic human being stuff’. But is it? Our cultural norms and values inform our common sense. But the way we respond to situations like the one Sam is in redefines and refines cultural norms and values. It’s a cycle. As Stacey Goguen put it, “The custom creates the narrative from which it is supposedly derived”. I fear that in shaming people like Sam, and using polarizing language (like ‘evil’, ‘piece of shit’, and ‘disgusting human being’), we’re treating Sam as he treated those women he abused. Now there’s the controversial statement. What I mean is that we’re dehumanizing Sam, reducing him to his worst actions, actions that carry stigma and violate social norms. And the pressure of maintaining or defining a social standing or relationships causes many to act without questioning, and conversely prevents people from questioning before acting.

If you’ve ever read the U.S. code then some of the definitions in many subsections might strike you as worrying. I talked about this in a previous post about ISIL. The law is not supposed to be beyond falsification. And although reverence for the law does make communities safe, we cannot think that it’s beyond imperfection. Some of the shittiest people in our society are lawyers – especially in America. People who establish precedents and write bills aren’t always the wisest and the most beneficent. So although Sam probably will be convicted, and does deserve to be convicted, when you look closely at the language used in this discussion, it appears as though he’s going to carry this sentence for life.

Sam is a human being. I’ve been very happy with the way some people have responded to this problem. But it seems overwhelmingly that people are perfectly content with condemning him for life. Even if he is some outrageous sociopath, he’s still a human being. Treating him like a character instead of a person deprives us of insight into why people do things like this, and prevents us from establishing a less sensuous, and more thoughtful community. Because we’re all partly to blame then? Well not precisely. If Sam did rape and did do the things he’s accused of, only he is ultimately responsible. However, if overwhelmingly we dehumanize Sam like he dehumanized all of these girls, then we’re missing an important point. For-sure he’s a douchebag, but from the mixed responses to this scandal is a glaring proof that we are failing miserably at properly empathizing with other people. We reduce them into these objects of their ‘sins’. That’s the place we’re at. Obviously there’s more to sexual assault then a thought process, but changing the thought process is a invaluable step in preventing sexual assaults from taking place.

[Update: In light of recent rape allegations I’d urge whoever reads the following passage consider that I wrote this while the problem was still sexual assualt in the videos. It seems Sam really is like the Sociopath Pharma Exec]

So on to the problem of shaming. Shaming isn’t entirely wrong. When you have a person who has been given all the chances I’m talking about to recant and come to the light (by understanding and proper methodologies based on empathizing and recognizing that everyone else is a person too (way to go, redundancy neurons), that person probably deserves to be shamed. The goal of shaming here is at least somewhat defined. The goal of shaming Sam is not defined. It’s just something people are doing because he’s violated cultural norms, because it’s socially salient, and among other things, because we treat Sam like he treats girls. Because that’s just how we treat people. That’s how we justify buying iphones that were assembled by children and adults living and working in horrible conditions. That’s how we justify hording millions of dollars because we ‘worked for it’, even though thousands in our communities are never given the opportunity to ‘work for it’. When we shame the sociopath pharma exec who just did rotten things for decades and decades, without remorse, we’re trying to bring some justice back to the victims, and to ourselves. I argue with my therapist sometimes over what I see as the value of defending yourself, without contingency, when people treat you like sam treated those girls. And this is where it gets confusing, but stay with me. Like the quote about customs and narratives, the tragedy of immorality is that it creates immorality. When you treat someone horribly, if that pain and suffering is not recognized and dealt with, over-time that person will become shitty. That’s how shitty people become shitty people. And that’s how good people become good people. We are inherently social. Everything from our thoughts to our goals is socially tinged. Morality is social. When you have nobody in your corner telling you that what so and so did was wrong, and recognizing your pain and suffering and helping you appropriately deal with it, in order to remain moral you have to plug your ears, kick and shout and stridently hold onto your ideals. The ideals that tell you that what happened to you is wrong. So it looks like I just contradicted myself. But again, stick with me. Shaming the sociopath pharma exec is a community endevour, and re-introduces justice back to those people, and to everyone involved. It prevents everyone from losing their moral compass. The goals there are well-defined and they are justified. Because the pharma exec is so powerful not even a large community could stop him. So shaming broadens that community as well as maintains the goals of justice.  You’re shaming a person because they are always on the attack and never show any remorse. The problem with shaming as a community is that not everyone involved is involved for the right reasons. There’s no protocols, really. It can become futile. It can, and often does, lose its potential value. We don’t return back to the ideals we’re trying to prevent, and honesty, most of the time people aren’t trying to prevent the loss of ideals. They’re just reflexively lashing out.

Shaming someone for me is appropriate in those two cases: with a figure of what most might call ‘evil’, when all other attempts to understand and compromise have failed and they’ve retained all their vigorous evil. And for when you’re all alone and people are treating you horribly. And everyone is absent, and you have no support. With this Sam Scandal, neither is the case. There is definitely a pattern of abuse with Sam, but treating the pharma exec that way is usually also for most people just an instinctive response to grave danger as much as it is an attempt to return to the victims a sense of moral justification. Because that moral justification is only really needed in that form when  you’re completely alone. The great thing about this Sam drama is that no one is alone. So many people have shown their support. So why are we shaming him? I get that we’re emotionally fragile and sensuous and respond with anger and hair-pulling to nonsense like this, but we’re better than that, and we all need better than that. We are all determined. Free-will is an illusion. Saying that doesn’t prevent us from reaching our goal. But, what is our goal anyway? That’s something we should all consider. The goal shouldn’t be just ‘finally locking up someone who is just super bad’. The goal should be preventing this stuff from happening. I always say, justice occurs before an injustice takes place. Too often we think of justice as only this reparative thing. Like killing someone who killed your loved one is justice (a common movie trope). Preventing this stuff, unfortunately, starts with treating everyone always as a person. That’s the big shocking principle behind the golden rule. That means we also all have to treat ourselves as persons do. Which we do. When these victims come out we all congratulate them for their bravery, for standing up for their selves. Treating yourself as a ‘person’, and treating everyone else as a ‘person’ go hand in hand. We’re not letting Sam do either, and thus we’re doing neither to Sam. And, honestly, we rarely even do it to ourselves. (The evidence for this is everywhere. It’s part of the reason why we self-harm (when we’d never just go cut someone else when they’re sad), and demonstrated in our ‘norms’ about self-pity and the stigma of being a coward. Funny how that coward-hero dynamic plays out. You’re a hero if you act selflessly (an ultra valued commodity, qua liberation theology) and sacrifice your life for the good of others. But the impulse is derived from a valuation of human life – just not your own. And we call people cowards who aren’t just selfishly evil, sacrificing others for their own survival or well-being. But people who are ‘afraid’, or ‘sad’, or ‘frightened’. We tell them to be ‘brave’).

With new rape allegations and impending legal action mounting I hope we can keep our head about us. When I watched the anonymous confessions detailing explicitly rape I became livid. I do not think I could keep my cool as Laci Green did. I’m starting to question some of the things that I wrote in this post. I think considering the type of guy it’s becoming more clear Sam is, we do have a right to treat him like we would the pharma exec. I can’t comprehend how or why someone would do this. But they do, and beyond the immediate desire to thrash him I feel like it’s important that we know why. I don’t know what to say anymore.

The unexpectedly expected difficulty of living with a chronic medical condition

I have a chronic medical condition. Of the broken bones, torn cartilage, failing and struggling organs, surgeries, uncooperative genes, medications, broken friendships, dreams and loss of freedom (in no particular order), the worst effect so far is the feeling of not feeling like I have a future. Let me explain. Such an admission warrants suspicion. I’m aware of that. There are plenty of people who feel they have no future (in-fact, it’s quite a common phenomenon – shared across the spectrum of ‘things to deal with while living’). So it’s not necessarily something unique to chronic illness like failing organs, surgeries, medications and broken bones are. Have you ever felt so sure about something that everything in the world just appeared to make sense? Feeling that way is, to be fair, irrational, but that’s how I feel now. I only wish I was less justified in feeling this way, and felt with less conviction.

When I became ill I was a student. The groundwork for my pathology and my disease was already in-place when I was born, but I didn’t notice that anything was seriously wrong until I was in my second year of University. It was during my very first day of classes when I realized that there was a more sinister narrative to my life, of which I was an unwitting character in. During that semester I had clumped together more than a few science classes and corresponding labs. I had something crazy like 20 hours of lab work per week – on top of the 35 hour class time. Every day was 8-6. A ten hour day is hard on even the strongest and healthiest, and I was (and am) neither. My first day I had a biology lab, a chemistry lab, and a physics lab. The physics lab went off without a hitch; we spent it in a computer lab, writing up a report of an experiment done largely in our minds. I was told that things would get a little more hands-on than that, but at a maximum of one hour (of which half had to be spent in the computer lab), I wasn’t particularly worried. Next came the biology lab. The biology lab was longer (3 hours 2x a week), but again, it could be spent largely seated in a chair; a relief for me. Again, like the physics lab, most of the time spent in the biology lab was writing up reports. The chemistry lab proved the most daunting. Chemistry isn’t done from a seated position, and the two hours I spent in the three hour lab I realized I had injuries in places I hadn’t really recognized as injured. My back suffered the most that day. Stiffened and defeated, I came home later than expected and remembered I had promised my younger brother that I would drive to Niagara with him to pick up his boyfriend. This is when me and my brother were still on talking terms. I remember having to plead with him to let me get out of it. And when he and his boyfriend came home (my other brother offering to drive) they wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. Which bespoke of the worst effect of living with a chronic illness: suffering is intersectional, and those who don’t understand unfortunately can’t be blamed in any lasting way for their ignorance.

Three years have passed since that day and I can still recall the way the morning due soaked through my shoes, dampening my socks, the smell of the bunson burner and the confusing pain of realizing that I wasn’t going to become a doctor. Since that time, I’ve failed making friends, I’ve been kicked out and disowned by my mother for being a cripple, and I’ve watched injury after injury wash over me like the ocean consuming someone lost at sea. Everything I ever feared happening has happened – and more. Yet for all that loss and all that suffering, I’ve managed to create wonderful value for myself philosophically and morally. I’ve crossed a line in my life, where I don’t envy anyone else; I don’t want to live anyone’s life – not Bill Gates, nor Leo DiCaprio (or anyone awesome). There’s a resilience to me that so far has remained in-tact, despite these life-altering problems that I have no power to control. Despite that resilience, I have a tough time coping with going unnoticed. When doctors treat me, it’s as if they’ve forgotten that I’m a person. I’m treated like a lost cause – even though no person is. Which is confusing for me because I really like myself. Despite all the other particulars, I actually like my life. The problem I’m having is that no one else does, and I’m starting to think like them.

I feel like I didn’t know it was possible to feel. One of the astounding things I’ve discovered over the years since that first day in the second semester of my time at University, is that even though you can know and prove that someone else’s worldview is wrong, the contrary retains tremendous truth and value, and as such should not be dismissed as it so often is. When I was healthy, I divided the world up into two big groups: those who agreed with me, and those who did not. There are two types of ignorance. One where you truly don’t know something (like I don’t know what’s going on in the world of physics right now), and one where you are wrong about something (like knowing that the world of physics is embroiled in a great debate over who has the right to jump into a black-hole first). I was ignorant in both ways. And now I’m the victim of both those types of ignorance. Funny how that works.

Change happens when new information is processed. If my life had a movie, it would be called ‘Ignorance Fading’. I’ve lived such a strange life. I’m constantly forced to reconsider the things I believe. That’s a pretty common phenomenon for those who are chronically ill.  With a generous dash of meta-cognition, I’ve been able to reconstruct new theories from failed ones. I have chosen to believe things that add comfort to my life. When I’m treated poorly because I’m disabled I construct ideas to defend against that sort of thing happening again. But because I’ve experienced so many thought provoking things in such a short time (like losing friends and family, discovering spine masses and becoming bed-bound) I’m almost always vulnerable. I have to interact with doctors quite a bit, and it’s not always a pleasant or uplifting experience. They can make you feel unimportant like no other.

Quite often ego is talked of strictly in terms of vice, and its deleterious effects, but ego plays an important role in maintaining mental well-being. This well-being is contingent on a few things: (1) on coping with your own inadequacy and imperfection, (2) on coping with the complexity of life, and how other people can behave poorly and act crudely, and (3) on coping with the assurance of our own inevitable demise – and the possibility of failure and loss.

As a chronically- ill Canadian man, in a society with a culture of machismo, maintained by lumber-jacks and tradesman, I don’t really have ego-fodder. Living in almost absolute isolation (I’m lucky if I get twenty minutes of conversation with another human being every other day) has deprived me of the need for an ego, which becomes problematic when I have to interact with people beyond the limits of my apartment. The ego isn’t the best way to defend yourself (theories and ideas are more durable), but it is the easiest – and the most guaranteed – way. And in a life described in terms uniformly anti-easy, it’s an attractive solution. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s possible for me.

Without an ego to defend myself against people who treat me like I’m just wasting space and wasting resources better served for the healthy and the fit, and without grand moral ideas to keep me protected from shitty interactions with ignorant people, I’m in a very vulnerable place. I have been in this place for a while. Although I don’t take umbrage with these doctors and neighbors, in light of recent discoveries medically, and without any support, I’m feeling very hopeless.

We’ve all witnessed someone declaring they don’t have any future, storming out of the room in a flash of teenage angst and melodrama. The natural, sensible response to that is doubt. Feeling like nobody understands you is a natural thought when you’re a teenager. It essentially results from your viewing yourself as a distinct being from everyone else clashing with your novice ideas and ignorance.

When people look at me they see themselves. Mirror neurons have imbued us with the ability to feel what others are feeling. Most of the time even I don’t like feeling what I feel, so I don’t blame people for their reactions. I’ve had a long time to acclimate. I understand why people don’t want to be friends with me. It has made me feel hopeless, and that hopelessness in-turn has just given them more stuff to be afraid of. I’m sure that’s why doctors are so stand-off-ish. Combine that phenomenon with salient social norms, and the intersecting particulars in my life, and… it’s no wonder I feel like I have no future.

We can all create some of the things we need to accomplish our goals. Unfortunately, people suck; we’re all dumb. Low-effort thinking and heuristics are employed indiscriminately. Our egos can provide some support, but I don’t have any sources for an ego (cue cultural norms and me being a dumb person). Most of the tools for creating a good future are given to us (loving family, good social standing, education). I lost that lottery as well. I uniquely feel like I don’t have a future. I feel it. It’s the feeling that is so disarming and so discomforting. I may indeed succeed some how in accomplishing some goals. That’s the rule of large numbers. I may find happiness and meaning through love and support (the least demanding wish). But I don’t feel like I can, honestly. Because of the cultural norms pointlessly holding me back, I doubt I’ll ever find any love and support. I count my blessings every day; I’m not one to feel entitled to anything. There’s just so much more to being sick than actually being sick.

Behind Every Terrorist Is A Coward:

In light of the recent air-strikes by the United States military I thought it might be as prudent a time as ever to voice my personal concern with what I see as the inappropriate categorization of rebel groups like ISIL and their members with the nominal: terrorist. I’d like to start this discussion with a question:

Are terrorists to terror(ism) what politicians are to politics?

Taken from a Wikipedia article on Politics (paraphrased) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance – organized control over a human community, particularly a state. It is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resource within a given community as well as the interrelationships between communities.

Taken from a Wikipedia article on Terror, “Before the advent of modern terrorism, the term “terrorism” in the English language was sometimes used interchangeably with terror. The modern definition of terrorism refers to criminal or illegal acts of violence at randomly chosen targets, in an effort to raise fear. It is practiced by extremist groups with a limited political base or parties on the weaker side in asymmetric warfare. Terror on the other hand is practiced by governments and law enforcement officials, usually within the legal framework of the state.”

I’m not trying to infer from these definitions that politics and politicians use terror to govern, that’s a debate I don’t want to have here. However, what I think those two definitions show is that there is an important difference between the agents of politics and the agents of terror. While I do believe that the word ‘terrorist’ captures both the brutality and depravity of the members of groups like ISIL, I think it benefits them more than it does us.

When it’s discovered that a politician has done something wrong we have at our disposal a bevy of appropriate modifiers to use. For many, when Obama is mentioned ‘corrupt politician’ quickly follows. Yet for some reason we have come to accept that the word ‘terrorist’ encapsulates all of the shades of terror, and those who wield it.

“Behind every politician is a hard working staff. Behind every man is a good woman.”

Is there a difference between terror, terrorism and terrorist. Well, the definition above (and the article) does distinguish between terror, terrorism and terrorist. So, to recap, terror is an experience of fear, terrorism is the use of violent actions to produce fear to control or exert power – often for religious, ideological and political goals. The terrorist is the person who places a road-side bomb, organizes operations aimed to overthrow a government (by means of mass destruction, assassination or coercion), influence the policy of a government, or coerce and intimidate a population (all by illegal, violent, destructive means). The US code has more precise definitions of terrorism. Interestingly, as an aside, the US code sub-section 2331 (on ‘Terrorism’) defines a person as “any individual or entity capable of holding a legal or beneficial interest in property. Despite these seemingly precise definitions there is by no means consensus among politicians, lawyers and academics. This is largely due to the fact that there are many forms of terrorism, many goals (and reasons for those goals), many different roles individuals play in groups like ISIL.

You become an author when you publish a book, a professional athlete when you play professional basketball and a politician when you run for political office. When do you become a terrorist? Is it when you join a terror organization? Is it when disdain turns into thoughts of overthrowing a government, and then to thoughts about how to go about doing that (because terror organizations start small)?

So why do we restrict ourselves to one word when we talk about ISIL and rebel fighters? Well I think part of the reason is that terrorist does a good job of shaming. One of the biggest fears humans have trans-culturally is exclusion and shaming. Public shaming is a form punishment common in the middle east (especially countries and states under Islamist control), though illegal in the west post-colonially. The word is emotionally and politically charge, and thus serves for certain people a political purpose – notably, after the events on September 11.

Because terrorism is such a threat to everyone involved, but particularly the west, there is a fear of misidentifying groups. American and Canadian security forces constantly keep a watchful eye for networks of terrorism. So in that way the process can be thought of in terms of Boolean data types, conditional expressions and control flow. (A boolean data type is a type of data with two possible values – true or false. A conditional expression performs different computations or actions depending on the true/false values of the Boolean data type. The control flow is the order in which individual statements or instructions are executed or followed). As that type of data, it is helpful.

Because socially it is a form of shaming there is an accompanying inhibition to question it. People (including myself) are afraid of what they might be called, or associated with, or what might happen if they voice concerns about the way in which we identify terrorists and the words with which we treat them, publicly (esp. in the media). In the states 9/11 is still an event which people are guarded about. Anything other than consideration and remorse is deemed inappropriate. It’s a touchy subject. So there’s a great risk involved with criticizing the way in which we talk about the same groups of people responsible for the events on September 11.

Availability heuristics are partially responsible for the persistence of this naming methodology. When I say the word ‘terrorist’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? That’s an example of an availability heuristic. They work both ways. The images produced by the word ‘terrorist’ become the constraints for the label ‘terrorist’. As with most things ‘availability heuristic’, that’s a problem.

Save for aesthetic minimalism, I can’t think of any good reasons why we restrict ourselves to this one word. Especially when there is so much diversity among terrorists, and division in the definition (both legally and theoretically) of terrorism itself. I started this essay with the bold goal to convince myself and others to replace the word terrorist with the word ‘coward’ – at least in public discourse. Though I am not certain of that goal anymore, what I am certain of is the need for more descriptions of anyone we feel appropriately warrants the title ‘terrorist’. Of the acts of terrorism there does seem to be this kind of modification. We call acts of terror ‘brutal’ and ‘horrifying’, ‘violent’ and ‘deadly’. And rightly so, we have more context after an event than before. These groups benefit from our use of these words. The need for modification is there, but I grant you that it’s tricky.

Here is the remainder of the original essay I posted before I modified it:
Along with images of wounded marines and roadside bombs, the word terrorists also generates a sense of authority and power. Philosophically, ‘power’ is an aspect of the concept(s) of ‘ability’. Roughly, power is the active ability. Walking, reading, running (any of the basic things we are generally capable of doing) are not considered abilities. What we know of terror is that it’s not difficult to generate. Broadly, all that is required is cowardice and foolishness. It’s my contention then, that when terror is mentioned, ‘coward’ should quickly follow. And perhaps we can think of more modifiers to keep handy to describe all the different shades of these ‘terrorists’.

Perhaps there should be an addendum attached to the ‘terrorist’. Coward is a suitable clarifier.

I mean think about it. These terrorists rarely fight on the front-lines, and when they do it’s usually by means of ambush, where they outnumber their enemy (usually the weakest enemies). They ‘terrorize’ their own unarmed and poverty-stricken populous . They suicide-bomb and remote-detonate, and kidnap journalists and foreign aid workers trying to make the situation in the country they’re supposedly defending better, and subsequently torture, humiliate, and murder them. ISIS recently released a recording in their twitter imploring all Muslims to kill all non-believers. I mean, as far as descriptions go, this is the description of a coward.

For an organization that uses fear as its primary tool of war, confusingly the impetus for everything they do is religious in origin (only Islam is not some Viking-esque warrior cult). Their methodologies involve fear centrally – to manipulate, to inculcate ideas, to recruit. And yet they have to believe that god is going to protect them and when they die everything is going to be fine. They believe in a divine order; a god that will save them and ‘reward’ them. They believe in an afterlife. Again, as far as descriptions go, this is the description of a coward. They are a clade of cowards, relying on some figure of ultimate comfort for safety and justice. Their soldiers do not even satisfy the least-stringent definition of a soldier.

Although what they do is horrible, it is nothing new. Be-headings are common in that part of the world, as are terrorist and rebel organizations. That fact shouldn’t desensitize us to the inhumane actions they and others commit, nor should it inspire some Waltean-fugue, but it should make us reconsider the way we describe these groups. Because from where I’m sitting it appears as though we’re playing into the hand of cowards. We are de-humanizing them, reducing them to objects of terror. The impulse to do so is probably most of the time commendable and honest; ‘you’ve done something horrible, now we’re going to shame and condemn you’. The problem is that they aren’t objects of terror, they are human beings. It’s not terrorists attacking us, it’s human beings. And unless we start broadly discussing that distinction as much as we discuss terrorists qua terrorism then I’m afraid history is due to continually repeat itself. They are human-beings; flawed, broken, insecure, afraid, anxious, worried. They were children once. They were innocent. Most of the very important figures were inculcated at a young age with an anti-western narrative; bigotry built upon hatred and ignorance. They are women and men, children and teenagers. They are our citizens. And they are cowards. (see: The Terrorists Son by Zak Ebrahim)

I experience night-terrors from time to time (once or twice a year). I’m familiar with the feeling of terror, and the disorienting helplessness accompanying it. These are vile people, and while Foley and Sotloff must have felt terror (necessarily), they don’t have the pre-requisites for the connotations of ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror’ that make any other label beyond the nominal ‘terror’ mutually exclusive.  At least not for what those words have come to mean, and for the emotions, associations and imagery that follow from what feels like every utterance.

ISIS has been around for a while (there is no shortage of articles outlining the chronology of ISIS in the middle-east). The inter-rebel conflict during the Syrian war has seen some violent fighting. Fighting in Afghanistan between rebel soldiers and ‘terrorist’ factions and allied troops has been violent and direct. However, although these ‘terrorist’ groups are capable of ground-attacks, it’s no secret that they prefer to fight ‘dirty’. If we had a Napoleonic battle between Allied forces and rebel factions the rebels would be swiftly defeated – even if we returned to trench-warfare they’d still have no chance. Even considering the way wars are fought today though, these groups still fight like cowards. They take villages and towns captive, torture and abuse its inhabitants and use every means necessary to avoid direct confrontation with allied forces unless its absolutely necessary – or unless its a coordinated ambush.

If the discussion of the problems and questions associated with global terrorism and middle-eastern conflict can have a conclusion, then perhaps mine at least might be this. These organizations and groups we call terrorists have done great evil and will continue to do so it seems, unless stopped. I don’t know how to do that, but I do have some ideas, and I think I’ve provided at least some information. They are agents of terror, but secondarily to being human beings. Of the virtues commonly used to describe human beings, the most suiting anti-virtue (vice) is cowardice. They are humans, and they are cowards. It’s important that we know that, and that they know we know that. They’re not all post-human sociopaths devoid of weakness and fear, hell-bent by some divine order to bring the western world to its knees. They’re people. And they’re weak people. If we call them terrorists we should qualify that label with another label ‘coward’. They are cowards. We must humanize them. They are weak, broken, sad, tragic cowards. And they will not succeed.

A hipster is someone who has certain cognitive biases which are incongruous with their proclamation of self-awareness. This phenomenon is an enduring aspect of their culture, and is associated with pride in their subversion;not pride upon the reflection of their subversion, but pride during the subversion. Hipster is a synonym of fool.

Settlers of Catan and ‘Grayson’s ontological argument for the existence of God’.

 

I had my younger brother sleep over at my place this weekend. He’s just turned fourteen, and this is his first year in high-school; he’s in that awkward, confusing, transformative stage of adolescence where you finally realize that you are a distinct entity capable of authentic ideas. So there’s been a lot of diverging opinions kind of in the background of the landscape between us. It was just great to spend some quality time with him, and reaffirm those family ties that naturally go out of focus during those few years following puberty.

I live on my own and my parents have shared custody, so we don’t have the best luck with scheduling boys night. But this weekend the stars aligned. My younger brother Braden (who is also my roommate) was home most of the weekend, and my dad offered to drive Grayon over on Saturday to spend the night.

We had a fun day adventuring around Ancaster, going from bus to bookstore to A&W. He skates so I spent the time traveling from point to point lagging behind him. I had this weird empathetic experience; by identifying with his-life-as-a-teenager I realized how wrong I was much of the time when I was a kid, and how frustrated my parents and teachers must have felt knowing I was wrong but not knowing of any way to communicate that fact in any manner convincing enough to persuade me to broaden my narrative. When I was his age I distinctly remember feeling how right I was about stuff, all the time. One of the benefits of the life I live now is that my most convicted ideas are proved wrong very regularly. I’ve learned to enjoy the malleability of my opinions, knowing that truth doesn’t spell ‘conviction’. Also, I feel very old when I hang out with him; which is crazy because although I’m a decade older than he is, I’m still only twenty-four.

After our youthful escapades around town we finally came home to our brother and my dog and decided to play Settlers of Catan. Although Braden and I are very competitive with one another, and in general, and neither of us particularly enjoys losing (although we do so with grace – although sometimes forcibly), we always have fun playing. I think table-top games are one of the few activities that brings out the best qualities of relationships. When we play there is a suspension of the rules people agree to when hanging out. War, conflict, and antagonism are encouraged and churn out new value in the relationships.

Braden wins more often than not. He and I uniformly contend for victory when we play, but usually he has the upper hand. As far as goal orientation goes, I personally enjoy exploring the mechanisms of the game more than perfecting a strategy to win. But when Grayson and I were out during the day we agreed over hamburgers to form an ‘Alliance To Defeat Braden’. He won the dice roll and got to play first… and on his first turn I realized he had forgotten about the alliance entirely – which I half expected, anyways.

It was fun watching him play; he had no strategy but perhaps making us laugh enough that we slip up. There is a card called the ‘Longest Road Card’. As you might have concluded, the card is awarded to the player with the longest road (five continuous road sections, to be exact). Braden and I were in a near-constant battle over this card. Nearing the end of the game, some two hours after we had begun, realizing I was going to win in a matter of only a few turns Grayson decided that he wanted to build the longest road. In his words “I don’t care if it’s not connected. I just, like, want to build it all around the entire map”. If he had managed to build a discontinuous road around the entire map before one of us reached ten victory points (when you reach ten victory points you win the game) I think we would have given him the win just out of sheer astonishment.

Settlers of Catan (or Settlers for short) is a multiplayer board game set on a fictional island in which you play as a settler, collecting resources, strategically building roads, settlements and cities, building armies and competing for territory – and indirectly the monopoly of resources. It’s a non-cooperative strategy game, although alliances can be formed (like the ‘Alliance To Defeat Braden). Because its competitive, easy to understand (the rules are quite simple), and aesthetically gratifying, it is quickly immersive. A typical game for us runs around two or three hours. Each players turn usually doesn’t take that long, but each players turn involves every other player; there’s no sitting back and waiting to play. You’re nearly always playing. It has the perfect blend of immediate gratification and delayed gratification.

Each hexagonal piece on the map represents a resource (Brick, Wheat, Sheep, Stone, Wood). The terrain isn’t fixed; you choose where each hex is placed (though there are some standard playing formations for beginners to follow). There are three hexes per resource. Atop each hex you place a number. The numbers correlate to the dice roll; so if a five is placed on a Wheat hex, and you have one settlement on an edge of the hex, you get one Wheat from the bank of cards. The resource cards can be combined (given back to the bank and put back into circulation) to create roads, settlements, cities or traded for a development card (of which you can win victory points, play to steal resources or block the production of a resource hex etc…) You roll dice to determine who places their settlement and road first, so you generally want to spread out the resources so no one has a monopoly on one resource, but uniformly enough so that you have the best chance to have access to each resource. Each player gets to play two settlements and two roads anywhere on the map; If you win the first play, you place the first settlement and road, and then the last settlement and road (the last of the first play places first the second settlement and road). This way each player has a fair shot at a good starting position.

The numbers on the resource hex correlate to the numbers on the dice (up to 12). Beneath each number on the little circle cut-outs is a line of dots. Some numbers, like five and six, have several red dots, while numbers like two and twelve have one black dot. The dots represent how frequently a number is likely to be rolled, by the number of total possible combinations (there is only one way to role a twelve using two normal dice). Grayson happened to have a settlement on a sheep hex with a five. Fives are rolled pretty regularly (there are more possible number combinations for five than for twelve or three or two). Grayson’s only strategy was to make us laugh, and he did so by building a ridiculous discontinuous road and using all his resources to buy development cards. There are 19 territory hexes. 18 are resources and one is a dessert. On the desert is the thief. The deserts number is seven by default, and if you roll a seven you have the option to move the thief anywhere you would like on the map. The thief blocks the production of a resource, so whenever anyone rolls a seven it’s always fun.

The knight resource card when played also allows you to freely move the thief anywhere on the map, but whomever has a settlement or city occupying an edge of the hex the thief is moved to has to spread their cards face down so the other player can choose one at random. I had continually blocked the production of Grayson’s sheep resource at every turn; when he would play a knight development card, and move the thief, I would play a knight and move it back. Because his sheep hex had a high roll-frequency, he always had a bunch of sheep resource cards. Whenever I took a card at random, it was usually a sheep. Which was like salt in the wound.

At one point in the game he wanted to buy a development card so that he could win back the ‘largest army’ card (which awards a player 2 victory points, and which Braden had recently won from him). All he needed was a sheep, but he didn’t have any left because his production was blocked and because I had taken all his cards. When he took his turn to roll he cupped the dice, bowed his head and sardonically whispered into the dice with closed eyes, in a napoleon-dynamite-esque voice. It went Grayson, Me and then Braden. Braden had just rolled a seven, and because he shared the sheep hex I had blocked with the thief, he moved the thief over to one of my settlements, blocking my brick production. Grayson rolled a five, and got a sheep. He laughed in astonishment and started kind of comically losing his mind. It was hilarious. He said he prayed to god into the dice saying “if you’re real, let me roll a five”. Now, five is a pretty common roll, but he took it as a sign from the almighty. I laughed and asked him ‘why’?! He was still laughing and said “I don’t know, like, don’t you just like do stuff like that sometimes just to make sure that He’s still there?” It was the most Karen moment of our night.

He not only did this once, but twice! Under the same circumstances, involving the same hex, and the same resource. The ultimate proof of the divines – move over Anselm!

He was joking for the sake of a bit, and none of us thought much of it after the laughter died down. But there are a lot of people who take circumstantial evidence like that and misinterpret probabilities to infer the existence of God – or affirm. A person ‘cured’ of Cancer concludes that God answered their prayers and therefore must exist – meanwhile billions of people’s prayers go unanswered every day (and not in any order of urgency). My brother ontologically includes God into his set of possible things that exist – along with sheep, disconnected roadways and Alien life. Although I can’t say with any semblance of accuracy one way or the other if something akin to what we refer to when we say ‘God’ exists, I don’t believe that he does. And that’s mostly because no matter how sophisticated the teleological argument, nothing is ever really proven that’s much different from what my brother proved with his simple and hilarious ontological argument involving sheep. And yet we all invoke a higher power when something important is on the line, at some point in our lives (and not in any order of ignorance). Whether that’s because by doing so we offload some of the tension and stress associated with carrying a burden alone (even if only for the few moments during your turn), or because all of our attempts so far to disprove or prove the existence of a God have failed, you do see this phenomenon uniformly across age-gaps, cultures and eras.

It would be nice to know that there is something beyond this life. But if you knew before playing that some supernatural force would help you roll the dice the game would lose something essentially enjoyable and fun to it – I know, I’ve cheated before *shocks*… Anyways, if some sort of god does exist, I don’t think it would help you win a board game – at least that’s not the kind of thing I’d be doing if I were him. Plus I won anyway, and I was an atheist in a room of Christians. Wait, what if…

How Do You Determine If Someone Is Good?

I have been struggling with a question, and an idea, for quite some time. I haven’t written about it because I don’t know how to. But I want to share, so I think I’m going to do something a little different today. I’m going to ask you guys for your opinions, and your ideas.

I’m not convinced I have anyone good in my life – that is, of the people I have relationships with, I don’t think any of them are good people – save for my youngest brother, but the age separating us requires I care for him, not me (a responsibility I take very seriously; although in truth, he’s a great, wonderful, good kid – the only truly ‘good person’ in my life).

Q: How do you go about determining whether someone is good or bad, and why (if it does) does determining that matter to you?

A: I’ll define a good person, basically, as someone capable of doing good things and someone who does good things. I believe what makes someone a good person is their understanding of morality and justice. In order to do good things, you have to understand, broadly, some basic principles of morality. So goodness can be determined by actions and by intentions without actions (where acting wasn’t inhibited by the intentions). I believe morality is a science, and thus we all generally have the ‘capacity’ to do good things, but this is not what I mean when I say ‘the capacity’. I mean the understanding of the basic principles of morality (and understanding beyond declarative statements like ‘don’t hit’) that inform intention; x is right because y. And you can be a good person ‘basically’ even if you can’t always do good things but understand why doing good things is important (intention and understanding). I believe goodness serves a function, and a good person is not dissimilar from a good basketball player, or a good educator. These are aspects to identity, though I believe being a good person is the most important aspect.

I have a rare disease. I’m disabled. I can still walk around, I can still move, and talk, and eat on my own. But I can’t work, I’m not a full-time student, and I can’t enjoy the freedom of just ‘going out’ with friends. Everything in my life is planned, and has to be planned. If I’m going to the store, I need to work my way through my algorithm: am I feeling well, if no, x, if yes y. Do I have a ride, if no, X if yes Y. I have chronic pain, but I also don’t have chronic pain. ‘Chronic Pain’ is a convenient term to use; people understand it, it removes the need for in depth explanations, and it’s socially salient. My disease is genetic in origin, effecting the production of a special protein called Collagen. My joints, muscles, ligaments, lungs, brain, etc, are all in a near constant state of injury. Chronic pain usually refers to persistent pain that has remained after an injury has healed, and cannot be better explained by an injury. For me, though, It just refers to pain in time – a state of existence in pain. When you tell someone you’re ‘in pain’, ‘you’re going to get better’ is an obvious and acceptable conclusion. Most people aren’t acutely ‘in pain’ invisibly in multiple areas in their body. But I am. My joints are always newly injured in unique ways. Although it’s possible I have injuries that have healed and left pain as a type of permanent scar – like having to endure the worst part of a bad moment forever – it’s more appropriate to say that I am acutely injured chronically. But, chronic pain is the object my community chose, so it’s the one I’m sticking with.

I’m getter more ill every month, every week, every day. Its enough to say that I need good people to do good things for me. If you get to know me at all, no matter how distally, you’ll quickly learn how apparent it is that I could use some help; whether that means taking out the garbage when you’re hanging out with me, or helping me lift groceries, or walk the dog, or do the dishes – anything chivalrous, which is perfunctory and kind of un-ethical, helps me a butt-load. Its enough to say that ‘doing good’ things for me should be easy. We’re taught this very basic type of ‘good action’ from the moment we are born. And the criteria for being the very basic kind of ‘good person’ is just doing those very basic ‘good things’. Yet I don’t have anyone in my life who helps me like that at all, and thus who resembles even the very basic and stringent definition of a ‘good person’. And that causes a lot of confusion and damage.

I have always (fortunately) had extraordinary empathetic faculties. One of the sources of discomfort and disorder for my family has always been our shared extraordinary capacity for non-verbal reasoning. We all know nearly precisely what anyone is feeling at any given time; often even before they know. We didn’t have good guidance, or good parents, growing up, and so we’re all very sensitive (although I’m much less sensitive thanks to all the things I’ve had to endure these past few years). Unlike my other family members though, I seem to have been ‘born’ with divergent characteristics of compassion, moral reasoning, and abstract reasoning. Everyone in my family is capable of all three of those characteristics, like all people, but either by nurture, or by some other confounding characteristic, they seem incapable of drawing them out consistently, and when they are needed.

Where my older brother has always been cold and guiltless, I’ve been emotional and guilty. Where my mother is angry and without remorse, I am reasonable and moral. I have not always been this way, and who can say that they too always will be the way they are. (Maybe I’ve just undergone my transformation much earlier than them). And while I cherish that belief dearly, the facts of history cannot be denied. I’m unfortunately just different than most of them. They all have the capacity to be comforting and cheery and fun, but none of them has demonstrated any consistent pattern of ‘good’ behavior – towards me, or amongst each-other.

I am a determinist, so I do not ‘blame them’ in any sort of ‘ultimate religious way’ for their errors, but given the fault in my stars, I do rely on them and cannot divorce myself from them completely. I already feel like I’m being physically torn in two, but I feel like the seams of my personality, my soul, are being torn at every day. I cannot put myself in their shoes anymore. I don’t know why they don’t do what’s right. And with each injustice that over time goes unchecked I lose a bit of myself. To get those bits back I have to go out looking for pain and injustice happening to others, and then mentally right those wrongs in my head. As some bridge across the dissonance living as myself accompanies. To remind myself what’s right and why, so I don’t lose that most important part of me.

If any of you have not watched the show Orphan Black I’d absolutely recommend that you do. There’s this one scene in which this abusive, crazy (I’d label him a captor) guy hands his ‘victim’ a razor and (non-verbally) ‘tells’ her to start cutting herself again. There had been a few scenes previously showing her cutting wings into her back (she thinks she’s an angel or something), but they didn’t have any context. She is this powerful assassin that falls to pieces before this crazy abusive, old-man – her abuser, her captor. The scene where he hands her a blade kind of solved that puzzle for me. That’s why I think good people are necessarily important, why internal monologues are important, and why I look for injustice when I’m ‘out’. So that my moral ideals are not so shattered by the injustice I experience continually, that I actually do my abusers abuse myself.

If you look closely you’ll see this sort of thing everywhere. I see it happen all the time in the chronically-ill community.

Most of us do not maintain an internal dialogue with ourselves throughout our day, every day. We experience many phenomena silently (films, plays, games, conversations etc…) that would be impeded by a running monologue (this is one of the most difficult symptoms of schizophrenia/ psychosis). This monologue/ dialogue usually only turns on when something particularly important is happening, and uniformly when something bad has happened- particularly some injustice or moral wrong or violation of personal rights.  The internal monologue of justice in the context of my-life-as-described is dysfunctional.

We’ve all experienced the internal-monologue-phenomenon. I had a friend in high-school who had a very, well, pronounced internal monologue. Small things like jokes on his behalf, or the almost-angry petty (but implicitly funny) arguments very good friends get into would visibly set off his internal monologue (where some tolerated (and oddly kind of loved) but frustrating behavior or quirk is momentarily put on trial with comic exasperation ). His lips would move, his arms would cross, his head would turn – all of the non-verbal (and occasionally verbal) signs that an actual conversation is taking place. It became a running gag. We would piss him off just to see him talk to himself. He couldn’t drop the conclusions of those monologues. He would always say ‘okay lets just drop it, it’s whatever‘. But then I’d catch him “talking” to himself in a corner, and he’d eventually bring the issue to our attention again.  There is a context in which engaging your pain with an internal monologue of justice is functional. It is important to the maintenance of your moral beliefs to have an internal monologue when the facts of an experience clash with what you believe to be right or wrong. When you suffer some injustice, and that injustice is never called into question, you need to make sense of that injustice and answer those questions. If you don’t you risk, a) pain by confusion and ambivalence and losing truths vital to the stability of the life you live and, b) the understanding that what happened to you was wrong – and thus, the moral belief that subsumes that understanding.

I hate that my mother abandoned me. But I don’t have anyone in my life telling me that what she did was wrong, and that I have every right to feel badly. And I’m left dealing with that pain, alone. And the internal monologue hasn’t been enough because we’re told that we’re not allowed to be ‘important or precious’, or valuable or that feeling special is un-virtuous or un-stoic and yet our moral ideas require that we view human life as special, and the good actions require us to treat everyone but ourselves as important. For me that internal monologue, it’s like being apart of some reinforcing cycle. We’re all basically special and important, and valuable, but I’m told to ‘suck it up’ when I need confirmation; when everything desperately depends on that confirmation that I’m not some dispensable piece of shit, because I don’t have those objects in my life affirming my value. So I do, and I ‘overcome’ those feelings – or at least the period in which those feelings are raw. Though it’s better to say that I become numb to those feelings, and to what they refer. And some months later I heard a person on-line talk about how their mother abandoned them and I didn’t feel sympathy or the need to comfort them and agree with them. I had developed a whole different set of tools to cope in this new version of my life; I didn’t just overcome not having a mom, I had to overcame the idea of not having a mom. One of the ways I did that was by telling myself “having a mom doesn’t really matter”.

I don’t have any good people in my life, and that frustrates me. It also makes living much more difficult.