The Look

We’ve all seen this, or something like it. There’s a look you get from someone who has expressed an opinion contrary to your view that you have countered. As the discussion continues and you keep presenting new facts and new formulations to show that what he/she is asserting is in error, occasionally you receive this Look. Almost a smile, a barely repressed glint of mischief in the eyes, a kind of smugness that says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You just can’t see that none of that matters and that I’m right.”

It is an infuriating look. But it is also the look of a true believer, perhaps a zealot, someone who has learned to rewrite reality so well that all the facts, truths, and ideas in the world fail to persuade.

What then becomes more infuriating is when you ask them to explain themselves, offer the whys and whereofs of their position, and tell you how what you have said is so wrong—they refuse. Perhaps it is because they believe the evidence for their position is so strong, so obvious that they do not need to explain it.

More likely, it is a combination of two primary factors: one, that what they believe is to them so right that evidence to the contrary, regardless how fact-based it may be, is by definition irrelevant, and two, like any faith-based assertion, explaining it is always a reduction.

Personally, I think a third factor renders the first two less important—a refusal to entertain the idea that you might have a point.

Because that would admit doubt. And doubt is kryptonite to zealotry.

We saw that look recently, on the face of Congressman Matt Gaetz when being schooled by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff on the utility of learning, of understanding. Gaetz, smiling and slightly shaking his head, was trying to convey his astonishment at the general for holding opinions which Gaetz found incomprehensible. There is truth in this—Gaetz did find them incomprehensible, because he likely did not comprehend them. He certainly did not expect them. Rather than draw back and reconsider, that expression on his face suggests he would simply double-down on his expectations and disregard what he had heard. Given a little time, he will regroup and proceed as if the general had said nothing.

The philosopher David Hume established the groundwork for our apprehension of fact. It seems obvious today, but till Hume it was not, which is that all that we know or can know comes through our senses, and therefore absolute knowledge—about anything—is mediated by filters which are utterly subjective and by degrees unreliable. In other words, while we can make any number of accurate statements about the world, and can over time refine our observations so that they more and more accurately approximate reality, we can never know absolutely and with the kind of certainty which obliterates error. Because we are sensate creatures and our sense are tied to desires and a host of responses that mitigate objectivity to one degree or another, our conclusions must always be conditional.

This is not to say we cannot “know” anything in such a way that we cannot rely on our knowledge to navigate the world and even understand it to a very large degree. Those same senses tell us we’re on the right track and allow us to perceive the consequences of our learning in action in such away that we are justified in a high degree of confidence. Rather, it means we can never reach a final state of knowing anything, not to the extent that we can claim absolute comprehension.

We get along quite well with the margin left us. To claim that we can know nothing at all is the same error as claiming absolute certainty in anything. Knowledge, like experience, turns out to have a statistical valence, even as we may be caught up in the kind of illusion of certainty of which zealots dream.

We can even be certain at times. For the purposes of making the next decision, for choosing among options, for planning, we can rely on certainty. At least for a short while. It’s an impression, necessary for moving reliably through the world.

The problem is when we take hold of certainty and declare it absolute and never allow it to pass into the probabilistic stew from which our actions are determined. When we stop allowing for the possibility of error or misjudgment or change.

“Why would I doubt something I know to be true?”

For the sake of argument, let’s set that aside for a moment. It’s not so much the thing invested with absolute confidence that can be a problem, but the array of secondary ideas and next-steps that evolve from it. If you are so convinced of a then obviously b must follow. You can construct a causal chain of decisions which can lead to a profoundly dysfunctional place (the Crusades, anyone? Flat Earth? 6000 year-old-Earth?) Doubt is the necessary ingredient to keep our options open to the possibility of getting the logical conclusions of an idea wrong. Doubt, to return to my kryptonite statement, may not stop the zealot, but it may stop us from following him.  (The zealot may have several motivations and bases for belief and action apart from the immediate subject, most not amenable to reason.)

But if Hume is correct—and I believe he is—it doesn’t matter which part of the chain you look at, doubt is essential at every link because the source of knowledge can only ever be grasped by way of the senses, which are by no means open to all aspects of any subject.  (Knowing god, for instance, can only be an assertion of will on our part, because even according to our descriptions of god, it is an impossible thing to “know” because it exceeds the limits of our senses. We ought, if we’re going to adhere to that path, recognize that we can only ever know an idea of god, and that the doubt comes into play when attempting to determine right or wrong based on that incomplete knowledge, because a large part of that claim to “know” god is Expectation.)

The ability to usefully deploy doubt, though, is the flip side of the problem. Disciplined skepticism is a skill and requires learning. Otherwise you end up as ineffective as the zealot, doubting so automatically and universally that decisions can never be made, or at least not constructively.  Consequently, doubt can scare people. If they think by doubting everything they stand on is sand, their lives will be buffeted by a world in which they find no purchase. It would only be sensible for them to grab hold of the first certainty they feel they can rely on.

Those are two anchors of the curve. Most people utilize a combination. Investing their faith in certain things while dealing with everything else out of a utilitarian skepticism.

Unfortunately, there will be times their skepticism fails them simply because something appears to be part of the area of certainty in which they invest.

But about that “look” I mentioned at the beginning. That’s the look you get very often from someone who has decided on a posture of absolute certainty not because of any survey of options or counterarguments, but because a decision has been taken to ignore everything else, and then turn the responsibility for error on everyone else.

What seems to have been decided is that anyone speaking doubt to this person is engaging in either duplicity or is, in fact, unintelligent. (A third possibility is that they are holding said certainty in bad faith, because what they are actually after is control and power.) In either case, they’re regarding you with a self-satisfied smugness born of “knowing” they know better than you. They have to believe, on some level, that you’re stupid.  And if you ask them to explain it to you, to show you what you’re missing, often they won’t. They’ll give some version of “you wouldn’t understand” and move on.

The reason they do this is that they can’t explain it. Not in such a way to show you how you’ve erred. In order to do that, they would have to understand it themselves, deeply, in such a way that would allow them to engage in a dialogue about it. That willingness to engage indicates humility. Humility and absolute certainty have an uneasy relationship.

Now, let me state here that this is not always the case. Many people who live in certainty, especially about matters of faith, are genuinely humble. You can tell them from the zealots because they will engage. They’ll do their best to explain, they’ll discuss it. You may find yourselves in a bog eventually where the limits of engagement butt against that certainty, but there will be dialogue.

But you won’t ever get That Look from them.

That Look denotes someone who has finally substituted Absolute Certainty for the kind of openness that leads to understanding. The next step will be to silence criticism, denounce alternatives, and snuff out inquiry.

That look Matt Gaetz gave General Mark Milley. Gaetz possibly knows very well that Milley is right, but acknowledging that will not aid Gaetz in his agenda. So Milley has to be wrong or stupid. Regardless, Gaetz can’t explain.  He can only offer The Look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working….or Not

Sometimes you have to step back from the battle to see how it goes. Logistics is all important, but so is simple perspective. To fling an accusation at the enemy that what they are doing is not working is fraught with error.

For instance, we are beginning to hear the reassessments about so-called Trickle-Down economics.  Learned minds are starting to point out its shortcomings. The problems. Many of us have been saying for years that it was bad idea, that, in fact, It Doesn’t Work.

Well, there’s a problem there, especially if what one is trying to do is win an argument.

We have to get our terms straight.  We have to know what our expectations were and are.

And we have to understand that this is a war of misperception as much as anything else. When you say “It didn’t work” the very next thing you have to say or ask or assume is:  for whom?

Because it certainly worked for some people.

This is important, because when you base your argument on a point that is contrary to the experience and expectation of your opponent, you’re about to have a Sisyphean task winning that argument.  Because in fact it did work.  Just not for a lot of people.  And the problem with saying it didn’t work is making a probably false assumption that both your expectations were and are the same.

Oh, no. Your opponent does not hear your words because they don’t understand your point (on purpose or otherwise) because for them it did work.  It did precisely what they wanted it to do.

Of course, if you go back to when it was embraced, that was the problem as well.  You were talking different languages almost.  When they sold us this idea with the classic “rising tide floats all boats” we took them to mean all boats, not just the ones like theirs. And since their boats rose, well, the damn thing worked like a charm! What are you complaining about?

I just point this out because words matter. Words contain assumptions and if we get them wrong we can end up mudwrestling over issues that could be better pursued by a simple reset and the understanding that we do not expect the same things, that “it works” or “it doesn’t work” mean entirely different things.

It didn’t fail.  It just didn’t do what we thought it was intended to do.

But it did what someone intended it to do.

Now we can start calling it what it is.  A fraud. Theft. Robbery.

Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.

 

 

On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.