As a Matter of Fact…

Just to clear something up.

According to some (mentioned in a Breaskfast News piece) David Cameron referring to asylum seekers as a “swarm” is just “plain speaking” and “telling it like it is” – those phrases being the world’s most common euphemisms for assholes to excuse their asshole-ness.

But no.

No it isn’t.

Plain speaking, if it has to be anything, is factual, non-emotive, and free from connotation, simile and metaphor. It doesn’t have to be restricted to the most common 1,000 words in the language but it should stick closely to a few simple verbs and nouns common enough to be used without ambiguity, as close to their literal definitions as possible. And since humans can’t literally swarm because the primary definition of “swarm” refers to insects, calling a group of a people a “swarm” isn’t plain, nor matter-of-fact.

The connotation of the word is that people are now insect-like, insignificant, worthy of extermination and brutal inhuman treatment. Anything in “plain English” shouldn’t have such connotation.

I have no problem with David Cameron calling people a “swarm”. I have no problem with people using words outside their literal definitions for effect – it’s the joy of speaking something as wonderfully incoherent as English. But don’t deny this is what you’re doing. Don’t pretend that you’re not doing it, or pretend that you’re speaking plainly when you’re riddling your rhetoric with bullshit.

“The cat sat on the mat” is plain, matter-of-fact speaking. “The bloody mongrel dragged its scabby, sordid arse all over my nice new rug” is not, quite obviously. “The cat squatted on the mat” alters it less with a slightly negative connotation, “the cat postured on the mat” alters it for a slightly positive connotation – yet the facts do not change. It’s also no accident that the terms “climate change denialist” and “climate change skeptic” are used on different sides of the fence (though I’m obligated at this point to mention that one of those is more appropriate than the other).

“A group of people”, “many people”, “people,” or “X-thousand people” is matter-of-fact. “A swarm” or a “hoard” is something else that implies more by association of the words with concepts outside of the mere facts at hand.

So if you’re one of those people who likes to “tell it as it is”, I hope this helps.

The [Whatever] on this thread is disgusting

I spotted a thread on Facebook that involved someone expressing concern over the amount of racism going on. Someone else had this interesting little piece in response to them:

racismIn short, “criticising religion is not racism, because religion is not a tribe.”

This is not as smart an argument as you might think. And if at this point you find yourself running to a dictionary to prove otherwise, then you definitely have some learning to do.

Let’s start at the beginning.

If you over-generalise and make derogatory statements about a large group of people based on superficial qualities, then you’re guilty of… what? Racism? Xenophobia? Bigotry? In actual fact it doesn’t matter, because the facts remain; you’re making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities.

Trouble is, “making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities” is a bit of a mouthful.  Like calling myFunction() in some code, or some other suitable metaphor, you just need something there to tidy things up a little. Something to simplify and make your life easier when transferring thoughts from your brain to another. Doesn’t really matter what you call it. Well, actually, it does matter what you call it. It can matter quite a bit, because people make bad assumptions based on what you’ve called it. Ask anyone who has banged their head on a wall trying to convince some twerp that third-wave, sex-positive feminism isn’t Andrea Dworkin.

People are idiots for doing this sort of thing, but hey, we have a framework of human stupidity to work with, we may as well take action against it.

So, what do we call it when someone is making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities? There’s “discrimination”, but that has a lot of inferences about selecting people for job interviews based on skin colour, so isn’t the best choice. Bigotry is better, of course. It’s certainly one of those arbitrary combinations of vowels and consonants you can sink your teeth into with bile as you accuse someone of it. Though we’re really after a proper “ism” here. Racism and sexism come to mind, and homophobia and xenophobia describe the same thing but curiously use a different suffix. In those cases, they’re all notably broken down by the type of victim, not by the act itself.  So what if the victim falls outside of that range, such as a religion? This is interesting because we don’t necessarily have a single word for it in English; “religionism”? Maybe. Maybe not. Then we’re back to just “bigotry”.

Interestingly, this naming convention also helps us define hate crimes (this will be a bit of an aside, but the point will become clear in a moment). Now, we do already have religious discrimination under “hate crime”, but again, what about when the victim falls outside that pre-approved set of Real Victims? For instance, there was a recent change in UK law that lead to the inclusion of “subcultures” under the umbrella of hate crime. For context, this was sparked by the murder of Sophie Lancaster, who was brutally attacked and killed simply for being a goth.

This change met with some strong resistance. But why? After all, Sophie Lancaster was attacked, beaten and ultimately killed for her superficial outward appearance that her attackers didn’t like, and purposefully went out of their way to target. If we described it as such without any further particulars, one would assume we were talking about a racially-motivated attack. Yet, up until that point, it wouldn’t have even been considered as a hate crime on par with a racially-motivated attack. The reason why was partially because we simply didn’t have a name for “gothism” to bring it tightly under the umbrella of “hate crime”.  Without the name, we don’t really have a group to put under that list of pre-approved suitable victims. That’s not to say the concept can’t exist without the label, but it is far more difficult to rally a cause around nothing.

And so, people immediately assume it “didn’t count”. Despite what actually happened, what was actually done, and every attribute of the attack itself, it was simply a case of “yes it counts” or “no it doesn’t” based on such prior biases. And so, people didn’t think it was right to include attacks on subcultures under the umbrella of a hate crime; they thought it would water down the “real” definition.

(Anyhow, that’s the aside over.)

The point being that there’s a similar situation with anti-religious bigotry; the all Muslims are terrorist variety, rather than the “religion is a vector for harmful divisive effects on society” variety, of course. We don’t really have a single term for it. In many cases, we lump hatred of Muslims under “racism”, if only because of the backlash against “islamophobia” and the fact that the word “Muslim” in most contexts aims to conjure up a non-western and non-white ethnic group far more than, say, “Scientologist” does. But that still implies that it’s skin colour rather than religion we’re looking at. It’s making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities… but dash it all, it’s the wrong superficial quality!

So, if the original argument said “the racism on this thread is disgusting”, then you might be tricked into thinking the little screen capture above is a nice solid refutation of it. But it would still be a trick; a mere illusion. If it said “the [making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities] is disgusting”, does it still work? Does it actually refute anything? Does it demonstrate that [whatever] wasn’t happening? Or does it just attempt to redefine the terms so that it looks as if it isn’t?

Meaning is use, and sub-optimal selection of terminology doesn’t imply any incorrectness in the thought process. This is why we use logic; as logic is actually independent of definition. Logic lets us look at the thought process to see if it’s sound, without being prejudiced by our assumptions and inferences about what words “should” mean. It’s a great tool, but we need to be aware of it to use it.

And yes, I read the thread in question. The [making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities] was, indeed, disgusting.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 2)

The Problem with “Religion”

There’s a big problem with “religion”. No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against how “it” supposedly brainwashes people, or how “it” starts wars, or how “it” is a massive affront to reason. No, this is about the actual word, the label itself, and how it’s used – especially amongst the anti-theist and anti-religionist crowd of atheists, because holy fuck those people can be stupid when they want to be.

The problem with “religion”? “Religion” doesn’t exist.

See, people treat “religion”, like it’s a thing.

Religion_as_a_thingBut it’s not a thing. You can’t find it anywhere. Sure, we might imagine something like a hypothetical “generalised” religion, much like the “generalised mollusc” anatomy, but that doesn’t mean such a thing exists in reality. We’d have a hard time finding this “religion” anywhere. No one follows “religion”. No one is part of “religion”. And if I type “religion” once more I’m going to have a bad time.

No, “religion” is not a thing. It’s more like a bucket.

Religion_as_a_bucket

We put stuff into this bucket based on a few superficial similarities. Things like “believes in a creator deity”, or “provides a moral code”, or something more abstract. But those similarities are superficial and generic, they overlap and criss-cross and can be quite complicated. They’re not universal, they’re not essential, there isn’t even a single common thread uniting everything in the bucket. Not all religions believe in an almighty God. Not all religions propose supernatural processes. Not all religions fleece followers of money, and not all religions profess a love for peace.

Often, the differences are far more striking than the similarities.

spot_the_difference

When you step back and think about it, it does seem strange what does go into the bucket and what doesn’t. Pick any attribute ascribed to “religion”, and you’ll be able to find a good few exceptions; “religions” that don’t posses that attribute or “not-religions” that do.

what_goes_inAnd this is sort of where the problem is. Because nothing truly unites everything in the bucket, it’s difficult to use in a general sense. It’s almost pointless to try.

Few people ever reach into the bucket to examine its contents; they’re stuck with looking at the bucket and simply declaring universal truths about it as if it was a thing. By no means are these declarations universally negative in the way anti-religionists use them (“religion is against reason”, “religion is harmful”, “religion is child abuse”),  many of the positive assertions also do this in exactly the same way (“religion is necessary”, “religion answers the big questions”, “religion should be respected”).

contents_may_differThe bucket is just that, a bucket. It does nothing but hold stuff.

Sometimes this is quite convenient. It would be a pain in the ass to refer to tall wooded objects with leaves if it wasn’t for the concept of a “tree”. But this comes at the price of, on occasion, mistaking the bucket for a real thing and then making mass generalisations about what it holds. People assume animist religions are “bullshit” for the same reasons creationism is total and utter crock. They assume Hinduism is interchangeable with Islam – or that neither have the same kind of internal sub-divisions as Christianity does, completely blind to their own geographic biases. Is atheism a religion? Well, the answer to that is actually far more complicated than “is bald a hair colour?”

Getting rid of the buckets probably isn’t an option. The world is just too big and complicated to go without them. Even fuzzy buckets would just break peoples’ brains eventually. All the inclusions, exclusions, exceptions, partial truths and partial matches would be too much information for us to handle.

Instead, we simply need better, more useful, more appropriate buckets for the task.

good_shit_bad_shit

It’s a much better approach just to simply categorise things better. But it does require some effort, especially when language and society is already rigged for the inefficient and crap version, which splits the world in to “religion” and “not-religion” and says one is good and the other is bad. You need to look into things and pick out what’s bad and what’s good. Then separate it out, and deal with things specifically. The phrase “all religion is bad” is absolutely meaningless; but if the average non-believer admitted that, and tried to say “behaviour that ostracises and demonises the out-group is harmful”, they they’d run the risk of turning a critical eye on their own behaviour. That’s not a comfortable thought, and it’s no wonder people avoid it.

This is why anger at “religion” is misplaced – and why thinking that anger directed at specific components found in the religious bucket is anger at “religion” is a foul misinterpretation. There is a “bad shit” bucket out there, and it’s something worth getting angry about – in fact, it’s a better question to ask why people don’t feel that these things are worth getting angry about. At the same time, though, there’s a “good shit” bucket (or even a “meh bucket”) and lumping that all in with “stuff worth getting angry about”  is, at best, just wasted effort.

But always remember, the bucket itself can’t harm people; its contents do.