I had the privilege of writing a feature story for Ars Technica on texting and driving. You can read it here.
A note: At the time I wrote this blog, the article I link below was still online. Outside Bozeman has issued an apology for reposting the article that is the subject of this post. You can see their apology for the post, and you can also see the article I am referring to here, with the author’s name omitted. I do not think this changes the fundamental point I am making here.
I recently came across an article that greatly distressed a friend of mine. It’s called “Bagging Bunnies,” and it bills itself as a “satire on ski culture.”
Let me paraphrase it for you. The article presents itself as a hunting guide for “bucks” (young men) who are attempting to “shoot” (have sex with) “bunnies” (women) who are at ski hills. Because I usually try my best to understand what it is my fellow humans are saying, here’s what I think this “satire” is trying to do:
Poke fun at greenhorn/gaper women who come to ski hills, mostly attempting to hook up with hot skier dudes and not really do much skiing.
Parody the beliefs of young skier dudes who think that women aren’t actually capable skiers and just sit around the lodge trying to pick up men.
Poke fun at the beliefs that nonskiers might hold about skier men/skier women.
Unfortunately, this is some shit writing. It’s not only shit because I’m not clear on what the attempt at satire was — it’s shit because even if that were to become clear, the foundation for the joke is piss-poor. The foundations upon which we build our think pieces, jokes, satire, polemics, and hell, our very sentences, are important.
To explain why, let me share one of my favorite jokes.
A man dies, and he goes to heaven. Once there, he has a pleasant conversation with God. They’re getting along, swapping stories, getting familiar with one another. The man finally feels comfortable enough to tell a joke about the Holocaust. He does, and God is not amused, sternly telling the man “that’s not funny.” The man shrugs, and then says, “I guess you had to be there.”
I think that regardless of whether or not you are religious, this joke is funny. Mainly because it makes light of a problem that has plagued humans since the beginning — if God exists, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people? This line of questioning is known as theodicy. Like many jokes, there is risk. People might be offended or hurt by this joke. However, this joke is in touch with reality and has a somewhat defensible foundation.
The question of theodicy is a good question, a difficult question that humans wrestle with. Because it’s interesting and difficult, we can have a lot of fun with it. It’s a decent foundation to build essays and jokes upon. It can be fun.
However, the article I described above does none of those things. It assumes that there is a class of women that go to resorts to affect an appearance (which might be true). However, the way this article’s writing makes an additional assumption: that people who go to resorts to keep up appearances or have sex with other people are bad, or somehow are maligning the integrity of the sport. News flash folks — skiing is an activity mostly reserved for privileged people with access to large sums of money or who are willing to sacrifice a bunch of other things to enjoy zipping down mountains on pieces of wood. Even worse, this article specifically targets women and the ways that they present their bodies. If you’re going to attack someone or attempt to ridicule them, you better make sure your joke is funny or accesses a reality or truth that’s worth a damn.
If you take away the notion that women seeking sex, or wanting to look pretty or be noticed is always a bad thing, there’s nothing to mock here. You’re left with a piece of misogynist garbage that reads like a pickup guide written by a horny teenager. Outside Bozeman: hold yourself to a higher standard of linguistic integrity. Writer who wrote this article: clarify your ideas and see if what you’re writing is actually “satire” at all or just thinly veiled hatred of women.
Finally, let me address the most common reaction when people don’t like something of this caliber: “don’t worry about it, it’s just a joke, it’s funny.” Ursula K. Le Guin has something to say to you:
“Lying is the deliberate misuse of language. But language misused through ‘mere’ ignorance or carelessness breeds half-truths, misunderstandings, and lies. In that sense, grammar and morality are related. In that sense, a writer’s moral duty is to use language thoughtfully and well.”
I wrote this because this piece of writing hurt my friend. This piece of writing was written in bad faith, out of some sort of smugness, anger, ignorance, or righteousness. It was not “satire,” which is:
the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Stupidity and cruelty ought to be criticized. Let me give you an example.
Once there was a man who created an imaginary person. He thought he was filling this imagining, this husk, with beliefs about what other people are. Then he debased his little husk, called it names, imagining that it was a person who somehow deserved it. He did this, and he patted himself on the back, and others patted him on the head and gave him a platform. Not once did he realize that his container was empty.
Here is Outside Bozeman’s apology:
The parable goes like this:
There are two wolves tearing at one another in my heart. One is composed of greed, self-loathing, regret, arrogance, childishness and fear. The other is empathy, kindness, selflessness. The same fight goes on in everyone, including you reading this. Who wins the fight?
The wolf you feed.
I’m not sure where this comes from, though this comic and its attached post do a good job of covering it. It seems to me that as a country, we feed the first wolf more often than the second. That is not to say the United States is full of cruel monsters, because that is wrong. The United States has many kind, compassionate people living in it. However, we have embraced a way of doing politics that is working hard to damage our collective moral fabric.
Which wolf do I feed? It seems now that almost every time I sit down with a friend, we spend a moment talking about how stupid and frightening some of our peers are. This essay is an attempt to describe a way forward for politics based around a simple idea: our political mindsets ought to revolve around what is best for our neighbors and friends, rather than what is best for ourselves.
The moral attitudes that we embrace are reflected in our ideologies. Excuse the quality of the video, but this clip represents something important to me. It is the truest representation of the simple idea I outlined above. It’s a practical moral attitude, and simple. You’re not going to get everything you want, and often times, who and what you are is defined by luck far more often than hard work, intelligence, or many other factors we hold in high esteem.
If what I just described is the the case, (I believe it is) then we have a moral obligation to care for others, rather than just trying to equalize things between us and those who surround us.
I believe we ought to care for others first, then ourselves. Obviously, I don’t believe this to the point where we put ourselves in harm’s way. But, the consequences of caring for others before ourselves is this: we can never do enough for other people. There will always be more that we could have done. Nobody is unimpeachable, moral, and perfect in action. The best we can do is look out for one another, over and over again.
The world is ending
A little dramatic, but I wanted you to read what I have to say here. Sorry guys, but global warming is going to dramatically change the landscape of our planet and our societies. I doubt there’s much we can do to stop it, but we can band together to make sure the ultimate consequences are not the premature deaths of millions, possibly billions of people.
My fellow Americans, this means we cannot continue to consume resources in the ways that we do. Our culture of excess and pursuit of extreme comfort is unsustainable, plain and simple. Sure, we could go to war, continue to keep much of the world impoverished so we could have a wonderful way of life for the next 50 to 100 years, but that’s probably it. We’re on track for our children and their children to have lives that are of poor quality.
I don’t do this to finger point. I’m sure there are many people who try to limit their consumption and who believe I shouldn’t be telling them what to do. I personally live a life free of most serious difficulties. I’m able to support myself with my job, and live a comfortable existence. However, that is not a given, nor should it be thought of as such. We should not believe that just because I can, everyone else can too. I’ll illustrate what I’m talking about by talking about my hometown.
The Star Valley Medical Center Hospital Extension
A few years ago, the hospital in my hometown of Afton, WY, wanted to expand to better provide services to Lincoln County. They went to the community to ask for a small contribution of $3.5 million dollars. The measure failed at the ballot box. I’m going to do baby math here, and say if we divide 3.5 million by the 18,364 residents of Lincoln County, that comes to around $190 a person. That’s probably not an accurate calculation, but bear with me. I’m guessing that the $190 per person wouldn’t be paid in one lump sum in taxes, but be spread out over several years to be a more manageable burden.
I’m guessing that this project for the expansion was voted down for many reasons. I’d love to hear all of them. However, I’m curious if those reasons can overpower the benefits of the hospital expansion. It ended up happening anyway, with the hospital pursuing alternative means, which were more expensive. Star Valley Medical Center is by no means a shit hospital — they provide excellent services, and the times I’ve been there have been phenomenal.
However, when I ripped off my thumb in a log splitter when I was 13, my dad and I had to drive 60 miles to a hospital in Jackson, Wyoming, with me whimpering and bleeding all over the car. It would have been nice to not have to have done that.
I use this anecdote to bolster my earlier point that one of the most destructive tendencies of human beings is our inability to notice things outside of ourselves. As I’ve said, I believe this will destroy us eventually without a titanic shift in thinking and action. I don’t need to go to the hospital, or have health insurance, or need firefighters or police officers most of the time. But when I need them, I really NEED them. In my mind, the lives of others are no different. If paying more money each year means fewer people are in pain, or have better access to resources, I am for that. I wish others had been thinking of kids or adults getting hurt and suffering needlessly and having to travel great distances to alleviate that suffering when they’d voted down that measure to expand the hospital.
Thomas the welfare queen
I was in AmeriCorps a few years out of college. I served in the VISTA program, working at a domestic violence shelter and getting paid near the poverty line in Montana. The idea (an antiquated one, in my mind) was that you worked at the economic level as the people you were serving. This means I made something like $15,000/year (the poverty line for one person in Montana is $11,770). To make ends meet, it’s recommended that AmeriCorps volunteers apply for food stamps, which I did. I got roughly $200 a month to pay for groceries (you can’t buy prepared foods or alcohol). They give you a debit card lookalike and you check out using a special scanner at the grocery store. This was the maximum amount for a single adult, and there are quite a few hoops you have to jump through to get it if you’re aren’t on the special AmeriCorps track.
Had I been injured, medical expenses would have broken me financially. Had a major financial event of any kind occurred, that would have broken me as well. The moral of the story is this: it’s not easy to live on low wages, and many people do not have the privilege or the opportunity to achieve something better. There are isolated examples of individuals abusing welfare programs, but it is not pleasurable nor fun to receive government benefits. Anyone who says otherwise is being an asshole.
Luckily for me, I had a wonderful support network of compassionate people who were able to help me when I was having a hard time. Some people don’t even get that. Don’t be an asshole. Think about the members of your community who are struggling harder than yourself.
It seems to me that people suddenly become experts in the lives of others and what they do and do not deserve come voting season. It also seems these thoughts are often stem from egoism.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, because we all get to see morality on display. I believe we should conserve resources as best we can, avoid wastefulness, and allow people a relative degree of freedom in their lives. I think these concepts are moral and just; they allow us to see how others might live lives that have less suffering in them, rather than more.
What I see from conservative politicians is a hatred of the Other, a general distaste for the autonomy of women, and insufficient compassion toward the less fortunate. I see political leaders who refuse to speak truth to power, instead upholding ideologies that are outdated and ought to be phased out. These are moral injustices based upon egoistic thinking.
Liberal ideology commits moral injustices based on selfishness as well. An essential component of being a moral agent is accounting for the way the world is, not the way we wish it was. I have plenty of student debt. Forgiving student debt (that nobody was forced into) is impractical. It seems nice, but the operational requirements are too high to justify the costs. Universal child care is impractical. Guaranteeing a job is impractical.
Liberal ideology at its core, seeks to give people resources and tools to be successful. I see liberal politicians attempting to put this into practice more often than I see conservative politicians trying to protect the conservative ideologies I outlined above. That doesn’t mean they can’t. They just don’t seem to be doing a good job of it here in the US of A.
This might literally be the end
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, not because I think she’s a shining moral agent, but because she represents an ideological viewpoint that I think may be our only salvation moving into the future. We cannot continue living the way we are. If we do, millions, possibly billions of people are going to suffer. We are all going to die, and our children and their children will too, but that’s always been the score. We need big ideas, we need to look out for each other.
I am not an optimistic man. Blind optimism in the face of the cruelty and indifference of our world is to blindly embody that cruelty and indifference. It hurts to look at the pain of the world, the pain of those we love, the pain of those around us. But, we must do it. It is our obligation.
Vote. Vote for better leaders that see the world as moral adults, and will represent us and our children. To my friends, and to people who I don’t know — look to the bowls of your neighbors, and make sure they have enough. Soon, your own bowl might be empty.
I’ve got an article in the Technoskeptic on CRISPR/Cas9 which you might find edifying if you’ve got some time.
Whoof. It’s been a while since an update. Though I don’t have much to say right now, I had a piece of flash fiction published in MASH Stories, which you can check out here: “The Taxman.”
I don’t update this blog as frequently because it is reserved for my more general ramblings and thoughts, which I have less frequently than I used to. 66 days ago, I decided to try out a 365 day photo challenge. I am stopping today. Here’s why:
I’ve been practicing meditation for almost six months now (which I highly recommend), and one of the main benefits I’ve experienced so far is a calmer, more lucid mind. I think that this is in part due to the intense focus that is required to meditate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no meditation expert, but noticing my thoughts rather than chasing them around in my head and trying to deal with them individually requires a great deal of focus and relaxation, two things which I overdraw constantly from my stress account.
I started the 365 day photo challenge as a companion to my meditation practice. My hope was that by documenting the world around me, I would become more attentive to the present moment, and the space that I inhabit. Unfortunately, what ended up happening was that my anxiety infiltrated the process. Rather than attentively watching the world around me, noticing what happened, I would look at my watch every day around 2pm and go “Oh shit, I need to take a photo today.” The challenge forced me to cast around and try and find something that was interesting or relevant to the day. This is bad news for two reasons. The first is that going from no awareness of the world to sudden sharp awareness seems to be to be instrumentalizing something that I don’t think should be. The whole point of the challenge is to live in a mindset where I notice the world of sensory information, find interest in something, and document it in a careful way. Instead, I was starting with the need to document, and forcing the world into that documentation. The second reason is that my noticing of the external world (which was likely already taking place) is upended by a responsibility that removes me from awareness into hyper-production mode. The images are a supposed to be a journal, not an art piece, but my mind ended up making them that way (and anyone who knows anything about photography can tell that these photos were by no means art pieces).
I love journaling. Writing things on paper and being able to peruse them in book form is very pleasurable to me. Writing is a core component of who I am, and I find great pleasure (and often frustration) in taking the time to create something worth reading. Writing is, for me, a long exercise in meditation and careful attention to the world. I believe that ego depletion is a real thing, and by stacking responsibilities on top of themselves you deplete the available will to accomplish a task well.
So the question becomes, what do I care about? What am I willing to deplete my ego for? As I’ve said, writing is one of those things (if you haven’t checked out my creative non-fiction/book review tumblr, please do). I’m also working on a business idea, finishing my MA, and a podcast. These things are fulfilling, but they also require a great deal of energy. The whole point of becoming more mindful is discovering the self, and how that self fits in with the world.
The journey is by no means over, but I have found that you get closer to the self by stripping away the things that are unimportant. The 365 day photo challenge is unimportant to me.
I’ve challenged myself to take a photo every day for 1 year. I’m doing this because I think it might be fun, and I’m notorious for never taking pictures of anything. I’m not doing this for a wholly documentary purpose, more as part of a mindfulness exercise.
I have a particular myopia when it comes to noticing the world around me, which is something I believe to be a crucial tool in being a writer. My hope is that by noticing stuff, pinpointing one thing a day that is interesting to me, my eye and my memory will become more attuned to detail.
In short, I want to beef up my noticing skills.
You can follow my journey on my Instagram, which you can find here: http://instagram.com/tbrofromspace/
I forgot to mention that I had an article come out in gnovis, an academic journal, which you can find here.
I’m about halfway through listening to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on audiobook, and I found within it one of the more beautiful passages about sex that I’ve encountered:
First, when Siddhartha is talking to his lover, Kamala, we get this:
But again and again, he came back to beautiful Kamala, learned the art of love, practised the cult of lust, in which more than in anything else giving and taking becomes one…
Siddhartha said nothing, and they played the game of love, one of the thirty or forty different games Kamala knew. Her body was flexible like that of a jaguar and like the bow of a hunter; he who had learned from her how to make love, was knowledgeable of many forms of lust, many secrets. For a long time, she played with Siddhartha, enticed him, rejected him, forced him, embraced him: enjoyed his masterful skills, until he was defeated and rested exhausted by her side.
I heard this and I was knocked into some introspection. I have a lot of anxiety surrounding sex and sexuality, in that the sense that I limit myself to certain kinds of sexual encounters. For a while, it was something that I tried to suppress by just having lots of sex, in the hope that I would become dull to the anxiety I feel when getting naked with another person. This passage resonated with me, I think, because of the martial language that Hesse uses. I will return to this in a moment. Rather than leveraging some sort of social critique here about the way men are socialized surrounding sexuality, I’ll just list some of my quirks, and leave it up to the internet to decide if they resound with any social critiques of masculinity (wink wink):
- Intense anxiety about the length of sexual encounters
- Anxiety or disbelief about my partner’s level of satisfaction
- Discomfort about oral sex (receiving, not giving)
- Inability to produce dirty talk
- Feelings of shame after I orgasm
Now, to be clear, it’s not that all of these things happen at the same time, or always happen. I’ve had wonderful sexual encounters with wonderful people and am not trying to make myself out to be completely anxiety-ridden surrounding sexuality. Many times, however, sex is not so much a pleasure activity for me as a sort of physical and mental endurance challenge.
I think that several of those traits reflect incredible self-absorption in a sexual partner, and I’m trying to be a bit less of that.
Which is why this passage was so wonderful. I had not yet encountered a narrative that made sex so gamey. Sure, Hesse might be using some sort of archaic usage of the word “defeated,” but like it because even though he lost, Siddhartha presumably had a good time having sex–which would seem to be the very definition of what makes a game good–that there is still pleasure to be had in a loss. He had fun!
I’ve been sending a lot of query letters for my book lately, and something I tried to do when writing the damned thing was talk about my book and my life as if they both were the most badass shit ever. It’s a good strategy right now, as I’ve discovered in dealing with my particular level of self-loathing, when I write something that I think is super self-aggrandizing, I just sound a lot like a normal person. Herman Hesse has convinced me to treat sex a bit more like a game, and maybe by playing, my sexual encounters will more closely approach the pleasurable thing they’re supposed to be.
Stuff that was kicking around in my head as I wrote this: