Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Physical Impossibility of Debate In the Mind of Someone On the Internet" is now available in no-frills Epub and Mobi (kindle compatible, I do believe) versions. PDF is still available. Sales are already approaching double figures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I wrote a thing about the thing that I wrote. And then I got someone who admires my writing very much to write some annotations. And then I stuck in some other bits and pieces I had lying around. and I put it together as a PDF. (I will take the arguments about formats for granted, and have a go at making an e-book tomorrow night.) If you are interested, please chuck a few coins in the tip jar and I'll e-mail it to you. Obviously, I don't do it for the money, I do it for the sheer love of people not knowing what the hell I am going on about, but about £1.20 per customer would be nice. It's about 20 page A5, including the original essay; comes in around 8,000 words, I guess. Possibly it will go some way to clearing up the confusion that the original piece generated.

Members of my direct family and people I've insulted in it will probably get one for free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Physical Impossibility Of Debate In The Mind of Someone On The Internet

If you feel that this essay is worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" (PDF, epub, mobi) in return for a small donation.

Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe, or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye, ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence:
That for the tiraunt is of gretter myght,
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal meynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef.
Geoffery Chaucer

Woman is the nigger of the world.
John Lennon

Let us suppose, hypothetically, a country in which there was, and had always been, a link between complexion and seating on public transport.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skinned people have to sit in the rear seats on busses, but light skinned people are allowed to sit in the front seats.

Let’s assume that this has been the case for so long that it’s practically invisible: most of the time, even the dark skinned people take it for granted that that’s the way things have to be.

Let’s also note that in this hypothetical and imaginary country, dark skinned people tend to come from the lower social classes, are less likely to own cars, and therefore have to use the bus service more frequently.

We could conceptualize this unfairness in two ways.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs would be for everyone to sit in the front seats, and that the dark colored people are disadvantaged by having to sit in the ones at the back.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs is for everyone to sit at the back, but the light skinned people have the advantage of being able to sit in the front if they want to.

Or we could say dark and light skinned people are equal (they can all sit down) but different (they have to sit in different areas.) But we probably wouldn’t. The phrase “equal but different” is used almost exclusively by light skinned people who are quite sure that dark skinned people are not their equal. So toxic is the phrase that even if a situation arises where it happened to be true — say, at a school where there were separate boys’ and girls’ soccer teams — you almost certainly wouldn’t use it.

So: either the dark coloured people are disadvantaged — suffering from unfair discrimination — or else the light coloured people have an unfair advantage or privilege. Both descriptions are equally true, or equally untrue: the glass really is both half empty and half full. But if you take the first model, you are apt to think in terms of stroppy black people demanding something extra; if you take the second, you are more likely to think in terms of mean white people refusing to share their treat with anyone else. Taking the second model also makes it harder to be indifferent: supporting the status quo means “supporting the privileged position of the white people.”

(Some parents tell children: “if you are very naughty, you will not get any ice cream.” Other parents tell them “if you are extra good, you will get some ice cream.” American parents, or at any rate, parents in American situation comedies, say “If you are bad, I will take away your ice cream privileges.” Using food as disciplinary tool is a really bad idea because and can result in all sorts of hang-ups and eating disorders.)

However you describe it, the situation is horribly unfair: so if the dark skinned people finally decide that they are going to sit in the front seats regardless of where law and tradition says they should sit, then everybody would support them on general principles.

There are, in fact, two sides two every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.) It might, in fact, be that the fight about bus-seats isn’t worth having; or at any rate, that it isn’t worth having today. Better let the light skinned people keep their symbolic advantage than anger the more extreme elements on both sides and risk riots and reprisals. It is certainly the case that all the seats are much the same and the bus takes you where you are going regardless of where you are sitting. Changing a law, even an obviously unfair law, takes time, and the lawmakers may have more urgent matters they want to deal with first.(Politicians do have to think like that, at any rate so long as we remain a civil society with a constitution, laws and procedures, as opposed to one of those anarchists utopias where you tear up the rule book and everyone starts being spontaneously nice.) It might be that what is in everyone’s best interests is a harmonious society where even the most prejudiced light skinned people put up with even the most prejudiced dark skinned people, and that a gradualist approach to reform is more likely to bring this about than radical reform. Politicians sometimes have to think like that, too.

But I can’t imagine anybody actually arguing any of those points. The situation is so blatantly unfair that we would have a two-horse race: between the small minority of racists who don’t really want coloured folks on their busses in the first place, and an overwhelming majority who think that it is obvious (once the question has been raised) that everyone should be allowed to sit wherever they want to.

Similarly, there could in theory be a disagreement about what kinds of tactics the reformers should adopt. Should they simply disregard the law? (But doesn’t civil society depend on us all obeying laws, even laws we don’t like? If I am free to disregard the bus law, whence cometh my obligation to stick to the law about paying my fare, or the one about not punching the bus driver on the nose? Because it’s my duty is to obey a higher, god-given law of morality? But whose god? And who decides? The stronger side? But isn’t that how we got into this mess to begin with?) Do they have organized protests in which everyone ostentatiously and pointedly breaks the law on a particular day? Or do they start lying down in front of busses and picketing bus stations? Do they politely ask the transport staff to change the rules, or actively intimidate bus drivers until they are too scared to enforce them? What about the fellow who sets fire to himself on the back seat of the Number 9 to make his point? Or sets fire to someone else? Or blows up the whole bloody bus?

Most of us would say that it was our duty to support the dark skinned people regardless of whether or not we happened to like their tactics. Even discussing the tactics is tacitly supporting the injustice. The power imbalance is so obvious and blatant that it's incumbent on you to support the weaker side. You simply have no right to sit in the comfortable seats saying that, although you agree with the point that the people in the uncomfortable seats are making, you wish that they wouldn't make it quite so loudly. 

“But what if the dark skinned people adopt violent tactics: are you obliged to support them even then?” I think you are. Or rather, I think that once you have asked the question “do you agree with violent tactics?” you have put yourself on the wrong side. “Violence” means “use of force by the side we don’t agree with”. It’s a word that the powerful invented by strong people to describe tactics used by weak people. It’s just very odd to look at the entire machinery of a nation state bearing down on the little guy and say “I deplore the fact that the little guy threw a stone at a police officer.” 

“Terrorist” is what the big army calls the little army. It’s only “class war” when the poor fight back.

And this is true of every argument and every disagreement. Every quarrel is, in the end, a quarrel between a person with power, and a person without power. So you only ever have two alternatives: intervene on the side of the guy being beaten up; or intervening on the side of the guy doing the beating. If you do nothing, then you allowing big guy to carry on whacking the small guy, which amount to supporting the bully. If you say "But what if the fight really about? Maybe the little guy antagonized the big guy in some way?" then you are still doing nothing and allowing the victimisation to carry on. 

Of course, you may dress it up in fancy words. "I feel sorry for you" I may say "I genuinely do. I have nothing against dark coloured people. Some of my best friends have dark coloured skin. But philosophically, you will concede that it is part of the Cosmic Essence of buses that the dark coloured people must sit at the back  of them and light coloured people must sit at the front? You wouldn’t want to upset the Balance of the Force, would you? Or if you do not concede that, you must at least concede that that is part of my sincere and devout beliefs, and the since and devout beliefs of many other Jedi? So in order to preserve the Cosmic Balance, or out of respect for other people's faith, I must reluctantly sit in the comfortable seat. But do please understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about the bus.”

If I said this, I think that you might well take the view that I hadn't really said anything at all. All my talk about the Force and Cosmic Essences amount to "Well, I would give up my seat, but I don't feel like it." La la la I'm not listening!

Of course, most people are better at concealing their privilege under a poor mask of logic; but that's all it ever is -- a mask. Suppose I say: “Why does the law ban me from killing foxes for sport, but permit me to keep chickens in horribly inhumane conditions?” Aren't I just invoking concepts like "humane" and "even-handedness" — which are in the long run just as made-up an imaginary as the Cosmic Essence of Busses — to assert the hereditary right of rich people (like me) to own the countryside and do whatever they like it in? 

Or if I say "Is there any statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders in society?", aren't I just invoking mystical concepts like "statistics" and "evidence" to occlude my belief that I'm a rich white guy, want rich white guys to stay in charge, and think that culling a few hundred poor black guys every year to show the who's boss is a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo? My use of terms like "murder" and "capital punishment" show pretty clearly which side I'm on. When a weak person kills a strong person, we call it "murder"; when a strong person kills a weak person, we call it "capital punishment". (C.f The school teacher hitting a little boys backside with a big stick, while chanting "")

It isn't that my arguments are "bad". It's the whole idea of "argument" that's the problem. "Arguments", "logic", "evidence", "proof", "neutrality" are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge. 

How did the light skinned people get to sit at the front of the bus in the first place? Not by winning an argument, that's for sure.

Everything's really all about power. (Unless everything's really all about sex, but that's an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it's always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never "who is right?: it's always "which side are you on?"

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

So far as I can see, everything I've said above is true. But when I'm asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he's wrong why he's wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question.

I have just deleted three separate paragraphs giving examples of questions I may be on the wrong side of. I know how toxic discussions about questions that people are on the wrong side of can become, and how quickly. 

I have also deleted a paragraph about why I think they become toxic. It has been explained to me that when I try to do that kind of thing, I come out, to use the technical jargon, "sounding like a cunt". (I suppose this is why it is called "vulgar Marxism".)

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Lawrence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet. Derrida was right. There isn't any stuff. There's only people talking about stuff. I've never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn't really a space, and isn't really very cyber. It's more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break. 

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. "Right" and "Wrong" aren't qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

And you knew that already. 

So why are you even reading this?

I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you might be mistaken.
Oliver Cromwell

The infidel might have a good point, you know. 
Les Barker

If you thought that this piece was worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" in return for a small donation.