Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Privilege, Defensiveness, and Anger

Last week, I was reading a friend's status on Facebook. She was mildly annoyed at all the sports talk on Facebook. Soon after I read her status, I began talking about my fondness for sports in my replies to her status. A few minutes after that, I realized something spooky: when my friend chooses not to talk about something, why do I immediately begin to discuss the very thing she doesn't want to talk about?

I was insensitive. I placed my own rights to discuss what I feel like discussing, at any time I feel like discussing it, over her right to feel comfortable. Thinking about this moment even more, I realized that a similar dynamic unfolds in discussions about feminism and whenever women raises concerns about how they're treated, period.

I label myself as a feminist, but that doesn't make me an automatic ally of women. Sometimes, I'm insensitive because I have privilege. There's no iron-clad law that says I've immediately overcome my experiences and inclinations, just because I'm trying to help women stand up for themselves. Men who seek to support women in their efforts to gain equal treatment need to remember our vulnerabilities.Calling yourself a feminist doesn't magically solve the problems of patriarchy, any more than saying you have a black friend magically solves the problem of racism.

Ask yourself: am I making a statement that implicitly ignores, marginalizes, and belittles women? Check your rationalizations: if you're making them, you probably need to stop talking for awhile. You can have concerns, but your concerns are not more important than women. Anything else is an excuse. It's time to quit making excuses, and it's time to start listening.


It's a frequent canard that feminists are angry and hate men, which is amusing when you consider that I'm a man and a feminist, so I must hate myself. The scary thing is, there's probably someone out there who's sure I must hate myself if I'm a feminist. Call me crazy, but how can the world get worse once we stop preventing half the people in it from reaching their full potential? That's not hatred, that's love. Shoot, that's self-interest. Most people are capable of clearing that low bar.

Anger is another story. As an atheist, I've had lots of fun with anger. Greta Christina has her 99 Reasons Atheists Are Angry. I've learned that anger is often necessary and justified to propel social change.

I've also learned that tone is not all-important. The suffering of helpless, innocent people is more important than tone. The happiness of half our planet is more important than tone. Tone is also a source of privilege: if you have privilege, you can get what you want by being nice and not rocking the boat. People who aren't normally heard need to be louder.

Often, I've found myself on the other end of anger. What should you do when people are angry at you? I recommend pausing, taking a few steps back, and reassessing your situation for awhile. Walk away. Once you've learned that anger can be justified, use that knowledge to discern how the anger you're currently facing may be justified. Even if you disagree with the complaints, try to imagine yourself in the position of the person who's angry.


Speaking from probability, every person has some privilege in his or her life, whether it is: race, religion, gender, class, nationality, physical condition, mental condition, etc. If skeptics can agree to use skepticism to deflate the emotional baggage of religion, then why can't skeptics agree to use skepticism to deflate the emotional baggage of privilege? Religious privilege is one type of assumed, unquestioned, poisonous privilege among many, that both depends upon and enables other destructive types of privilege.

Yes, widening the appeal of skepticism is a good thing, but I'm not asking a question about popularity. I'm asking a question about the basic responsibility of skeptics, and whether skeptics will remain accountable to their own beliefs: are you prepared to accept the full consequences of skepticism, once you understand that religion is just one type of privilege among many -- yes or no?

I hope you say "YES!". If you say "YES!", then let's join together and create a world where no privilege lies unexamined, unchallenged, or any longer undermines the well-being of any human being on this Earth.

Is America (and President Obama) Afraid Of Greatness?

I'm tired of small-minded, lazy, simple explanations. I'm tired of horse-race, he-said/she-said reporting that pretends to be objective but isn't and covers trivialities instead of issues. I'm tired of talking points.

I'm tired of cowering in fear after the deaths of a few thousand people. I'm tired of using the hatred of our enemies as a blank check to expand the power of government, shrink the accountability of government, and erode our privacy.

I'm tired of a government and political class that values the feelings of the wealthy over the well-being of the unemployed.

I'm tired of politicians who demand freedoms for journalists, dissidents, and protesters in other countries -- yet remain silent when those freedoms are threatened or denied in our own country.

I'm tired of politicians who demand liberty for themselves -- but deny liberty to women, gay people, racial and religious minorities, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

I'm tired of politicians who endlessly caterwaul about the deficit threatening the future of our children -- yet do nothing to address issues like global climate change, overpopulation, or renewable energy.

I'm tired of politicians who think endless war is the solution to every problem. There is no war on drugs, war on terror, or war on poverty that America will ever win alone. The biggest, most complex problems demand ambitious, large-scale, heroic solutions.


Conservatives often taunt liberals by stating that government is a parasite, but without government, America cannot and will not remain a truly great nation. Our government fails us because the people we put in charge of our government were incompetent and chose the wrong priorities. America is fully capable of attaining greatness, and our government should be fighting for its people on the front lines.

President Obama wants to help a few people with their mortgages, a few people gain jobs, a few people face less discrimination, a few people avoid deportation. President Obama wants a smidgen of deficit reduction, a token amount of investment: but all the small changes amount to nothing, so people see a status quo that hasn't changed and isn't acceptable.

President Obama is afraid of greatness. Mitt Romney won't stop talking about greatness and America at all hours of the day and night, but he doesn't mean a single word. When voters have two alternatives -- one candidate who has no vision and one candidate who has a vision that isn't trusted -- which candidate do you think will win?

When the candidate without a vision represents an unacceptable status quo, and the candidate with a vision successfully represents (in the minds of voters) a change from that unacceptable status quo -- which candidate do you think will win? If people don't like Mitt Romney, if people don't trust Mitt Romney, if people don't trust Republicans -- none of that will matter if Mitt Romney offers some kind of vision of America and President Obama doesn't. That's the current political situation, and President Obama and his advisers need to wake up.

I'm tired of hearing that America is the greatest country in the world from political leaders who do nothing but erode everything that's ever made America great. In 2008, President Obama won the White House because he offered a chance to change that situation. During the past four years, he hasn't done enough to fix the deterioration of American greatness, and he hasn't offered a plan to restore or expand American greatness during the next four years. The time is not too late for President Obama to change course and offer that specific, compelling vision. If Barack Obama can't win re-election in November, it will be - as Jimmy Buffett sings in "Margaritaville" - his own damn fault.

Religious Traditions and Individualism

One of my friends posted a New York Times Op-Ed called "Congregations Gone Wild", complaining that members of the American clergy are suffering burnout as members of their congregations demand more entertainment and less moral guidance that could disturb the feelings of the flock. My friend wanted my thoughts, even though I'm an atheist, and I don't have a dog (don't have a sheep?) in this fight.

The idea that any particular religion's primarily about entertainment and good feelings is possible because there's no agreement about the primary purposes of most religious traditions. Most people appear to go to services, then those people feel better about themselves and superior to others for an hour or two a week -- and then continue their normal lives.

Religious ideas have been in flux throughout history - have always been part social, part religious, part political. When the same people run all three areas of a society, maybe you get a distorted idea -- but at least everyone believes a distorted idea in the same way. When different people control different parts of society... then you have all of these wonderful tensions, and eventually, nobody knows what to do anymore.

There's a trade-off between having no hierarchy and little guidance with lots of room to question authority and think independently...and having lots of hierarchy and guidance but little room to question authority or think independently. Of course, lots of people don't question authority or think for themselves at all, but continue to selectively follow traditions that have been handed to them, and over time, those traditions get weaker and weaker as you get farther from the original reasons people believed their traditions.

Can members of religions find ways to instill the principles of their faith in a rigorous, disciplined way -- in the middle of a diverse, pluralistic society that encourages different answers and different points of view? It's an interesting problem. Personally, I hope people will support traditions that encourage critical thinking and grappling with tradition on the individual level. There are religious people who stand by their faith tradition and its teachings while incorporating other opinions and other teachings.

I'm not religious myself, and I'm not sure that religion carries more benefits than harm to the world -- but if you're going to be religious, that's what I recommend. I do feel sorry for the people in those congregations that are demanding more amusement and less substance: those people by and large haven't been taught to think for themselves, but they don't have a tradition to provide them ready-made answers. That's a paradox of our society: is it better to have uninformed people with freedom, or informed people who don't have freedom? Hopefully, we can have people who are informed and have freedom. That's my goal, and I think many well-meaning religious people can help achieve that combination.

In a world with fewer shared values, all is not sour for practitioners of religion: there's an opportunity to reconcile doubt and tradition, critical thinking and moral principles, individual learning and strong communities. Even people who don't accept religious ideas have limited opportunities to find such balance.

Our world continues to change. How will religious beliefs adapt? If you're religious and you sincerely believe in the truth of your faith, then I hope you'll help the rest of us inform ourselves and gain the power to choose the beliefs that most powerfully affirm each of our values. If you're right, you'll gain followers. If you're wrong, you're only postponing the inevitable exposure as a more democratic, pluralistic, informed world continues to awaken and to demand answers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

False Equivalences and Philosophical Politics

Earlier tonight, several acquaintances of mine were arguing on Facebook about Senator Scott Brown, the No Labels movement, and the political climate for Democrats and Republicans. Here's my contribution:

Fiscal liberal, social liberal, less hawkish on foreign're called a fringe, "professional left", un-Serious progressive, ignored by the Democratic establishment.

Fiscally conservative, socially conservative, hawkish on foreign're called a standard, mainstream, establishment Republican.

See the problem here? Liberals are losing the war on framing every day, and there are just far more ardent conservatives than liberals in America anyway. Conservatives have a party that fights for them -- do liberals? The Democratic Party and President Obama, if anything, are both moderate overall and hardly "socialist" as the hyperbolic Republicans claim.

Democrats continue to reward Republicans for their message discipline and intransigence by refusing to solidify and reinforce their own beliefs before the eye of the public. Democrats need to grow a spine. Also, I agree that No Labels as fool's gold in this political climate. Our main problem is conservative overreach and Democratic "compromise". You can't compromise with people like Richard Mourdock. I'm from Indiana, I know! When Lugar loses his seat for being a moderate, watch out. It's not a "both sides" problem. No Labels and people who agree with them are not seeing the problem clearly.


When I was describing this conversation to my roommate, he told me about a documentary he watched tonight that argued against the wind industry. He was annoyed that the documentary bashed the wind industry while refusing to offer solutions to the problems of energy consumption and climate change. I share my roommate's frustrations.

While talking to my roommate, I observed that we live in a world where there are often no good alternatives to some of our most pressing global problems. Sometimes, there are numerous flaws and drawbacks to even the best of all possible policies. To have a genuinely productive discussion, a responsible person must try to consider all the positive and negative consequences of every alternative.

Politics is often extremely superficial, short-term, bottom-line, and deeply unimaginative. At those times, I'm astonishingly thankful that I also studied philosophy while I was in college.

My roommate suggested that one reason that people behind the anti-wind industry film were criticizing the wind industry is because those filmmakers may be reflexively anti-business. I am a liberal, but I'm not anti-business. I am deeply skeptical of the idea that businesses can regulate themselves. Businesses are run by human beings. The market isn't a magic elixir that fix mistakes people make. I support well-regulated business. I'm a capitalist, but I am a realistic one!

In response, my roommate replied that government is also run by human beings. True. Those people in government also make mistakes. That's no reason to arbitrarily limit or abolish government. Liberals may be skeptical of unregulated business -- but there's no overwhelming desire to produce as little business as possible, in the way conservatives desire to produce as little government as possible.

Perhaps this difference exists because government is an unfortunate necessity, while business is neutral to positive in its effect on the world -- that would be a conservative position, and perhaps the opposite view is a far-left position. Why not compare those positions, their implications, and their effects? That's a realistic, thoughtful, genuine debate.

I don't want politics to remain a series of talking points. I want a meaningful, substantive, evidence-based examination of assumptions, values, and outcomes -- because I want the best possible policies that improve the lives of everyone. Politics shouldn't be a game, a horse race, or a pissing contest.

You don't have to be a liberal or a conservative, but you should strive to test your views against your best examination of reality. That one political movement (conservatism) attempts this practice far less often than another political movement (liberalism) is one of the greatest tragedies in modern American society. That sure doesn't sound like a "both sides" problem to me.

Atheist Meditation: Two-Part Morality

Since I first became an atheist about four years ago, I have read, thought, and encountered many different ideas about ethics and morality. I have attempted to reconstruct my moral views since I decided that my former Christian ideas were no longer adequate.

Previously, before my deconversion, my sense of morality was influenced by my Christian faith, but it wasn't strictly defined by the Bible or by the teachings of my church. The ideas of my friends and family, as well as my personal intuitions, were another strong influence on my beliefs. I was usually able to reconcile my faith with these more personal views.

As a cynic would note, it is not surprising that my values and my interpretation of Christianity coincided. That is not what I want to discuss, however: I'm trying to showcase how I formed some of my views of morality as an atheist.

While I majored in philosophy (along with political science), I'm afraid that my views on ethics are not influenced in a major way by the individual foundations of any philosophers. My take on morality now is mostly formed by intuitions I've formed based on a combination of philosophical and academic readings, discussions with intelligent friends, and personal experience.

In my opinion, many philosophical arguments about ethics are misleading and don't encourage relevant discussions of what is actually moral. One of the biggest offenders is the subjective/objective morality argument: is there some set of concrete moral values that exists outside the whims of humanity, or is morality a product of human experience?

My current conclusion about the subjective/objective morality question is that the question is a red herring - the question itself is too limited. A better question, and line of thinking, examines the nature of morality and then decides which labels fit the phenomenon of moral thinking.

Morality concerns human action or inaction, so morality is really a study of decision-making. Different sorts of decisions tend to achieve different sorts of results, but which decision to choose often depends on which result is desirable. Morality concerns both questions: 1) which moral decisions are effective, depending on the result? 2) which moral results are desirable, depending on the situation?

Different situations may require different results, and different results may require different decisions. There are empirical answers to tell you which decisions will bring which results, but there no empirical answers to uncover which results are desirable.

Thus, when someone such as Sam Harris argues that morality can be illuminated with research, he is partly right and partly wrong. Once you agree on your assumptions (about what results are desirable), then yes, research can hone your knowledge about which decisions are effective in bringing your goals into being, and therefore, moral. However, there is no empirical process that can state definitely which results and assumptions are important in a situation - that is a judgement of values, not physical reality.

From this perspective, morality is objective on one level, and subjective on a deeper level. Once you decide what results and conditions are important, you can use evidence to conclude which decisions will drive the results you desire. Decision-making is objective, but value-making is subjective: morality combines the value-making and decision-making elements, and a fully developed sense of morality requires both parts to function properly.

I hope you weren't expecting me to devise a moral system. That's beyond the scope of this blog! I encourage you to read ethicists if you are interested in the subject (haha). I can't let my audience leave without returning again to philosophy, can I?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Up All Night: Soliloquy

I enjoy talking to myself, as I've already mentioned in passing while writing a different entry ("Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Other People: It's Complicated"). I think about Hamlet, the protagonist of Shakespeare's play of the same name. Hamlet gives so many speeches to himself. His thoughts race almost endlessly. His feelings careen wildly through the curves of manic anger, resentment, and depression. Hamlet really has no idea where he's going until he utters fateful and apprehensive words. One of the Hamlet's greatest strengths and weaknesses is that his words are his deed. Words can be a powerful deed, but the word alone is not always the entire deed. An ironic lesson for such a prolific wordsmith as Shakespeare to give us?

I've directly confronted this personal epidemic of talking too much and listening too little. How many Horatios are trying to give each of us good advice, as Horatio tried to help his friend Hamlet relax and focus his thinking*, while their advice is too long and too often ignored?

Hamlet also needs silence. In many cases, silence is a proxy for ambiguity. The incompleteness of human knowledge is a hallmark of what it means to be alive and deciphering our existence. It is commonplace that each individual must be content with the exotic vastness of what we cannot know. Yet Hamlet couldn't leave space to contemplate the things he didn't know. Hamlet filled every waking moment with talking, thinking, scheming, plotting, consorting, pondering...Hamlet sealed his fate in part through his inability to stop doing anything.

It is this balance of expressing my thoughts properly when I talk to myself and leaving space to consider the consequences of what I cannot know that I seek to keep practicing. I once asked my poetry professor about my practice of writing poems in great spurts, and then not writing for a similar period. I hoped my professor could alleviate my dry spells, but he did not offer me advice on that matter. My professor simply told me that I need to let my mind lie fallow sometimes, so I don't use everything I have at once. That was tremendously strong advice.

I also notice that I've talked too much at once sometimes when I would talk to my ex-girlfriend or when I talked to other women that I felt an interest towards. Perhaps I didn't feel secure enough, complete enough, confident enough to let go...and that's a shame.

I wish I had felt stronger during those interactions. I wish I had felt the strength to let go...that's not easy when you're feeling like you barely have the strength to hold on! Perhaps that's another lesson for me: don't try to hold onto something that you can't let go. I'm not really sure if that's true. There's only one way to find out, isn't there?

Yes, there's an insane, heart-pounding, wildly unforeseeable world that none of us can corner. That world is waiting for us to explore its endless boundaries. There's only so much I can tell you about that world, or about my portion of it. Eventually, you need to return to the world and experience it for yourself - just like I do!

*(To let it be, or not to let it be...that is the Shakespearean/Beatles question!)

Up All Night: Eternal Meaning

I've had many debates with one of my closest friends on the subjects of politics and religion, those twin goblins of good graces in conversation. Recently, he shared his opinion on the differences between a secular and (his) Christian view, when one compares how the differing views perceive the meaningfulness of human actions over time.

My Christian friend notes that the reasons I give to establish the meaning of my life - as a non-religious person who doesn't believe in an afterlife - are fleeting, brief, ephemeral. A Christian has eternal meaning, he said. Eternal meaning? Let us examine this eternal meaning.

The very language which I'm using to speak to you is deeply and hopelessly flawed, if you accept my friend's interpretation of Christianity. I'm speaking in early 21st century American English, in case you couldn't tell, my brave future anthropological readers. English has evolved at a very high frequency for hundreds of years, yet I am writing this paragraph and you (wise future interpreters of ancient English!) somehow manage to read my thoughts. Despite undergoing extensive change, my words are somehow...not meaningless!

When you're reading my words, do you understand what I say? How is that possible? People who lived hundreds of years ago would not be able to understand, yet their words gave birth to mine. If people exist in hundreds of years, I'm sure they will barely comprehend my present speech, even though my words will have made their own possible. Yet this change has absolutely no point of relevance to our current conversation. Past and future changes in meaning have no impact upon our current meaning. This present moment is fully meaningful, just by itself. If you want eternal meaning, stick with mathematics:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Do you see what I've just written? I wrote a series of zeroes. I wrote eternity. Eternity continues for an uncountable number of years...if we tried to count the time, it would begin with a one, and conclude with some combination such as:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Eventually, the weight of zeroes eclipses the relevance of all which existed before its passage. Memory is another important example to demonstrate how present meaning is more relevant than any possible eternal meaning. Let's assume someone is currently reading this text: are you going to remember every word I've uttered? No. Does your inability to remember much of what I've said strip my words of purpose? No. The purpose of my words is not directly related to your ability to remember everything I've said. The purpose of my words is related to the immediate and to the long-terms effect they unleash on you, the reader. These effects occur on a finite basis, but they are meaningful and they are important.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

This focus on the zeroes, and the focus on eternity, just doesn't matter. Now matters. I defend the present, the temporary, the things that deteriorate, the things we forget, and the things we lose. Why? Because those are things that truly matter in our lives. How we treat each other at this instant determines the kind of world we have, because in

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

years we won't have a world - if we do have one, it will cease to resemble the world we have now, and it will be entirely foreign to us in such a profound degree that it will cease to be our world at all. That's why we need to concern ourselves with the present, with all its fleeting, brief, ephemeral warts and worries. Now is the only time that's truly important, because now is the only time we truly own.

Leap Into Song: "Telephone" and "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa

This is the second installment of my recurring "Leap Into Song" series, where I examine my thoughts about different songs and artists that have influenced me. Previously, I covered the song "New Born" by Muse.

Currently, two of my favorite songs are "Telephone" and "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa. I love writing while listening to these songs - their rhythms are food for my brain. They're also both catchy as anything I've ever heard before.

I love the defiance of "Telephone". I love the sustained beat. I love the independence conveyed by the lyrics: you could be spending time with me, but you blew me off. Now, I'm doing what I want to do, and I couldn't care less. It's a great feeling that the speaker communicates to us.

I love the lyrics "sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station. Tonight, I'm not taking no calls, 'cause I'll be dancin'". I also love the progression of "I'll be dancin'", repeated several times. I always feel like I can take on the world when I hear that part of "Telephone". The spirit of the song matches whatever goal I have that I want to accomplish. There's some serenity in the knowledge that the speaker knows she'll be dancing. There's pride, defiance, and confidence. That's a fantastic group of characteristics to celebrate.

In "Bad Romance", I also like a lot of the progression in the music and lyrics. The cumulative, sustained effect is great. Each part of the song builds onto the next. "I want your ugly"/"I want your disease"/"I want your everything, as long as it's free"/"I want your love" is just great, as a formula - and it is a formula, one that is clearly evident, and almost poetic in nature: "I want [specific thing]", "I want [specific thing]", "I want [specific thing with extra detail]", "I want [overall quality that ties everything together]". It's a stanza! If it were in print, it would jump off the page. When I hear this progression in the song, its spirit flows through my mind, my arms, my legs -- all the parts of my body move. Yes, it's a crappy pop song! And it's poetry! It's a terrific combination!

"I want your drama"/"The touch of your hair"/"I want your leather-studded kiss"/"You're insane"/"I want your love" is also great. This section of the song is formatted similarly to the one I just discussed, but there are some key differences. "I want [specific thing]", "[extra detail]", "I want [specific thing]", "[extra detail]", I want [quality that ties everything together (repeat)]. The stanza repeats, but it's altered enough to retain its interest and vitality. I like that effect. 

Perhaps I'm especially inspired by the steady rhythms and the steadily increasing power of the repeated musical and lyrical ideas in "Telephone" and "Bad Romance". When I hear these songs, I feel more alive. I feel that I'm growing stronger and more dangerous. I like those feelings a lot! 

I also feel quite Nietzschean when I'm listening to "Telephone" and "Bad Romance", but that could be a whole other essay! It's probably the implied recognition of my own power and confidence that I feel when I hear these songs that reminds me of Nietzsche. Certainly, Lady GaGa is not a master craftsperson of music or lyrics, but her creations are an impressive craft of their own. Ultimately, why do people enjoy pop songs? The best reason to listen is to help feel better, and that's certainly true for how I feel while I'm listening to "Telephone" and "Bad Romance", and that alone is enough for me to recommend them to you.

Up All Night: Self-Identifying

For many years, I've struggled trying to decide whether I should self-identify in academic settings and in job applications as a person with Asperger's Syndrome. While I've had difficulties in social settings, I always sailed through my academic work until I graduated from high school. I got by pretty well, so I never saw the necessity of raising questions about a "disability", when I wasn't sure that this condition was disabling me at all.

Another issue that complicates my thinking arises when I compare my situation to the situations of other people who have a less high-functioning form of Asperger's. I've been very fortunate. That I can even write these words and tell you about my life is a major success. That I've found the self-awareness to question my own decisions and analyze my interactions with other people has been a major milestone and a great gift.

There are many people who have suffered through much greater impairments than I have. When I perceive that I'm indistinguishable from a typical person of my age, I can hardly justify to myself that I should self-identify as having some sort of disability. The only person I've met who's spotted me as someone on the autism spectrum was another college student with very high-functioning Asperger's -- which is extremely funny once you think about it.

Today, I heard some of my friends discuss some mutual acquaintances of ours who happen to have Asperger's. When my friends mention some of their unsettling experiences with other people who have Asperger's, it's hard for me to discuss my experiences: I'm torn between feeling sympathy for people following a similar outline and a crushing need to defend myself. I know very well that my lack of finesse with social skills in the past has at times brought me great chagrin.

I used to never make eye contact when I was speaking to other people. My dad would sit with me and drill me. He made me look him in his eyes over, and over, and over again. The overwhelming blueness of each of his irises encouraged me to concentrate beyond any ability that I knew I had. I swam into socialization on the cresting tide of that blueness.

I never knew how to join the conversations of other people. I had a terrible habit of interrupting people in the middle of their sentences whenever I saw a group of people I don't know and I wanted to approach them. I've always been pretty talkative for an introvert - since I finally started talking after a delay of a few years, I've barely stopped for breath. My feelings of anxiety and insecurity in social settings haven't helped - time has always ran fast for me when I'm around lots of people I don't know. I still have trouble finding a way to relax, slow down, and remain patient without disengaging entirely.

Every time someone tells me that they would never know I had Asperger's Syndrome is a victory lap. I have spent so much time and effort trying to be like my peers. Why do I want to identify myself through the prism of a disability, when I'd rather identify myself by the struggle I've undertaken to overcome my condition? Perhaps that's the best reason to self-identify: so I can provide some frame of reference for the sustained campaign I've waged against my own mind to free a little bit more of my soul.

Up All Night: Honesty

I love my friends. Joking and trading stories with my friends makes everything I do meaningful. I would choose not to live if I had to live alone. I've never realized how badly I needed other people in my life until I moved to a new place and had to establish an entire life for myself! The course is mine...time to play. Friends are one of things I have now that I haven't always had. I've been extremely diligent in my pursuit of learning social etiquette. However much I've embarrassed myself while travelling this path, I'm glad that I'm on it.


Earlier today, I swam with a few of my friends. I'm not an accomplished swimmer. Mostly I enjoy stretching, floating, and kicking my arms and legs around in a wayward and uncoordinated fashion. When I was very young, I had just moved into a new house with my parents. We had an above-ground pool. I was playing in it with some other kids my age, and my parents made me leave suddenly. They told me that I had to leave because some people were working on our deck, but all the other kids were still there. I found out that I had to leave because we were all going to eat. That's when I discovered the concept of the "white lie".

"White lies" are like breathing to me. So many people around me do it, and now I catch myself telling them so often, that I'm no longer sure if honesty in itself is a virtue. There are so many other priorities that I've observed people to place over honesty: comfort, personal safety, simplicity, time-saving, peace, politeness, discretion, flattery...there are so many reasons not to be honest that I can't even list most of them.

I still prefer friends who are too honest over friends who are too polite. I'll take honesty over politeness any day of the week. When I hear negativity or criticism, it's easy for me to have hurt feelings. It's easy because I tend to take criticism personally. That's the problem: what if people didn't take the observations of other people personally? Every human being is equally fallible, makes mistakes, screws up, is ignorant about most things...there's no shame in being wrong. There's only shame in refusing to make things right.

I prefer people who help me overcome challenges and improve my character over people who pretend that I am without flaws. I like people who have moxie. I like people who are assertive. Am I still going to use a lot of "white lies" in my daily life? Yeah, I am. I'm not sure what else to do. Honesty, in a social context, is one of those sticky prisoners' dilemmas: honesty past a certain point only works if everybody is using it, but people won't start being more honest by themselves. Who has to start?

I've learned an immeasurable amount in my life up to this point, and many of the things I've learned have taken me much longer to learn than most other people. I know sarcasm, snark, and white lies. I can deploy all of these in my interactions on a daily basis. Most people don't know that I used to have no idea how to do any of that. While I'm glad that other people understand me, I'm still puzzled that I need to learn how to hide my feelings to more clearly communicate with the rest of humanity! We are so weird.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Other People: It's Complicated

Yesterday, I was irritable while sitting alone on a bench outside my apartment building. I was waiting to meet a friend of mine. People that I didn't know kept walking past me while I was sitting there.

I kept checking the time. I don't like to wait. I can wait in the abstract sense. What I especially dislike is waiting in public. It makes me feel insecure and anxious. I feel defensive. I feel like I have to justify being there, wherever it is I am while I'm waiting for someone or something.

I also dislike the uncertainty of not knowing when whatever I'm waiting for is going to happen, or when the person I'm meeting will arrive. Normally, I don't care so much when something is not in my control. It bothers me when I feel like something is not in my control *and* that I have no other alternative. I don't like to feel boxed in. I also don't like having nothing to do but wait.

I can't even talk to myself while I'm waiting, because people in public think you're weird or not entirely there if you talk to yourself while other people are around. It's how I sort my thoughts. It's just easier for me to think when I can hear my own voice, choosing words to match my feelings. Sometimes, I'm not entirely sure what I'm thinking until I can find words to express myself.

When I'm alone, I don't mind uncertainty as much. Uncertainty bothers me more when it involves other people. If I'm going somewhere by myself, it doesn't matter very much to me whether I am lost for a bit or whether I don't know what I'm doing. When I'm with other people, not knowing where I'm going or what I'm doing make me very nervous. I feel like people are judging me for not having a better idea of what I'm doing.

While I was alone yesterday, I lamented that I let the potential criticisms of other people affect me so easily. I wondered if I worry so much about what people think because I have a high regard for the opinions of other people. If I had a lesser view of humanity, perhaps it would be easier for me to not take the treatment of others so personally.

I'm not a very secure person. I have achieved some meaningful things, but I still have many doubts. There are still areas of my life that plague me with insecurity. My interactions in public with other people are one area of my life that still flusters me from time to time.

Because I feel less insecure when I feel more control over a situation, I often prefer to do things by myself. Spending time around other people can drain me, especially if most of them are strangers and I have to consider the impression I'm making. I have spent much of my life concerned that I'm about to say or do something unbearably embarrassing. My concern about the reactions of other people is an instinct of self-preservation, but now I'm wondering if it's an instinct that preserving me or whittling away my confidence.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Atheist Meditation: Grace Like Rain

I love being outside, and feeling a sudden tinge of excitement as I sniff the air and survey the clouds, and I realize that there will be a rainstorm soon. It's a visceral feeling for me: somehow, the atmosphere has had enough - there's so much tension and pressure, yet everything is quiet - the stillness and its promise of disruption fills me with delight.

When I reflect on this foreboding, I think of my adolescent time at church camp. The rain was never stressful. I can't recall feeling that the storms were an interruption. The rain was a pause. The storm was part of the flow of life at church camp. I loved listening to the rain bounce from the eaves of buildings and cabins.

I was promised, again and again, that I wouldn't remember this. At least, my counselors promised me that my memories were conditional. If I failed to keep thoughts of Jesus, redemption, sin, and divine forgiveness close to my heart -- every other experience that I wanted to keep in my thoughts would lose its meaning and value. Everything would slip away, like pebbles on the trails we walked that had eroded over time.

I have not forgotten. My memory lingers. I still feel warmth and happiness when I contemplate the times I spent at church camp. I no longer pray, but I feel the stillness of a forest and then I remember walking to chapel in reverent silence. I no longer sing hymns, but I feel the joy of companionship when I lose my sense of self and drunkenly sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with my friends. I no longer believe in eternal life, but I have memories that I will never relinquish while I live.

Most fondly, I remember when everyone was together. I remember our campfire sessions, late at night before each cabin and its group would leave for devotions and then go to sleep. We sang tenderly. We told stories. We laughed, we cried, we shouted, and we danced. I know what it's like when people love one another. I've heard that it's God's grace.

Where is this grace? It is abundant, and it is everywhere, but I can't tell you that it involves a god, a scripture, or a savior. I see it in my Jewish friend who left to teach underprivileged children for two years with Teach for America. I see it in my Muslim friend, one-time leader of the Muslim Students Association, who just left to spend two years in Kenya serving with the Peace Corps. I see it in one of my Christian friends, a former Buddhist who exemplifies conscience and compassion while working tirelessly to oppose suffering in many areas of her life. When I was at church camp, we used to sing a song about a Bible verse, 1 John 4:7-8 -- "beloved, let us love one another..." -- my friends may not have heard it, but they live its message every day.

Growing up in the Christian faith and settling into adulthood as an atheist and humanist, I have learned that love and compassion are values for every creed. I have learned that anywhere there are people who support each other without hesitation, you can find a love worth remembering. I think of the rain again. Often, the rain is so ordinary and common place for those who already witness it, that we cannot know what it's like to live an arid and parched life. We are fortunate. The rain replenishes and nourishes us. The rain surrounds us, yet it does not belong to any of us. There are so many who don't have it, or don't have enough of it. We don't need to quarrel about who really has the rain, we just need to ensure that we all have some of it. This rain, and this grace, is worth the effort to remember -- and no one can remove those memories from us, or prevent us from bringing their spirit into our lives again.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Everything Is Unfair

Here's a series of lovely thoughts: Life is never fair, and no one ever plays fair. If the appearance of fairness exists, it is either a temporary equilibrium or it has been imposed by force.

The best way to achieve a semblance of fairness is through empowerment. Expect the process to be slow, painful, and difficult. No one will listen because no one has to listen. You will repeat yourself - constantly. Other people will deliberately misinterpret, distort, and misunderstand your words.

Human beings spend a significant amount of their lives acting irrationally. You can try to convince other people to change their minds, but this will probably not happen until:
1. People are convinced by arguments (you thought this was the only step, didn't you? oh, no!)
2. From their perspective, there are more benefits to changing their mind than not changing their mind
3. They consciously decide to change their own mind and take ownership of that change

There is no guarantee that any notion of progress is inevitable. Things can always get worse. Society does not necessarily improve in every generation - but each new generation has an opportunity to improve on the previous one. That is the only advantage on the side of progress: death.

A generation can be as short-sighted as it can be, and another generation will still take its place. Death is a guarantee. What isn't a guarantee is that there will be another generation, or that younger generations won't inherit the stigmas of their elders.

If you really want people to follow, you must make it easier for people to join you instead of being passive and doing nothing. Defaults are powerful weapons: change expectations, and you will change behavior. Very few systems that are entirely voluntary make a real difference. (Sorry libertarians, you need to wake up and smell the civilization.)

Any successful political movement needs to remember the three steps of persuasion that I've outlined here. Additionally, the first step I listed is not necessarily the first step. Often, it will be more useful to start with the second step, and then the ground is prepared for your audience to tread the other steps in your path to persuasion.

Sometimes it sucks to be a liberal. Change is hard, and annoying. <-- Is this true, though? Is that thought worth thinking? Conservatives know quite a bit about change. Liberals can learn from their example. You don't take a country from FDR and LBJ to Reagan and George W. Bush without change.

There are some specific, extremely useful things you should have to change expectations and shift the default consensus to your views. You'll need: 1) money 2) journalists/other popularizers 3) ideologues/strategists 4) politicians 5) organizations [not listed in order of importance]

The "Occupy" movement disappointed me greatly. Protest without context is an empty, meaningless, futile exercise. You need organizations. You need spokespeople. You need message discipline. The bottom-up structure is a good way to attract anarchists and Ron Paul supporters, and it's a fantastic way to ensure that everyone else in America is ignoring you. Do you want change, or do you want martyrdom?

"Occupy" gave America a blank canvas. When only liberals talked about "Occupy", that was fine. When conservatives also talked about "Occupy", that decision became a disaster. When you have no clear, concise identity and agenda, people can attack you without end and those attacks will stick. You have to own your messaging. "Occupy" didn't.

People aren't going to listen to you because you're in the streets. People will listen to you if you're in the streets and you have a clear, simple, powerful narrative that is frequently repeated and echoed by credible authorities that your audience trusts. Being right isn't enough. Is that fair? No, no, it's not: but nothing in life is fair, and if you want people to change their minds, then you need to be smarter, more efficient, and more organized than the people who have an interest in silencing you. Let's go do that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Frustrations Of an Old Soul: The Internet

I'm a product of the Internet Age, yet I am still not used to living in an Internet-centric world, one which provides me a constant stream of information. I haven't fully accepted the immensity of knowledge I can access on my own, nor have I realized the implications of my access to such staggering data.

Numerous times in the past few weeks, I have asked some of my friends to send me advice, only to find my efforts redirected to Google or other corners of the Internet. This derailing upsets me. Yes, I am fully aware that I can find the information I want on my own. Is it unacceptable that I still consider human input more valuable? 

Maybe I'm upset because it's how I was raised. My father is a reference librarian. He's a member of a seemingly antiquated profession, one which still holds that actual human beings can help one another in their quest to more effectively find information. 

The Internet is so vast and impersonal. Is it wrong that I trust my friends to help me discover answers that are more meaningful and more personally relevant? Further, I'm annoyed that the social default among my friends is to trust the Internet for all queries. Even if using the Internet is more efficient, does relying so much on technology degrade friendships and relationships with contemporaries? I have believed in the past that the Internet has potential to bring people together - are we instead increasing the isolation between us?


For my second Internet-related complaint of the day, I'd like to disembowel (or, more helpfully, disemvowel) one of the most particularly aggravating instances of Internet-speak. 

I keep hearing the phrase "I'm jelly" or "Are you mad jelly?". People say "jelly" instead of "jealous". As a writer, a poet, and a lover of words -- I am greatly offended by the vulgarity and inelegance of this usage. Consider the sound of "jelly" and its connotations:

1) It sounds weak, lame, juvenile, petty
2) It makes me think of actual jelly (as in, what goes well with peanut butter): soggy, sticky, gloppy -- saying "jealous" this way takes all the power out of the word - consider again:


^These are all undeniably powerful, awe-some (in the original sense) words. "Jelly" renders "jealous" as a shell of its former self, and mashes a thumping, spirited, aggressive word down to a mushy pulp that's barely recognizable and hardly worth the same meaning. 

What would it sound like if we used the same pattern for zealous and righteous that Internet dwellers favor for jealous?

Imagine reading about the apostle of Jesus, Simon the Zelly. Imagine Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction" -- remember that badass speech he gives before he shoots someone? Try to imagine Samuel L. Jackson furiously, feverishly intoning the "righty" wrath of his god. Doesn't sound so fearsome, does it? 

The sound and meaning of words are important. Now, I'm acutely aware that language and its usage evolves over time. I'm mocked Samuel Johnson for decrying the use of "chicken" as a singular noun in the English language. In this instance, though, when we consider the advantages and disadvantages of using "jelly" or "jealous", I hope I've convinced you that "jealous" is the clearly superior option.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reflections From Leaving College

I became an entirely different person during college. I lost faith in the religion of my childhood (and became an atheist). I acted in a theater group for the first time. I started performing improv comedy. I started drinking (shortly after the theater and improv). I had (and ended) my first relationship (also after the theater and improv).

I thought honestly about my history with Asperger's Syndrome, and I met other people who shared some of the same stories. I had no close friends my entire freshmen year of college. During my sophomore year, I began to have more friends, but doubts and insecurities about the reliability of my friends plagued me constantly (shortly after the theater and improv). In that same year, I failed my first (and so far only) class (shortly after the theater and improv).

The summer after my sophomore year, I started seeing a therapist and continued doing so until the end of my junior year. Most of the times I went, I felt miserable while I was with a therapist. I didn't know what I should say. It was extremely difficult for me to express my feelings to a stranger...or even to myself. This chance to sort my emotions still helped me immensely, and the lingering impressions of this experience continue to benefit me. It's a strange wonder that I was able to journey through my senior year without any therapy and without paralyzing myself emotionally.

Senior year was rough, but mostly I dealt with my problems better than I had when I was a sophomore. First semester, I was insanely busy. I was struggling with keeping my internship, my classes, and my relationship functioning. I partly succeeded, then I spent the second semester of my senior year trying to save the things I still had left after my first semester. [That was supposed to be funny.]

One of the best and worst moments during college came for me near the very end of my sophomore year. I was at a Cinco de Mayo party with some kids from my theater/improv group, and two of my friends were talking with me - while they were quite buzzed. They told me that they were quite impressed by my ability to do improv, especially since one of them knew me as a freshman when we lived on the same floor of our dorm. She noted that I seemed very shy and not the kind of person who would thrive in improv, but she added that she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of my participation.

I was extremely happy to hear that praise: at that moment, I was very depressed because I had quite recently realized that I was, in fact, about to fail an important class - that I had yet to inform my parents - and that I was moving out and going back home the next morning. It was a dark moment for me, and it was the precise time when I needed to hear some reassuring and uplifting comments. That's one aspect of my life during the past four years for which I am especially thankful: that every time I've felt most alone, least capable of handling my problems, or most lost and vulnerable -- that I've still found some consolation to ease my way through the anguish, and somehow become a stronger, more resilient person.