All Lives Matter?

all-lives-matter

“All Lives Matter” is a reaction to “Black Lives Matter” which is a reaction to police systematically murdering black people in the US and the judicial system largely turning a blind eye.

It’s one of those things that sounds right but means wrong, you know? Like when the government names a bill “The Freedom Protection Act” or something, you can assume it’s pretty much the opposite of that.

When you say that, it sounds like you mean that you care equally about all lives; how can anyone argue about that? But what you actually mean is you want to ignore the voices raised in protest. You want to silence them by co-opting their expression and turning it into a muzzle.

The problem is it’s really effective. And it’s seductive. Oh, so you care about black lives? Well, I (invariably a white person) care about ALL LIVES[1].

Thing is, you can’t look at language in a vacuum. Context matters. And context like white people at a rally beating a black man while chanting “All Lives Matter” matters. The action lays the truth bare.

I’ve talked about dogwhistles before, and “All Lives Matter” is rapidly becoming one for racists and people invested in the status quo.

It doesn’t mean anything about which lives matter at all. It doesn’t mean “yes, and…”.

It means “shut up”.

[1] – The society we live in gives lie to this: Non-male, non-white people are systematically oppressed. I mean, they’re not literally whipped and enslaved anymore but all kinds of avenues of advancement are denied them, consciously or not. And just because you think you’re not personally complicit in this doesn’t mean you’re not. Especially if you’re a Christian, this just isn’t tenable. God is a God who desires justice, who cares about widows and orphans. Christ himself, our primary means of identifying with God, is a victim. Identity with Jesus means identity with the oppressed and victimized, not denial about who the oppressed and victimized are.

Your sermon illustration is bad and you should feel bad

garfield-is-not-funny

This is Garfield.

It is a thing that exists, and continues to exist, in this world.

There is one thing I can assure you of, though: The people who like Garfield, the people who even think about Garfield are not long for this world. I give it another 10-20 years.

Anyone under 30 might enjoy Garfield from time to time, or as a parody of itself, or remixed into something else (like Garfield without Garfield). But we’ve moved on. Garfield is a thing for another generation.

So we can understand why it exists and even understand why it continues to exist, but it’s not for us, right?

That’s your sermon illustration… illustrated.

I recently started listening to a sermon from a church I was once a part of. Mostly out of curiosity, just to see how the preaching is going. The bad news there is I ragequit after two minutes. Because the sermon opened with a “funny” story, a joke really.

That’s a bit of extreme reaction without any context. But still, it’s what I feel when I have to sit through one in real life. I feel like walking out. Again, an extreme reaction, but it’s how I feel.

This might sound like a nitpick. It might be a nitpick. Or it might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because generally the types of preachers who do this are preaching from some kind of 1990s preaching playbook that always, always makes them mediocre at their job.

I live in a world where things are signifiers. If I go to a website and it looks like the Space Jam website or something from Geocities, I don’t expect a quality experience. If I buy a book thas has a terrible cover, I don’t expect a good read.

You telegraph your intentions at the start of the things you do. Storefronts, cover, beginnings of sermons, you get the picture.

When you tell a cheesy, “funny” story to start your sermon, you’re diminishing your role as a preacher of truth, as a sayer of difficult things, as a messenger of God.

But not only do you insult yourself, you insult me. You assume that I have to be eased into whatever you’re saying with some kind of tangentially related mini-parable.

You don’t need to worry about that, man. I’m already at church. I’ve already bought the package deal, I’m probably there for the whole thing. If your hook is this thing you got from a book of stories to tell before a sermon or whatever, you’re already doing me a disservice. This isn’t to say preachers can’t be funny, some are very funny from time to time (bless your heart, Mark), but that has to be a natural thing, not a pre-packaged, scripted, safe-for-all-ages groanfest.

Maybe this makes me super-millenial or something, but I don’t need my funny bone greased up and massaged to transition me from the singing to the not singing, you know?

What would you think of a newspaper that put Garfield on it’s front page, above the headlines every single day? Would you take that seriously? I sure wouldn’t. Or if Google News was like… I know you came here to find out serious stuff about the world and whatever, but first have a GARFIELD to take a load off!

Axiomatic: Free Speech

free-speech-banner

I’ve said before that modern skeptics are lazy and pointed in the wrong direction. I still believe that.

But there’s kind of larger point there. Humans are lazy and pointed in the wrong directions.

How often have you thought about free speech? If you’re like me and you frequent the places I frequent… once a week or so? I mean, it comes up all the time. Usually in some circumstance where that freedom is being abrogated somewhere in the world. There is (justifiably, I think) a real concern about freedom of speech and its defense.

Still, there’s a kind of defacto acceptance, especially with young, white, tech-literate males, that freedom of speech is a natural state, an unassailable good, something obvious (or as they say in the US, self-evident).

Is it?

I mean, there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Like everything else, it’s just something people made up. It might be a hard-won evolution of centuries of experimenting with despots, but it’s not obvious.

There’s also an assumption that freedom of speech is binary. It isn’t that either. I mean, it’s not like you can say everything or nothing. Even in the US, the government will not protect dangerous speech (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). How different is that from inciting violence against a particular race or gender via words?

Clearly, there’s a spectrum there. And yes, there’s an argument to made that offensive speech should be allowed (if not encouraged), but there’s also a strong opposing argument that allowing dangerously offensive speech to propagate by being spoken is something society simply should not accept.

Finally, there’s an assumption that freedom of speech applies in all domains, everywhere. Which is the most obviously wrong. Any freedom is context sensitive. The problem tends to be that people confuse the implementation with the philosophy. The implementation is that the government should regulate speech as little as possible; the philosophy tends to be expressed as “anyone, anything, anywhere”.

Then we whittle down who is anyone (Children? Genocidal Mass Murderers?), what is anything (Snuff porn? Obscenities? White power manifestos?), and what is anywhere (Work? School? A wedding?). And when the free speech advocate is done, we’re in the same place the “pure philosophy” view is meant to get around: Speech is messy, context is important, and there are some things which society as a whole has decided should not be tolerated.

Not servants, but sons

prodigal-son-painting-rembrandt

The son comes back from squandering his portion of the estate on hookers and booze. He says to himself, There’s no way my father will take me back as a son, but perhaps he will take me back as a servant.

He’s wrong of course, and this is the Christian story’s difference. You aren’t asked to approach as a beggar, as a servant, but as a child.

The Spirit we receive does not make us slaves, but heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Or to put it another way, not servants, but sons.

The Deeper Magic

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When I was young, I read the Chronicles of Narnia again and again. Not as much as read Swiss Family Robinson. But a lot.

There’s this passage I really hate in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, where Aslan has been brought back to life, having been ritually slaughtered by the White Witch. He explains why he’s alive. It goes a bit like this:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

Now, the lack of subtlety in the book aside (its intentions and allusions are written very much on its sleeve), this bit of text feels a bit like cheating. It feels like a deus ex machina, except instead of something semi-badass (the Eagles are coming!), it’s some yadda yadda. A bit of exposition to plaster over the why of it all.

I still kind of hate it.

But I also appreciate it. Not because of what it says on its face, but because (pardon the meta here) of the deeper magic it contains.

I think I’m the White Witch. But you don’t get off the hook: You’re the White Witch too.

The White Witch is someone who has glanced at something and accepted what she has found. She’s gotten the explanation she wants, and she’ll look no further. She finds the thing that lets her kill the lion but doesn’t find the next thing, the thing that lets the lion kill her.

The next thing is important.

I think a lot of thing have this deeper magic. I think we should keep digging. I think simple explanations are too easy, that there is more behind the curtain.

I think “thus far and no further” is never far enough.

Let’s talk about your meritocracy

So yeah, you want a meritocracy.

Presumably you think that you, or people like you who do the choosing, can do it on merit.

Okay.

Let’s pretend I don’t care about the particulars. Let’s keep this completely abstract (always a bad idea, but indulge me). Let’s say we don’t need to think about pesky things like history, context, or justice.

What is merit?

I mean, you need to know what merit is before you screw some ocracy onto it, right?

So what is it?

Welp, we’re done with the abstract. There’s no abstracting merit because merit is inherently context-sensitive. I mean, you can say a meritocracy is a system where the best person for the job gets it. But that just kicks that can further down the hall. What is “best”?

Again we have to step out of the abstract and into the concrete.

Which is hard, because fundamentally, you need to trust the people making the decisions to judge merit correctly, to identify what merit is and then figure out if a person has it or not.

Would you drive your car without insurance? Do you not check receipts after you purchase something to make sure everything’s okay? Do you leave your house unlocked at night while you sleep?

Of course you don’t. People will take advantage of you, or people will make mistakes. You’ll get screwed.

Yet somehow in abstract magical meritland, the people making the decisions will, what, cast off their humanity and become merit-judging robots?

Of course they won’t. And they don’t. In the places where meritocracies supposedly operate (I think, in particular, of Linux kernel development), mostly men with mostly a particular kind of personality have this quality of “merit”.

This diminishes the kind of work these places can do, by the way. Diversity of viewpoint isn’t a weakness. A monoculture of a particular kind of thought is a weakness, and this is what meritocracies foster. Because the people doing the choosing are human and humans are very bad judges of just about anything you can think of.

We build checks into our systems to help us be less us. We build safeguards, we try to rectify past mistakes, we try to slant “the system” away from treating badly the people it has treated badly for so long. We don’t live in a meritocracy because living in a meritocracy is brutality. It has to be, in this world, with these humans running things.

This brings up a lot of questions. Like, “So I should hire the person based on… what then?” Or, “How do we make decisions?”

The answer I have for that is largely unsatisfying to a particular type of person, because it’s kind of not really an answer. Because there’s no god-breathed book that fell out of the sky that tells us how to make political appointments or hire janitors. The answer is… we decide. We decide as a society how we make these decisions. We have quotas and non-discriminatory hiring practices for a reason. That reason is because… we decided that was a more just society.

Again, I know this will probably frustrate some of you. But that’s what a society is.

But all this abstract talk about meritocracy is fiddle-faddle. No one seriously thinks there should be a meritocracy (well, except for a few exceptionally out-to-lunch nerds). And for those who do believe in meritocracy, you better find a new word. Because…

Meritocracy is now a dogwhistle. The same way “family values” is a dogwhistle. It’s a way of communicating something in polite company, a sort of code, or camouflage. It wasn’t always this way, but among educated white men, meritocracy is a codeword in the same way “white genocide” is a code word for racists.

It’s way of seeming rational but actually being sexist and racist and generally just not a very good human being.

You say “meritocracy” but what you mean is that you are fundamentally offended by the idea of a woman or another race having priority over you. Even when the priority is hypothetical.

The reason this is sexist (mostly sexist) and/or racist is that you believe, if all things were put to rights, if everything were as it should be you would be the one being chosen. You will never explicitly say you’d be chosen because of your superiority (and the fact that you happen to be male, and white), but that’s what you truly believe. In your libertarian paradise, of course, of course you would be a Job Creator. You wouldn’t be oppressed, surely not!

The reality of your situation is that you’re probably right.

And that’s kind of sad.

If we didn’t push back against our human natures using crude tools like gender/race quotas, you’d probably come out ahead. I mean, why wouldn’t you? You always have. 1

And you just won’t acknowledge that the scales are tilted in your favour.

And that’s why meritocracy could never work. Because you will never be honest with yourself about the advantages you received, and neither will your boss, and your boss’s boss, or the CEO, or the President, or the Kind of the World. Unless they are forced to.

1. Before you start yelling at me that you-in-particular haven’t had much success, that you weren’t raised with gold dust sprinkled in your diapers, please consider that English is a fairly imprecise language: I mean you-as-a-group, not you-in-particular.