People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon – is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

Why I’m A Little Sad For Google+ (And What These Companies Are Doing Wrong)

Report: Google to end forced G+ integration, drastically cut division resources | Ars Technica

Google+ seems to be the red-headed stepchild of social media networks – an image not helped by the fact that its branding is all, well, red. But in any case, Google+ has never received the support and attention that other networks – hell, even LinkedIn – have received over the years. It’s been “that Google thing” and while you would think because it has freaking GOOGLE in the name everyone would be using it, they haven’t. Now, Google is appearing to “pivot” away from Google+, first with G+’s leader leaving the company, and then this news that possibly over 1,000 Google employees will be shifted around. According to the linked story, TechCrunch is calling Google+ the “walking dead.”

Yikes.

There are a lot of great things about Google+ that I like. This commenter on the post says a lot of them. One of the things s/he says I will also say: I do not live on Google+. But for an occasional trip, I can read a lot of interesting people’s interesting thoughts. People like Google’s own Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the inventor of Linux Linux Torvalds, a few podcasters I follow, and some very fascinating groups on roleplaying games, Linux, computer programming, and science fiction. Google+ also has no character limit, so you can write screeds if you wish, and it does seem like a breath of fresh air to get away from the increasingly stale and stultifying Facebook atmosphere and the hectic, sweltering rapid-fire heat of Twitter.

Perhaps the greatest part of Google+ from a publisher standpoint, however, is how well it integrates with Google search. +1 a story you like, and you push that story higher in the search rankings whenever someone searches for the story’s topic. +1 really helps get stories to the top, as they’re usually recommended by your friends (or, at least, in theory they are.) Of course, you can +1 your own stories and help they grow as well. It’s a fantastic idea.

Unfortunately, Google may some serious errors. One of them was the forced integration with the YouTube comments. Look, hateful, dumb, anonymous YouTube comments are an Internet institution. They are worse than even 4chan, and that’s almost an Xbox achievement. And yet people want them to be that way, and they don’t want their real names and faces attached. Destroying that pissed off a massive Internet community, one that’s arguably larger and more entrenched than even Facebook. Not a smart move, Google. Forced integration with other services beyond search was also starting to grind on a lot of people’s nerves.

My personal pet peeve, however, is how Google has been so damn stingy with the personal profile API. Although they allowed some services, such as Buffer (which I highly recommend, by the way) to post to Google+ pages, but so far it hasn’t let anyone else post to Google+ personal profiles. There was, for some time, an Android app called “Jift” that allowed you to simultaneously post to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, but it was pulled after awhile (and it’s style of reading posts from all three services wasn’t that great to begin with.) This forces people to get out of their main app, which usually can post to Twitter and Facebook simultaneously (like, say, Plume), and go into the Google+ app. You know who wants to take that extra step? Nobody. Why not just do it all in one go? That would make it dramatically easier to use Google+, although it would cut down on the number of people actually using the Google+ app.

Which is why Google hates it.

This brings me to what I think all of these companies are doing wrong: they are not providing choices. That’s what a consumer wants, right? A consumer, in most instances, wants a choice to make. And I don’t see why companies can’t do this. You have Google+ forcing itself on YouTube commentators and in other places; you have Facebook now forcing people to get a separate app on their phone to use Facebook messages and soon a separate app for events and possibly even groups as well. You have them changing up user interfaces all the time with no option to go to an older one that some users prefer. It’s this forcing of things that is really starting to annoy people, though I wonder if it will truly bite these companies in the behind, because while annoyed, most people still go along with the changes. Still, how can providing your users more choices ever be a bad thing?

There’s the old saw that “The user isn’t the customer, the user is the product” but I don’t know how much I buy that. Facebook runs on its users and it can’t get anywhere without them, so it can’t annoy them too much (although the line of no return seems to keep receding into the distance day by day.) Google as well, though I’ll be honest I have no freaking clue how Twitter makes money. (They can’t be selling that many promoted accounts and tweets, can they?)

I hope Google+ sticks around. (I really hopes it overcomes Facebook some day, so I can actually escape.) I hope it continues. But we’ll have to see, won’t we?

Individual Sovereignty, Humanism, and Libertarianism

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: I intend to update and add to this at a later date. I consider it to be somewhat incomplete at the moment.

I apologize for this post; it’s a bit spread out because of the way I got to the topic in question.

Over the weekend, NYPD officers attempted to subdue an apparently crazy person in Times Square. I say attempted, because all they really did was bulletspray and hit two completely innocent bystanders–one an elderly lady in a walker. This, after the bulletspray fest last year outside the Empire State Building, and also earlier this year when the LAPD, during the Dorner manhunt, bulletsprayed a completely random car that didn’t look anything like the vehicle that was on their APB.

Naturally, I spoke out against this. I think police brutality and police incompetence are serious issues that deserve more of a national discussion. Unlike talk about the deficit and the debt ceiling, or foreign policy, or the minutiae of economic regulation, police reform and criminal justice reform touches on Americans directly. It affects citizens in a very immediate sense–usually by killing them. Yet for some reason, despite all the deaths logged by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, or the other horrendous activities reported by CopBlock, or the crazy stories of civil asset forfeiture run amok, or even Third Amendment violations, it seems to me that nobody is really talking about this in a meaningful way. Politicians sweep it under the rug and go on to start another shouting match about the debt ceiling or them brown people coming over the border.

I also noted that one of the scariest things that is happening is the militarization of police around the country, something I noted last year for United Liberty, and which is the subject of a recent book by Radley Balko. This led to a gun control activist to start yelling about how the police were arming themselves with military hardware because the NRA had weakened gun laws and led to rampant armament of the populace. Naturally, I disagreed. We had a bit of a back and forth about it, and then somehow suicide entered into the equation. I’ll let my Storify speak for itself:

I went off on a rant about humanism and individual sovereignty.

This leads me to the real meat and potatoes of this blog post, which is atheism, libertarianism, and what it really means to be a humanist.

A long time ago, I blogged about the silliness that is Atheism+, a new “movement” that tried to merge atheism with third-wave feminism and far-left progressivism by basically being assholes to everybody. One of the most important points is that atheism does not lead to anything directly. Atheism, being merely the rejection of belief in a supernatural entity or entities, doesn’t really entail anything beyond that. Even though I would really like to agree with this blog post that says atheism leads to libertarianism, even that is really not true. How, exactly, does lack of a belief in a supernatural entity lead to a libertarian leap? It doesn’t. There is no underlying philosophical foundation there. The previous author talks about controlling your own life and thinking for yourself, but that is not ipso facto atheism.

There is a difference, though, between atheism and humanism. Atheism is a philosophical position. Humanism is to atheism what Christianity is to theism (sort of). While there is a long running argument over whether or not humanism is a religion (other terms include “life stance,” a “replacement for religion,” which I think both works and yet doesn’t), it sort of fits the bill. Just barely.

What is humanism, though? Let’ see a couple of definitions:

  1. (Philosophy) the denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts
  2. (Philosophy) a philosophical position that stresses the autonomy of human reason in contradistinction to the authority of the Church

Note that: human reason. Human autonomy. Exactly the things that I mentioned above in my Twitter rant.

Yes, said autonomy sometimes includes suicide. This is a tragic thing, but yet if we’re going to respect autonomy then we must respect that too. But for the most part, that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t come up. What does come up all the time are small things, small decisions. Like the size of soda cup you’re buying, or your sexual orientation, or what sort of clothes you like to wear.

These decisions stem from our sapience, and come from our rationality. And if you’re going to be a human being, and not reject humanity, then you must embrace this sapience, and moreover, individual human sovereignty. Anything else is inhuman, full stop.

That’s why I think libertarianism and humanism naturally go together. If you’re a libertarian, that leads to humanism because you’re focused on freeing individuals from the power of a large government, and letting them control their lives; and humanism is all about human lives being front and center. If you’re a humanist, focusing on human lives and humanity, then you should naturally be a libertarian, because libertarianism embraces and encourages the natural essence of humanity, sapience.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time now ever since I heard about “thick libertarianism.” This is the idea that libertarianism entails other ideas that are not necessarily political, that there are consequences to being a libertarian. The idea, as far as I can determine, was formed by Charles Johnson, also known as RadGeek, a left-libertarian blogger. Here is a good reading list to start on if you want to know more about thick libertarianism and libertarian morality:

  1. The post where it all (sorta) began, “Libertarianism Through Thick & Thin” by Charles Johnson
  2. Libertarianism: Thick and Thin“, by Matt Zwolinski
  3. Libertarianism and Morality” by Fernando Teson
  4. Libertarian Social Morality: Progressive, Conservative, or Liberal?” by Kevin Vallier
  5. BONUS: “The Libertarian Middle Way“, by Randy Barnett

Johnson explores several different forms of thick libertarianism, or shades of thickness, really. Two of these are “strategic thickness–causes of liberty,” and “thickness from consequences–the effects of liberty.” I think both of these lead toward humanism. The first because, as Johnson himself notes:

Or, to take a less controversial example, many if not most libertarians, throughout the history of the movement, have argued that there are good reasons for libertarians to promote a culture in which reason and independent thinking are highly valued, and blind conformism is treated with contempt. But if this is a good thing for liberty, it must be for reasons other than some kind of entailment of the non-aggression principle. Certainly everyone has a right to believe things simply because everybody believes it, or to do things simply because everybody does it, as long as their conformism respects the equal rights of independent thinkers to think independently and act independently with their own person and property. It is logically conceivable that a society could be rigidly conformist while remaining entirely free; it would just have to be the case that the individual people within that society were, by and large, psychologically and culturally inclined to be so docile, and so sensitive to social disapproval, ostracism, and verbal peer pressure, that they all voluntarily chose to go along with the crowd.

Technically, reason itself doesn’t require libertarianism, but if we’re going to promote a society where there is limited government and people have individual responsibility for their own actions, then you’re going to promote reason. And when you do that, you find yourself heading towards freethought, which heads towards humanism…

The other, “effects of liberty,” is simply the same thing but in reverse. A society of free people is going to lead towards humanism in one way or another. If we’re going to give people power over their own lives, there is going to be less power from the Church.

I’m not saying that one cannot be a Christian and a libertarian at the same time, but there is a tension there between the Christian and libertarian elements that I don’t think you get from being an atheist libertarian or a humanist one. For centuries, the Christian Church has been a state unto itself, passing edicts and laws and being very forceful in demanding people to bow to its will, or at least the will of whomever at the time was wearing the most outrageous hat. God is described as a king, with ultimate power, and everyone is to bow down and obey him. Indeed, for a long time, free will was ignored, and the Church was extremely authoritative. Although various Christian denominations have undergone rebranding efforts over the past couple of centuries, dealing with the rise of (classical) liberalism, Christianity is still very much a top-down, hierarchical, authoritative institution. “Follow our commands or burn in hell forever.” Not exactly a lot of leeway there.

I should also point out that I don’t exactly agree with many of the various “Humanist Manifestos” either. A lot of what I’ve seen published suggests that many want to make humanism lean towards some variety of socialism or social democracy–but then, I see these people as not being fully humanist either. If they’re going to take so many decisions away from individuals and put it in the hands of a nebulous, all-powerful state, then they’re not embracing the very essence of humanity either. Just because I use the term “humanist” doesn’t mean I’m talking about the party line of the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, or the IHEU. I’m talking solely about a human-centered philosophy that lacks supernatural elements.

That, by itself, I think goes hand in hand with libertarianism. Sort of an odd topic to come to via police brutality and suicide, but that’s what happens when something has been bubbling under the surface for awhile and gets hit with a random act of tragedy.

Social Media Vacay

Everyone tells me I need to be on social media if I want my stuff promoted. I gotta be on there to be heard, to be seen, to get things done.

If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, though, it’s that that may not be necessarily true. Indeed, social media has some serious pitfalls. My favorite ones are flamewars with trolls. It was one of them, in fact, that led me to this policy of taking a social media vacation.

I’ve learned that I cannot resist getting into arguments; I can’t resist trolls. That something I lost, somewhere, aand I need to reclaim that. How? I don’t know. But a prerequisite has to be stepping back from social media. It’s hurting my productivity, hurting my wider social sphere, and ultimately it’s hurting my brain.

So I’m taking a break from Twitter & Facebook. I’ve downloaded an app that only does Twitter DM’s, and I’ll keep using Facebook Messenger so people can get in touch with me. Other than that, just Gmail & this blog. Thanks to the magic of WordPress, I can still write status updates. And thanks to the magic of RSS, I can autopost these to Twitter and Facebook.

I see this as an extension of some cutting I’ve already done in my life. A few months ago I uninstalled Steam and basically eliminated computer games from my life. Now I need to continue the process and get rid of–at least temporarily–another serious distraction.

I’m not sure why I had to blog this, really, other than to tell my friends who are going to start wondering, but if you stumble across this and read this, that’s what this is about. I will still be politically minded; I will still have strong opinions about political philosophy and government. I will still write, though hopefully not on Twitter (I will maintain my vow, I will maintain my vow…) but through other channels.

That’s all I have. If you know me personally, you can still hit me up through messaging. If you don’t, you can always comment here.

“Is the pope catholic?”

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/dmataconis/status/311933474351226880″]

That’s the Tweet that summed up a lot of the nonsense surrounding American media coverage of the papal election. “What?” the media said. “You mean the new pope doesn’t support same-sex marriage and is against abortion? What kind of a pope is that?”

A Catholic one, you dummies.

Look, I’m not going to say that I’m in favor of these hardline socially conservative positions. But that is Catholic doctrine. That is what the Catholic church is about. And if you don’t like it, you can leave.

This is not the medieval era. No one has a gun to your head and is forcing you to be a Catholic. You can quit. You can leave. I’m sure there will be severe philosophical and theological problems for you in your head. I’m sure there will also be some societal pressure, notably from your family. But at the end of the day, in the Western world, you are not forced to be Catholic.

If the Catholic church still holds on to backwarded ideas of bigotry towards homosexuals, the idea that a mere embryo is an entire human being, that condoms cause AIDS, and any other number of weird things, that’s not really a cause to change the religion from the inside. That’s not a call to reform. That’s a call to leave.

Religion is religion. That’s why they call it religion. It has concrete, set beliefs. Although attempts are always made at reform, they usually just end up as a schism. And any expression of surprise towards a religious leader following his religion’s beliefs, and not the ideas of the day, is just ridiculous.

If Catholics or any other Christian have a problem with the church and the religion, maybe they just shouldn’t work within it. Maybe they should questioning the more absurd things they are being presented with. And then maybe, with a dash of critical thinking, they’ll come to realize that these things are not magical or awesome, they’re just absurd.

Anyways, that’s the end of a brief rant. In short: Is the pope Catholic? Then stop whining about things like this.

Also, this:

Author’s Note: Meant to publish this earlier, but it didn’t happen due to life intervening. Hence, why it seems out of sync with the news cycle. Oh well.