Tag Archives: ideas

The language barrier

1 May

Lately I’ve been realizing just how much of a problem the language barrier is when it comes to just about everything. We use language all the time to communicate. Verbal language, written language, body language, computer language, etc. So many of the difficulties we have are caused by the language barrier.

In order for a language to work, everyone communicating must use the same definition. If I say “boat” and you think of what I would call a “horse”, then the language doesn’t work. The whole point is to communicate an idea by evoking in you the same mental image/concept I’m picturing. (Denotation)

But perhaps the most complex and problem causing aspect of language is connotation. Denotation refers to the literal object/concept, but connotation deals with how people interpret/feel about that object/concept. Everyone has their own personal experiences, preferences, and biases. Whenever I write, one of the most difficult tasks is trying to choose words that will convey the same emotions and flavor for a concept that I feel, but to my audience.

So we have two aspects of language that affect how we communicate ideas: denotation and connotation. In order for us to communicate effectively, both must line up. Lately I feel like this is an almost impossible task.

Take politics and religion. Two extremely important topics that impact the lives of billions of people everyday. They are also two of the most emotionally charged topics given how they are fundamental to how many people think about themselves, their identity, the world, their place in it, and how things ought to be. Given the extreme personal nature of these topics, any given concept’s connotation might vary widely from person to person. Same can be said of denotations.

For example, it is almost impossible to have a discussion about religion. In order to have good communication and a rational discussion, both parties must agree on the definition of terms. What is religion? What qualifies as a “religion”, what doesn’t? What is a god? What are the qualities associated with this concept? What is a Christian? What qualities/beliefs are associated with that concept? The answers to all of these will vary from person to person. (This is why I get some much crap when I generalize because what might apply to someone else might not apply to you, and vice versa.) You could spend hours debating these concepts alone before you even got to actually discussing what you wanted to discuss.

Instead, most people skip this phase and go straight into firing off their memorized lines at the other person. Nothing gets conveyed, nobody’s mind gets changed, they might as well be speaking in foreign languages; in fact, they pretty much are.

While I’ve noticed denotation problems seem to populate the realm of religious discussion, problems of connotation are particularly rampant when it comes to political discussion. A perfect example is the term “liberal.” Conservatives are masters of language manipulation. They can take a word, shift its connotation, and thus frame and entire issue in their favor. For decades they did (and still do) this with the word “liberal.” By repeating the word with an ugly connotation, as if it was an epithet, they shifted the flavor and emotions surrounding that concept to something ugly. “Liberal” became something disgusting, something to hide from, something un-American. Today’s hot button word is “socialism.” Conservatives are pushing to shift the connotation of that word to something akin to communism.

So how is a rational discussion of ideas and concepts possible when, at the word “liberal”, you think “un-American, big government, communist, elitist”, and at the word “conservative”, I think “fascist, bigoted, greedy theocratic American Taliban”? Short answer: it isn’t.

The sad fact of life is that rational discussion of the issues is no longer possible. The idea of having a “debate” is a complete farce. In order to actually have these discussions we would need to first agree on the denotations and then connotations, otherwise we’re speaking different languages. Quite simply, we don’t have the attention span for that. Instead, all of our issues are decided by who has more babies, which demographic is dying out, and who gets their voters to the polls. That’s it. Reality be damned.

What is your “better world”?

23 Feb

Everyone, be they liberal or conservative, want a better world for their children, they just disagree on how to go about achieving that. At least that’s what everyone says, but I feel there is a fundamental semantics issue here. What exactly does one mean by “a better world”? That saying assumes we both want the same thing in the end and that we just differ on the paths, but I think that is a wrong assumption to make.

What do I mean by a “better world” coming from my liberal atheist point of view? Well my better world would be a world where people don’t tolerate corrupt politicians who lie to them, where war truly is the last resort and not the first option. In my perfect world people’s lives would not be dictated by their neighbor’s religion. The government would not institutionalize bigotry, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, or impose religious doctrine. My perfect world would be a place where race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious preference, etc would not matter. Sure if people wanted to take pride in some aspect of their identity that would be fine, but discriminating against someone for that identity would not be tolerated. My perfect world would be a world in which people were guaranteed the things needed to survive, like food, water, shelter, clean air, and medical attention, but where the safety net was not so comfortable as to encourage living off of it. My perfect world would be a world where people were able to speak their minds without censorship. My perfect world would be a world where the government did not try to control your body, be it what drugs you put into it, or when you decide to start a family. In my perfect world the government would work towards improving the lives of its citizens through a strong public education system and strong environmental protection. In my perfect world the rich would not be punished for being rich, but the poor would not be left to die either.

Those are some of the things I have in mind when I think of a “better world”.

Yet when I listen to conservatives, their “better world” seems so….evil to me. I know it’s not nice to paint it like that, but it just honestly does feel like the antithesis to everything I hold to be good and right.

The trickiest part is how they will often use the same words I do when trying to describe a better world, but by observing their actions and how they vote, I’ve come to understand that there is at the very best a serious semantics issue.

I will put this bluntly. Based off of my observations their “better world” appears as follows:

A place world where only landowners have the right to vote, a world where everyone is assigned strict gender roles and forced to conform to them, a world where white men dominate and control every aspect of society, a world where the power of big government is used to police your bedroom and your body. A “better world” where minorities and women know their place, serving white men; a world where the government is the tool of the rich and powerful and where the poor are left to starve off and die for lack of medical attention, shelter, food and water. A world where public education is non-existent and where all the taxpayer’s money is spent buying bigger guns with which to kill people different from the white men. A world of order, control, and conformity, not diversity, change, and uncertainty.  A world where superstition and religion reign supreme, where the existence of fact is denied. A world rife with sexual repression and discrimination. A world where the environment existed solely to be exploited for profit until it was destroyed.

I’ve acquired this impression of conservatives after having watched them fight tooth and nail against promoting equality among the sexes, races, and genders. Throughout history they have always stood against anything that gave power to people other than straight rich white protestant men. They always vote to cut funding for schools and art and to use that money to make bombs. They fight any legislation that would prevent businesses from raping the environment that we all must live in. They fight against anything that would give aid and comfort to the poor who desperately need it, yet they will die defending the richest millionaires in the country. They always seem to fight against immigrants and anyone who is not white. They fight to enforce and institutionalize discrimination, they fight to enable big government to tell you who to love, who to have sex with, when to have children, where to go to church, what to read/watch/listen to in the media, and what to put into your body. They do all this while chanting “personal liberties” with a straight face. They claim to love democracy and yet they cheer people like Joyce Kaufman when they say “If ballots don’t work, bullets will!” and people like Ann Coulter when they say “We need to put more journalists in jail!” A better world would be one where people resorted to murder if they lost an election; where freedom of speech was non-existent and journalists who disagreed with you were thrown in jail??? Sure Kaufman and Coulter are just two people, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Their ideas have sway with a large group of people in the conservative party.

It just feels evil to me, pure evil. I’m not saying that conservatives are evil, I know plenty who are honest genuinely nice people, but I’m very puzzled as to why they think this would be a “better world”. I feel like I’d end up trying to argue axioms with them like suffering is bad.

So you want to have a discussion?

1 Jan

I came across this amazing flowchart on OneFuriousLlama’s blog and then found out about this awesome website Atheistresources. Even though it’s titled “debating a christian” it’s applicable to all discussions. I never cease to be surprised at how many people don’t understand these basic rules for having a rational debate, no matter what the topic is.

(click to enlarge)

Passion, zeal, and my history.

28 Nov

I just finished watching The Baader Meinhof Complex on netfilx and found it pretty thought provoking. The movie follows “the birth of West Germany’s Red Army Faction, a radical left-wing terrorist group formed in the lat 1960’s amid a climate of revolution and a fallen generation.” The movie struck a cord with me because back in my teenage years I might have joined such a group if given the chance to time travel. Might have. Past tense.  The movie was in some way a loose exploration of those teenage fantasies.

As a teenager I never fantasized about bombing buildings or assassinating people, but rather I abstractly fantasized about fighting the man and dying for my comrades. I guess I connected with this movie in that I empathized with the characters’ zeal. I could relate with their feelings of oppression, of desperation, and their sense of the injustice in the world.

I’ve been thinking about zealotry a lot lately. I’m wondering if some people are just more inclined to zealous behavior than others. Thinking back, I was always a zealous person. I’m not sure if it was something in my nature, or the result of the time and place I grew up.

The first time I remember feeling a fanatical devotion to something(someone in this case) was when I was twelve. I was in love, or so I thought, with this beautiful girl who lived just a short ways away. We dated for three months before her mother caught us kissing and her father forced us to break up. I would leave roses on her front porch and her father would throw them away. I was determined to get her back, even though she said her father wouldn’t let her date until she was sixteen. I would count the days in my school calendar. Later, I received a tip from her friend pointing me to her live journal. There I found two entries where she detailed how much she disliked me, was never interested beyond a mere crush, and how she had found a new guy. (I printed it out at the time and I still have that worn old piece of paper in a fireproof lockbox, along with other sentimental things)

It was around this same time that I discovered evangelical Christianity. A friend from school was a born-again Christian and he taught me how to pray/mediate. I remember going to special church classes and watching videos that detailed the evils of psychics and ouija boards. My parents, a moderate methodist and an apathetic non-practicing Jew, didn’t see much harm in it; though they were slightly annoyed when I used all my mom’s garlic powder to seal the doors and windows on Halloween in order to keep evil spirits out. The odd thing was that my new found religious faith never really transfered over to politics. I was 12-13 and too busy playing video games and sneaking onto porn sites to pay much attention to politics. I remember standing in my parent’s bedroom late at night watching the 2000 election. I was rooting for George W. Bush, though in the same manner one arbitrarily roots for a sports team in a game you don’t overly care about.

My Zealotry really took off after I met my first actual love. She was witty, intelligent, beautiful, and one of those liberals I had loosely heard about. I have a vague memory of us leaving the mall in her mom’s car at night, and us having some deep political conversation where she converted me to liberalism. According to my memory, which very well may be a complete and unconscious fabrication, she was very proud of herself for convincing me, but warned me saying something like “Careful, there is non more zealous than a convert.” That poorly lit memory has stayed with me all these years.

It was at this time that the focus of my passion was shifting from Christianity to politics. High-school opened me up to new people, new ideas, and I no longer considered myself an evangelical Christian, but some amalgamation of Christianity, Buddhism, and my own spirituality. The city I grew up in was fairly large for Virginia, about a quarter million people. Nonetheless the area I grew up in was very conservative. Throughout high-school I became increasingly politically active as I became ever more aware of just how much in the minority I was. I would print out long political messages on entire sheets of paper and tape them to the back of my car. I started volunteering my weekends at political campaigns, making phone calls, updating data bases, and going door to door. I even went to an anti-war protest with the afore mentioned beautiful girl. I was perhaps most active in yard sign wars.

During election season I would sneak out early in the morning, with my car full of yard signs, and place them at strategic locations I had scoped out the day before. I often did this while blasting Green Day on the stereo. It gave me a huge rush to do this in a very conservative area. I guess I became addicted to that rush. One time I spent over an hour placing about 100 signs early in the morning, only to discover them ALL stolen a few hours later when I drove to school. I was so furious, I couldn’t concentrate at all that day. I then started a tic-for-tat retribution campaign. I kept track of my signs, and stole one in retribution every time one of mine went missing. I even got a large poster, wrote my tic-for-tat war policy on it, placed it at a major intersection where several signs had gone missing, and signed it “The Democrat”. Later I got a phone call from a friend who had watched as someone stopped, got out of their car, and destroyed my sign before his very eyes.

That election season, I think it was 2004 and the second presidential election with Bush, was particularly bad. Not only were my signs constantly stolen, but even the signs on my car were stolen or vandalized. I was even run off the road one night because of a yard sign I had taped to the back of my car. I was shaking, even though I felt the rush. The majority of my teenage years were spent under a heavy siege mentality. This in turn just spurred on my zealotry. I felt like an animal trapped in a corner, and I was determined not to go down without a fight. Sometimes in class I would daydream of setting up a democrat paramilitary fast response team, should civil war break out. I fantasized about us roping in from helicopters or speeding to the rescue on motorcycles, protecting civilians from the conflict. I would even design the patch emblems for our uniforms in the margins of my school work.

During the election seasons I became an avid news junkie. I would turn on CNN any chance I got. Sometimes I’d even watch C-SPAN (a channel that broadcasts the live, and rather bland, proceedings within congress). There was one show on CNN in particular that really struck me: Crossfire. I was amazed at how these political pundits could cite names, dates, statistics, etc from memory. I REALLY wanted to be able to do that. At the same time I was taking Advanced Placement Government in high school and we’d often debate in class. This being the day before smart phones and instant internet access, I sat down one night and spent several hours building a “Battle Binder.” In this 1 inch D-ring binder I created sections for every major issue of the day, along with every relevant name, date, statistic, and talking points. I even included common arguments and refutations. It weighed a ton, but I carried it around with me everywhere I went. I dared other kids to debate with me. Some foolishly did, stating their view on some position, citing some anecdotal evidence about what they heard their dad say, and then I would pull out my battle binder and crush them. They couldn’t compete when I could instantly produce full color charts, timelines of legislation, relevant court cases, you name it. Eventually the other kids stopped talking to me about politics. (I still have that binder in the attic)

2006 was when everything shattered. It was an election year for congress, and I fought hard to get democrats elected. Bush had won a second term, the two wars were starting to drag on with no end in site, and we were starting to learn of the warrant-less wiretaps, secret detention centers, and torture. Well democrats one big that year, I was so elated. They took control of congress and I thought “Now! Now that the good guys are in charge, we can finally stop Bush! We can even impeach him for his war crimes!”

And then nothing changed. Nothing.

This was my first taste of betrayal, and boy was it a spoonful. Here I was, a zealous supporter of the party, willing to fight and die if need be, and I was betrayed by my leaders who promptly caved to every republican demand. It was like being thrown into a pool of icy cold water. I became intensely cynical and bitter. Almost five years later and I still am, though the edge has worn off.

My passion, what was left of it, needed a new seemingly hopeless cause to fight for. By now I had developed a strong love for the underdog. I believed that democrats were the underdog, and worthy of fighting for, but with them in power and ceding everything to the conservatives, that was gone. I needed a new underdog, something with deeper meaning than just political parties.

Enter atheism.

It was my freshman year of college and I was exposed to more world-views than at any other point in my life. It was also the first time I had ever heard of an atheist, or met one for that matter. In fact, I met two. One was a history professor, the other was a friend of a girl I had a crush on. Though I was a wishy-washy feel good spiritualist at the time, I took their advice and began investigating atheism on my own. One of the first people I ran into was Richard Dawkins and his book “The God Delusion”. The arguments really resonated with me and his passion spoke to something crestfallen within me. To add to that, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more underdog-ish than atheism. We’re the extreme minority, despised and distrusted by the vast majority of the world. Atheism is hopelessly outnumbered, and there is something deeply attractive in that.

So my passion was rekindled, though tempered by my experiences. While watching that film tonight, I could see a lot of my pre-2006 self in those RAF members. Naive, hopelessly idealistic, reckless, zealots. The whole time I could not help but notice the extreme contrast between how beautiful, sexual, and vibrant they were, and how violent, disgusting, and shocking their actions were. The way the film was shot, I knew we were supposed to at least partially be on their side, but I could not bring myself to support them. Through the use of violence, you watch them transform into the monsters they set out to fight. As good as it might feel to shoot back, you lose the moral high ground when you do, and that is imperative when winning a war of ideas.

My zealotry has been tempered, and that includes my teenage fantasies about fighting. This is especially true when it comes to atheism. Atheists pride themselves on not doing the dumb shit religious people do to each other. No setting off car bombs in cafes, no flying planes into buildings, no shooting doctors, no assassinations, no gang style shootouts. While I still sometimes fantasize of an Illuminati style atheist resistance, violence would be off-limits. I’d sooner shoot my own squad member then let them carry out some act of violence against our rivals. Not only would it only make them martyrs and stronger, but it would sacrifice our moral high ground.

So as a terse conclusion to this abnormally verbose post: It’s interesting for me to think back about how I was in my teenage years. Was I alone in feeling like this? Did other people go through a similar zealous phase? If you did, what made you change? Or is it ongoing? Was this passion and need for a cause some how inherent in me, or a product of the environment in which I grew up?

Religious search engines, protecting you from ideas

14 Sep

An interesting article on NPR. If you didn’t feel like reading it, the basic synopsis is that there are now search engines for religious people to use that will filter out any results that don’t already agree with their world view. Not only that, but the search engines are proactive in what content they provide. The article gives two examples: Search for “democrats” and you get articles on Marxism, search for “sex” and you get abstinence only articles.

This whole thing just blows me away. So you’re telling me that your belief system is so weak it’s threatened by just being exposed to other world views, thus if you must use the internet (and be connected to the the wealth of accumulated knowledge the world has to offer) you choose to do so by essentially locking yourself in a closet.

Actually, it’s not surprising. If you’re a religious fundamentalist, like the people who use these sites, you’ve already arbitrarily decided on how the world works. You’ve deluded yourself so deeply into believing that you’re correct, so why bother even exposing yourself to other ideas? It’s sad really. What they’re essentially doing is intellectually castrating themselves.  Perhaps it’s out of fear. Maybe they’re afraid their might be a chance they could be wrong, and that being exposed to different opinions might open them up to doubt.

I think the internet has had a really interesting effect on religion. While on one hand it makes it easier for religious groups to coordinate and get out their message, it also exposes people to a lot more information that they previously wouldn’t have been able to get. I think this is key, it is this fact that makes the internet a negative thing for religion. In order to keep your believers following you, it’s important to control their access to information. Information is power after all. With the internet offering all this information, and for free, you’ve lost that power. You can no longer control what your followers are exposed to. In the real world religion can rely on social pressures to keep people in line. People are more likely to shut up and go along with the crowd and avoid asking questions that might cause them trouble. With the anonymity of the internet, religions can no longer coerce people like that. Here is a really interesting video on the subject:

It’s bad to have an opinion, worse to have a strong one.

28 Apr

If there is one thing I’ve learned from people, it’s that having an opinion is a bad thing. It’s even worse if you have a strong opinion. The stronger the opinion, the worse it is. Apathy is what’s cool. Not giving a shit is what’s cool. Hey man, it’s all good, relax, just go with the flow, why bother? Fuck that and fuck you. Go ahead, float through life without a care in the world, just take whatever injustice comes your way lying down. You can’t be bothered to care. As long as you’re entertained you’re happy, no matter what they do to you or your rights. Well guess what buddy, you sir are a slave to people who do care. It is people who actually give a fuck and will get off their ass that control the world. If you don’t mind people fucking you over, then don’t complain. You disgust me.