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The Human Story: Terror & Discord

“We are the children of conflict. Keep this in mind when you read the news. Things may seem dramatically bad sometimes. News of violence interrupts our lives daily. Terror and discord. Politicians who gamble entire nations, for the sake of their own careers. Mass killers who wreak havoc on innocents, dying with a gun in their hand. And yet this is our human story. Conflict makes us stronger, as a species. Our response to the psychopaths who drive such events may appear panicked. Yet it tends, inevitably, towards building a stronger, more peaceful society.” — Pieter Hintjens

The Means Are All There Is

Tit for tat. Artwork by Jungshan.
Artwork by Jungshan.

Blood in the Polity

Earlier this month, Trump supporters were attacked by protesters outside of a political rally in San Jose. Leftists and liberals (the leftists would say “neoliberals”) clashed over the issue. Those with anarchist and Marxist bents argued that violence is justified in face of xenophobia and fascism.

Dara Lind summarized:

“A lot of political commentators recognize that Donald Trump poses a categorical threat to established norms of American democracy, governance, and society. They believe that he represents (whether intentionally or not) an ideology that is hostile to groups of nonwhite Americans. […] You don’t have to agree with protesters beating up Trump supporters, or even sympathize with them, to understand this. There are people who feel Trump’s rise puts their lives in danger. And many people make decisions about what actions are ‘appropriate’ differently when they feel personally under threat.”

Jonathan Chait critiqued this view:

“Yes, electing Trump would amount to a dire peril for American democracy. But not only is violence unlikely to prevent his election as a practical matter (it makes Trump a figure of sympathy, and at any rate, his supporters are far more heavily armed). It would also be a disaster as a moral matter. Suppose that Trump’s election could be prevented by breaking up his speeches and intimidating his supporters. Such a ‘victory’ would actually constitute the blow to democracy it purports to stop, eroding the long-standing norm that elections should be settled at the ballot box rather than through street fighting.”

Chait continued:

“Liberalism sees political rights as a positive good — rights for one are rights for all. ‘Democracy’ means political rights for every citizen. The far left defines democracy as the triumph of the subordinate class over the privileged class. Political rights only matter insofar as they are exercised by the oppressed. The oppressor has no rights. […] A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this ‘right’ as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.”

Donald Trump waving to supporters at a rally. Photo by Ed Ouimette.
Photo by Ed Ouimette.

The Point of Liberalism

Why am I bringing this up? Both arguments have been tweeted to death, including by me. Well… the conflict has stuck in my brain. I think my takeaway is something like this: Don’t normalize tactics that you don’t want your enemy to use. Resist upping the ante. Your principles are only as good as how you deploy them. Or, to quote Slate Star Codex:

“Civilization didn’t conquer the world by forbidding you to murder your enemies unless they are actually unrighteous in which case go ahead and kill them all. Liberals didn’t give their lives in the battle against tyranny to end discrimination against all religions except Jansenism because seriously fuck Jansenists. Here we have built our Schelling fence and here we are defending it to the bitter end. […] Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed.”

(See also: “We should all feel unsafe around anybody who relishes uncoordinated meanness — beating people in dark alleys, picketing their funerals, shaming them, harassing them, doxxing them, getting them fired from their jobs.”)

Ends Are Made of Means

“Means to an end” is a familiar phrase. The end is the goal, and the means are how you get there. For example, democratic government is presented as the means to a just society. Democracy is not virtuous in and of itself; it’s virtuous because of what it can achieve. (Yes, I know the US is not a pure democracy, but it’s grounded in democratic principles.)

But really, the means are all there is. What we do while trying to achieve a certain state — whether governmental or epistemic — ends up being the state. Democracy is both process and result. Make sure your process constitutes a result that will satisfy you.

Nature Is Brutal

Content warning for pet death and light descriptions of gore.

Death is on my mind. Not in a morbid way. I’m thinking about death because it happens all the time. Everything I can say about this sounds trite; we’ve been grappling with it for millennia. Even just that sentence sounds like a rehash of previous rehashings.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” — Genesis 3:19, King James Version

Three of my rabbits have died during the past few months. To be more accurate: two of my rabbits died and one was killed.

The first two deaths were sad, but they were okay. One bunny died while digging a hole in the garden, and one died while taking a nap, as far as we can tell. Both seemed peaceful, and rabbity — good ways to go. We can’t be sure without necropsies (animal autopsies), but our theory is that their deaths were due to old age. We didn’t know the precise age of either rabbit, since they were both adopted from Craigslist, from previous owners who also weren’t sure of the animals’ ages, but they weren’t visibly sick or behaving strangely. “Natural causes” is the best guess.

Of course, “natural causes” is a misnomer. We use that term to talk about expected deaths, ones caused by internal malfunctioning. But murder — to use a melodramatic term for predation — is natural.

The third rabbit, our favorite rabbit, the one we’ve had the longest, was killed. We think it was an owl. My mom heard the scream in the night — she went outside to see what was happening, saw that all the animals’ enclosures were shut, and went back to bed thinking that our pets were okay. As it turned out, Doof had pushed open the door to his enclosure, which bounced back behind him, and was freely enjoying the night, I presume. Until he was attacked.

Continue reading “Nature Is Brutal”

Everyday Street Harassment

Being a person whose appearance is perceived as feminine means being accosted on the street wherever you go. Usually the men who yell stuff at you fall into the “nothing left to lose” category. They’re homeless or broke or drunk in the morning — none of which is inherently bad, but those conditions give a person little reason to conform to standard social norms. Combine that with typical male entitlement, and you have guys shouting obscenities as you walk by.

Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.
Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.

But socioeconomic desperation and/or mental illness don’t explain everything. Twice in October I was literally followed by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Both of these guys seemed “normal” when judged by exterior alone — they looked like they probably had jobs and houses. Both times I had to turn around, hold my palms up in front of my body, and say, “I need you to stop.” Both times this worked, thank goodness. Both times I was terrified.

Afterward I fantasized about responding violently, about retaliating the instant I was spoken to. Pepper spray in the face. Knee to the testicles. Heel of the palm against the nose so hard that it breaks the bridge and pushes bone shards into the brain. I wanted the power of fear and destruction — the power men possess that prevents me from responding the way I imagine. When I’m scared, I can’t muster the fierceness. It probably wouldn’t have made me feel better anyway.

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