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I participate in a lot of online forums about polyamory. It's almost impossible to talk about polyamory without eventually talking about OK Cupid, which is arguably one of the best places online for poly folks to meet each other (I met my live-in partner zaiah there). And it's almost impossible to talk about OK Cupid without talking about how often women tend to get harassed on online dating sites. Any online dating sites.

And, it's almost impossible to talk about how often women get harassed, on dating sites or anywhere else, without a whole succession of men trotting up to say "well, I personally don't harass women! Women act like all men are harassers! I'm totally not like that, and I don't understand why women don't talk to me online! I totally deserve to have women talk to me online! If I spend my time writing an email to some woman online I am entitled to a response, even if she doesn't want to date me!"

And, of course, from there it's just a short hop to talking about male privilege, and as soon as that happens, inevitably those same men trot up again to say "this talk of privilege is just a way to try to make me feel guilty!"

And I gotta say: Guilt? Seriously? You think it's about guilt?

Guilt is for things you can control. Feeling guilty over things you can't control, like the race or sex you were born with, is silly.

If you think talking about privilege is about making people feel guilty, you're completely missing the point.

It's about being a decent person.

People who are privileged may still struggle, may not always get what they want, but the whole point is they have a lot of advantages over other people. Advantages they can't see. Advantages they don't know about.

Talking about privilege is about awareness, not guilt. When people don't know about the advantages they have, they act in messed-up ways that show insensitivity to others. Like, for example, telling women who experience harassment on a scale that men can't even understand how they should feel about it, what they should do about it, and why they should, like, totes respond to ME because I'M not like that! I'M not one of those entitled jerks, and therefore I DESERVE a reply!

The purpose of understanding your privilege isn't to make you feel something. Not guilt, not shame, not anything else. It's to help you understand that you have a set of things you take for granted that other people don't have, so that you can change the way you act.

Got nothing to do with feelings at all.

Change the way you act in small ways. Like, not telling women how they should feel about sexual harassment. Like, not telling inner-city blacks that the police are their friends. Like, listening when women talk abut harassment, instead of just saying "oh, you're saying all men are harassers." (Hint: No, they're not.) Or saying something like "well, I just don't see color." (Hint: Not seeing color is something you can only do if you happen to be the privileged color. When you belong to an oppressed minority, you don't get the luxury of not seeing your status.)

Change the way you act in medium ways. Like, if you are a man with a normal social circle, statistically you probably know at least three harassers and at least one rapist. Seriously. So, when you're with a group of your friends and someone makes a racial joke or a rape joke or talks about how women are bitches or whatever, speak up. Remember, if you don't say anything, those harassers and that rapist in your social circle--and yes, they are there, even if you don't know who they are--assume you're on their side and think the way they do.

When people make cracks about sending a woman into the kitchen to make a sandwich, or talk about how they'd sure like to get that hot chick drunk and bend her over the table, speak up. Say it isn't cool.

Yeah, it's uncomfortable to speak up when all your friends are yee-hawing and back-slapping about how absolutely hysterical that rape joke was. Deal with it. The discomfort you face speaking up ain't nothing on the discomfort women face just walking down the goddamn street.

Change the way you act in large ways. Don't vote for political candidates who talk about how only lazy blacks are on welfare or blab about "legitimate rape."

People aren't telling you you're privileged to make you feel guilty. People are telling you you're privileged because privilege is a system and an institution that benefits you and that you participate in without even knowing it. When you know about it, maybe you can stop participating in it. Maybe, if you're brave and willing to pull on your big-boy pants, you can even put yourself on the map against it when the folks around you are participating in it.

The world's first 3D printed gun: Ho hum.

Today, a landmark in improvised engineering was reached. Plans for an (almost) entirely 3D printable firearm went up on the Internet, able to be freely downloaded by anyone.

The reactions around the Net are predictable. Libertarians and gun nuts are ecstatic, gushing all over themselves about how this will be the "end of gun control" and usher in some kind of "new age of freedom" or something.

Law and order types, gun control advocates, and the government are wetting themselves with the prospect of legions of terrorists printing up virtually undetectable firearms and taking over airplanes or something.

And it's all completely ridiculous. Neither a new age of freedom nor a new age of terror are in the works; in fact, I'm quite confident in predicting the total impact of this technology will be statistically undetectable. Self-congratulatory (on the one side) and paranoid (on the other) ravings aside, this thing simply does not make any meaningful difference whatsoever.

First, let's see this harbinger of freedom end of civilization toy for rich white kids:

It's printed from ABS plastic on an $8,000 3D printer. Almost everything is plastic, including the barrel; the only non-plastic parts are an ordinary nail (for the firing pin) and the bullet itself (in this case, a .380 caliber).

Now, I've owned firearms and shot recreationally for most of my life,1 and the first thing I can say upon seeing this thing is that I wouldn't want to fire it. My instinct is that it's probably about as dangerous to whoever's on the trigger end as whoever's on the business end.

The one shown here was test-fired three times. The first time, it misfired. The second time, it successfully fired a .380 round without destroying itself. The third time, when the .380 was replaced with a 5.7×28 cartridge, it exploded.

Could it survive multiple shots with the smaller round? I don't know. Maybe. I wouldn't bet my life on it. Doesn't really matter. Not only is this thing not a game changer, I reckon it's about as significant in terms of its overall impact on society as whatever toy they choose to put into a box of Cracker Jacks next week.

For starters, what you're looking at here is not only a shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness; it's an $8,050 $9,000 shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness. This prototype was printed on an $8,000 3D printer with about $50 worth of materials, making it arguably the single most expensive zip gun that's ever been fabricated. A person looking for cheap, untraceable guns would be able to buy an arsenal on the street for less than the cost of the printer that produced this thing. (Edit: It turns out that this gun actually requires $1,000 worth of plastic toner to print, making it arguably the most expensive zip gun ever made even if the cost of the 3D printer isn't factored in.)

Now, I already know what you're going to say. The cost of 3D printers is dropping quickly. People can rent one or use one at a school. Companies will 3D print parts for you.

All of which is true, but irrelevant; the ability to make crude, cheap firearms for a lot less than just the cost of the plastic alone for this thing has existed...well, for about as long as firearms have existed. Prisoners have been known to build guns from parts available in prisons.

It has never been lack of availability that has kept people from using small single-shot firearms like this. The reason every criminal in town isn't sticking up convenience stores with zip guns isn't that they have been languishing in wait for a Libertarian college student to design one that can be 3D printed and put on the Internet; it's that these things are virtually worthless as weapons. They tend to be used in prisons but few places besides, because they're unreliable, prone to failure, inaccurate, and dangerous to the operator.

Just like, ahem, the 3D printed version.

Seriously. Even when they work, you have to be at point-blank range (or better yet, in contact with your intended target) for them to be terribly effective.

Which leads to the next hand-wringing objection: OMG this is made of PLASTIC you can take it onto an AIRPLANE through a METAL DETECTOR!

Which is, err, only kind of true. It's a bit bulky to hide on your person, and there's still the fact that the firing pin and ammunition are metal. Now, you might be able to get a nail through security on some pretext or other, but I doubt many folks will let you carry ammunition onto a plane.

If they notice it, which is a different matter; I've had friends who've carried brass knuckles and switchblades onto planes without difficulty. The reality is that few people actually want to, and have the means to, attack an airplane; nearly all of what happens at the airport is security theater, not security.

But let's assume just for amusement that you can get one of these onto a plane. So what? What of it?

If I wanted to attack an airplane with a weapon I made on a 3D printer, it wouldn't be this gun. Even if it works, it only works once, and I doubt the other passengers would sit around idle while I reloaded it and prepared to fire again. Assuming that the first shot actually did any good anyway.

The guy who designed this says “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show,” as if this is the first time that's been possible. Sorry, kid, but you're a ridiculous wanker; a 3D printed knife or spear is actually a lot more lethal than this toy gun. (There's a reason shivs rather than zip guns are the preferred weapon in places like prisons, and it's not all down to scarcity of ammunition; given how easily drugs flow into American prisons, ammo isn't that much of a stretch if there were a demand for it.) The 9/11 hijackers, who were well-funded, cutters.

But I wouldn't carry a 3D printed knife, or even a cheaper and better ceramic knife, onto a plane with mischief in mind either, because I'm not suicidal. Post 9/11, one thing has actually made air travel safer: the fact that the other passengers aren't about to sit quietly by and hope for the best if someone tries to take a plane. All the other security changes that have happened since then have paled in effectiveness next to passenger attitude.

So, here's the million-dollar question. You take a plastic gun onto an airplane, and...what, exactly? What in the name of the seven holy fucks and the twelve lesser fucks do you do then? What's your plan?

If your goal is to destroy the plane, you can't do that with this thing. If your goal is to take over the plane, well...good luck with that. You might survive what the other passengers do to you, maybe, if you're lucky. Everybody is shrieking about how this thing can defeat airline security...and then what?

In fact, that million-dollar question can be extended to just about any possible use for this thing. You've bought yourself an eight-grand 3D printer, or somehow got access to it. You download the plans like an eager little hacker and you print this out, and then, what do you do then? Go online and brag to your Maker friends?

You aren't going to use this for home defense. I mean, seriously. A baseball bat or a tire iron makes a better home defense weapon, and the baseball bat probably has a longer effective range.

You're not going to use it to outfit your secret militia that's pining for anticipating the day that the Federal government starts rolling the tanks down Main Street. You aren't even going to use an AR-15 for that, because, listen, seriously? The government has drones. They can blow your ass to hell and gone and you'll never even see someone to shoot at.

You aren't going to take it down to the range and pop off a few rounds in the general direction of paper cutouts of zombies or Trayvon Martin. No gun range is going to let you anywhere near the firing line with this; it's too dangerous to the other shooters.

And please, please tell me you think you can go hunting with this thing. Bring a video camera and let me know when the video is up on YouTube. You can't get enough of that for my entertainment dollar.

So you're going to print it out, you're going to put it together, and then...what, exactly? I'm still not clear on that.

Now, if you designed it, what you'll do is obvious: you'll get media exposure for congratulating yourself on what a clever Libertarian you are. And as near as I can tell, that's really this thing's only usefulness.

1 Full disclosure: I've been a private firearm owner on and off since 1988. I like guns, I like target shooting, and I'm neither opposed to nor afraid of guns. All that being said, I still won't fire one of these.
Since last week's election, in which Mitt Romney was so confident of victory that he didn't bother to write a concession speech, but lost by the largest electoral vote margin since 1996, there has been a picture floating around on conservative blogs and Web sites mourning the results. It looks like this:

There are a bunch of variants on it, of course, but the basic theme is 'liberty weeping because this terrible thing happened.'

This particular image first started making the rounds after September 11, 2001, and it's been recycled to express dismay over the conservatives' non-preferred guy winning the election.

It is also, I think, an ironically appropriate image...but perhaps not in the way the conservatives who are using it might intend.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October of 1886. The Civil War had only recently ended,and Reconstruction was in full swing. On the day the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, the requirement that you had to be a landowner in order to vote had only been abolished six years ago. Naturalized US citizens were still not permitted to vote. Blacks had only first been offered the vote sixteen years earlier, and many barriers faced any black man attempting to exercise that right; it would be another 79 years before the Voting Rights Act allowed blacks to vote in every state.. Women were still more than three decades away from being allowed to vote. The poor were still barred from voting by poll taxes, and would be for another 78 years. Native Americans were still 38 years from being enfranchised.

When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, interracial marriage was a crime in all but 21 states. Every state, without exception, had sodomy laws barring homosexual sex. It would be 76 years before the first state, Illinois, decriminalized consensual sex acts between members of the same sex, and more than a century (117 years, to be exact) before Lawrence v Texas invalidated the remaining sodomy laws in the United States.

At the time the statue was dedicated, Jim Crow laws were gaining ground in the South; the first such laws had been on the books for eleven years, and within two years of the dedication, laws in every single Confederate state would enforce segregation of blacks and whites in public areas. It would be another 78 years before the last of these laws was dismantled.

So this, then, is the America into which the Statue of Liberty was born: a segregated America, in which women were not permitted to vote; an America in which blacks could vote in theory but seldom in practice; an America in which the poor were kept from the polls and homosexuality was punishable by hard labor or, in a handful of states, death; an America in which interracial marriage was forbidden in most states.

An America, in short, in which the notion of a black President of mixed-race ancestry who championed equal opportunity of gays and women would be an unthinkable abomination.

So it is appropriate, I think, that the image of a weeping Statue of Liberty should be so popular among conservatives. This is, after all, the America they would have us return to.

Mitt Romney found it impossible to believe that he could lose because he was incredibly popular with the only electorate he believed mattered: white men.

Buzzfeed has an interesting series of maps that show what the election would have looked like without universal suffrage. The maps are broken down by year: how the election would have gone in 1850, when only white men could vote; in 1870, when white men and some black men could vote; in 1920, when women could vote; and so on. Obama does not win until 1970, when the voting age was lowered to 18.

Among white men, Romney was a sure bet. His campaign forgot that white men aren't the only voters that matter.

None of this is a surprise to the political right, of course. In 2001, after George W. Bush's bitterly contested election, Ann Coulter said on television, "I think women should be armed but should not vote... women have no capacity to understand how money is earned." In 2003, she said "It would be a much better country if women did not vote. That is simply a fact. In fact, in every presidential election since 1950, except Goldwater in '64, the Republican would have won, if only the men had voted."

This idea is taken to an even more surreal conclusion by a blogger on the Christian Men's Defense League Web site, who writes:

Women want to delay marriage as long as possible so they can 'have it all,' and usually 'have it all' means 'have as much hot alpha sex as possible without any consequences.'

[A]ll the Obama administration had to do was scare them that Mitt Romney was going to take away their birth control and their access to abortion. The fear for them is that, without birth control and abortion, they might actually get pregnant and have to give birth. That is scary not simply because of the economic burden of having a child (since, hey, they can get all kinds of cash and prizes if that happens), but because if that happened then everyone would know they’re sluts, and their image as daddy’s pure little snowflake princess goes out the window. [...] Admittedly, the desire to slut it up isn’t the only factor in the gender gap. America has a fiscal problem primarily because women want free stuff without ever having to work.

Women vote, and minorities vote, and the nation's government looks different than it would if only white men voted. The Statue of Liberty must surely feel out of place, living in a world so alien to the one in which she was born.

A common narrative among the folks using this image of a weeping Statue of Liberty is that Romney's defeat means "the end of freedom."

I'm not sure what this means. It sounds like dog-whistle language to me--coded language that means something other than what the words would suggest, the way "state's rights" is coded language for racism and segregation.

The "freedom" that was lost when Romney lost certainly isn't freedom from government interference in one's private life; the Republicans during this election cycle frequently advocated massive government intrusion in almost every area of sexuality, from the availability of contraception (something else that would have been unthinkable when the Statue of Liberty was built) to endless nattering about the fine grades of rape ("violent" rape, "legitimate" rape, "real" rape--as opposed, presumably, to the sort of faux-rape that occurs when you just wanted to have sex with a woman who didn't want to have sex with you). In a world in which women didn't vote, the numerous and well-documented Republican gaffes about rape would not have been gaffes at all.

Nor is it any other variety of freedom I can identify. It isn't freedom of speech, nor economic freedom (Republicans since Reagan have often played the 'welfare queen' card, creating a strange alternate reality in which black women become fabulously rich by having lots of children, yet have involved us in ruinously expensive wars that they have not funded while using tax breaks and corporate welfare to siphon vast quantities of public money upward to the wealthy). Nor is it freedom of religion; conservatives in the US are among the most religious strata of society, but only if that religion is their own particular form of Protestant Christianity.

As near as I can tell, the "freedom" they cherish is the freedom to oppress; the freedom to keep minorities in their place, the freedom to promote religious ideas in the political sphere without dissent, the freedom to control access to women's reproductive services.

I'm not sure if those are the freedoms that the Statue of Liberty represents, but it seems clear that many people would prefer to live in the world as it was when that statue was erected.


As the American electorate went through the motions of choosing a candidate of someone else's choosing this week, the Internetverse was alive with political commentary, flames, racial epithets, and all the other things that normally accompany an American campaign season.

At the height of the election, Twitter was receiving 15,107 tweets per eyewatering amount of data to handle, especially if you're a company with little viable revenue stream other than "get venture capital, spend it, get more venture capital."

Some of those tweets were tagged with the #romneydeathrally hashtag, and for a few days, how the Internet did shine.

If you do a search on Twitter for #romneydeathrally, you'll find some of the finest group fiction ever written. The Tweets tell a strange, disjointed account of a political rally straight out of Lovecraft, with bizarre rites taking place on stage and eldritch horrors being summoned to feed on the crowd.

The hash tag went on for days, the Internet hive-mind creating an elaborate communal vision of a dark supernatural rally filled with horrors.

I even got in on the action myself:

Eventually, it caught the attention of the media. The Australian Hearld Sun ran an article about the hash tag that painted an interesting narrative of the meme:

In further evidence that Democrats are winning the social media war, hundreds of people have taken to Twitter to "report" on a fictional event where Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has called upon satanic powers in a last ditch effort to swing the election in his favour.

DigitalSpy has their own take on the meme, also saying Twitter users are talking about Mitt Romney calling upon Satanic powers.

When H. P. Lovecraft references get labeled as "Satanic powers," I weep for the lost literacy of a generation...but I digress.

By far the most bizarre response to the meme was posted by Twitter user @nessdoctor over on with the title "Twitter Users Threaten Mitt #RomneyDeathRally". According to Ms. Doctor,

The hasthag #RomneyDeathRally trended after tweets spread placing Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) of the Republican party under the light of resorting dark satanic techniques to win the upcoming US national elections on November 6, 2012.

This is, of course, a nasty hashtag and while its purveyors insist it’s for humor (and sometimes it is), it is done in bad taste. [...]

There were also posts that threatened to kill Romney, with some even threatening to join domestic terrorism and attack the White House and the people in it if Romney sits as president.

The article has been rewritten a number of times; at first, it stated that the hashtag was all about threats to kill Romney and his family, then it made the strange claim that the hash tag came about after rumors had spread that the Romney campaign was trying to use Satanism to win the election. For a while, the article had screen captures of threats against Romney with a caption claiming the threats were part of the #romneydeathrally hash tag; that claim has since been dropped. I have no idea what the article will say if you, Gentle Readers, should visit it.

But where did it come from? (I'll give you a hint: it didn't start because of rumors of Satanism.)

Like most Internet memes, the #romneydeathrally hashtag craze started small. On November 4, Mitt Romney held a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. For whatever reason, the rally was late getting started, it was cold, and some people who were there complained on Twitter that Romney campaign staffers were refusing to permit them to leave the rally, citing unspecified "security" concerns.

Some of these tweets were picked up by reporters covering the event.

It didn't take long to turn into a public relations disaster. Some folks started talking about the "death rally" that you could never leave on Twitter, and the #romneydeathrally hashtag was born.

Naturally, the Internet being what it is, it really didn't take long for some folks to decide they'd ride that train to the last station:

And, inevitably, Lovecraft got involved. Because if there's one thing you can count on about the Internet, it's por--okay, if there are two things you can count on about the Internet, one of them is that the Internet will always insert references to Lovecraft and Cthulhu wherever it possibly can.

And thus the meme was born.

It had nothing to do with threats on Romney, nor with rumors that the Romney campaign was dabbling in Satanism. Instead, it was the Internet doing what the Internet does: seizing on something that happened and taking it to an absurd conclusion.

The Romney Death Rally was a PR own-goal for the Romney campaign, sparked by staffers doing something really stupid at a rally.

There are two lessons here. The first is that if you're a prominent politician and you're hosting a rally, it's probably a bad idea to refuse to allow people to leave. People have cell phones, and Twitter, and some of them will complain, and their complaints might be heard.

The second, though, is less about politics than it is about news reporting. For the love of God, if you have a journalism degree, you should be able to recognize a reference to the Cthulhu mythology when you see it.
This is Malala Yousafzai. As most folks are by now aware, she is a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of saying that girls should get an education. Her shooting prompted an enormous backlash worldwide, including--in no small measure of irony--among American politicians who belong to the same political party as legislators who say that children ought to be executed for disrespecting their parents.

I've been reading a lot lately about what seems to be two different and at least theoretically unrelated things: parasitology and ideology, specifically religious ideology. This might seem to have nothing to do with Malala Yousafzai's shooting, but it really isn't.

When I say I've been reading about parasitology, what I mean by that is my Canadian sweetie has been reading to me about parasitology. Specifically, she's been reading me a book called Parasite Rex, which makes the claim that much of evolutionary biology, including the development of sexual reproduction, is driven by parasites. It's been a lot of fun; I never knew I'd enjoy being read to so much, even though the subject matter is sometimes kinda yucky.

What's striking to me is that these things--religious ideology and parasitology--are in some ways the same thing in two different forms.

Parasites make their living by invading a host, then using the host's resources to spread themselves. To this end, they do some amazing manipulation of the host. Some parasites, for instance, are able to alter a host's behavior to promote their own spread. Sometimes it's as crude as irritating the host's throat to promote coughing which spreads hundreds of millions of virus particles. Other times, it's as bizarre and subtle as influencing the host's mind to change the way the host responds to fear, in order to make it more likely that the host will be eaten by a predator, which will then infect itself with the same parasite. In fact, parasitologists today are discovering that the study of life on Earth IS the study of parasites; parasites, more than any other single factor, may be the most significant determinant in the ratio of predator to prey biomass on this planet.

Religious ideology would seem to be a long way off from parasitism, unless you consider that ideas, like parasites, spread themselves by taking control of a host and modifying the host's behavior so as to promote the spread of the idea.

This isn't a new concept; Richard Dawkins coined the term 'meme' to describe self-replicating ideas decades ago.

But what's striking to me is how direct the comparison is. The more I learn about parasites, the more I come to believe that parasites and memes aren't allegories for each other; parasites ARE memes, and vice versa.

We tend to think of parasites like toxoplasma as being real things, and ideas like the salvation of Jesus Christ as being abstract concepts that don't really exist the same way that real things do. But I don't think that's true.

Ideas exist in physical form. It might be as a series of symbols printed in a book or as a pattern of neural connections stored inside a brain, but no matter how you slice it, ideas have a physical existence. An idea that does not exist in any physical way, even as neuron connections wired into a person's head, doesn't exist.

Similarly, parasites are information, just like ideas are. A strand of DNA is nothing but an encoded piece of information, in the same sense that a series of magnetic spots on a hard disk are information. In fact, researchers have made devices that use DNA molecules to store computer information, treating banks of DNA as if they were hard drives.

In a sense, ideas and organisms aren't different things. They are the same thing written into the world in different ways. An idea that takes control of a host's brain and modifies the host to promote the spread of the idea is like a parasite that takes control of a host and modifies it to spread the parasite. The fact that the idea exists as configurations of connections of neurons rather than as configurations of nucleotides isn't as relevant as you might think.

We can treat ideas the same way we treat parasites or diseases. We can use the tools of epidemiology to track how ideas spread. We can map the virulence of ideas in exactly the same way that we map the virulence of diseases.

Religion is unquestionably a meme--a complex idea that is specifically designed to spread itself, sometimes at the host's expense. A believer infected with a religious ideology who kills himself for his belief is no different than a moose infected with a parasite that dies as a result of the infection; the parasite in both cases has hijacked the host, and subverted the host's own biological existence for its own end.

The more I see the amazing adaptations that parasites have made to help protect themselves and spread themselves, the more I'm struck by how memes, and especially religious memes, have made the same adaptations.

Some parasitic wasps, for example, will create multiple types of larva in a host caterpillar--larva that go on to be more wasps, and larva that act as guardians, protecting the host from infection by other parasites by eating any new parasites that come along. Similarly, religious memes will protect themselves by preventing their host from infection by other memes; many successful religions teach that other religions are created by the devil and are therefore evil, and must be rejected.

We see the same patterns of host resistance to parasites and to memes, too. A host species exposed to the same parasites for many generations will tend to develop a resistance to the parasites, as individuals who are particularly vulnerable to the parasites are selected against and individuals particularly resistant to the parasites are selected for by natural selection. Similarly, a virulent religious meme that causes many of its hosts to die will gradually face resistance in its host population, as particularly susceptible individuals are killed and particularly resistant individuals gain a survival advantage.

Writers like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer talk about how people in a pluralistic society can not really accept and live by the tenets of, say, the Bible, no matter how Bible-believing they consider themselves to be. The Bible advocates slavery, and executing women for not being virgins on their wedding night, and destroying any town where prophets call upon the citizens to turn away from God; these are behaviors which you simply can't do in an industrialized, pluralistic society. So the members of modern, industrialized societies--even the ones who call themselves "fundamentalists" and who say things like "the Bible is the literal word of God"--don't really act as though they believe these things are true. They don't execute their wives or sell their daughters into slavery. The memes are not as effective at modifying the hosts as they used to be; they have become less virulent.

But new or mutated memes, like new parasites, always have the chance of being particularly virulent. Their host populations have not developed resistance. In the Middle East, in places where an emergent strain of fundamentalist Islam leads to things like the Taliban shooting Malala Yousafzai, I think that's what we're seeing--a new, virulent meme. islam itself is not new, of course, but to think that the modern strains of Islam are the same as the original is to think that the modern incarnations of Christianity are akin to the way Jesus actually lived; it's about as far off the mark as thinking a bird is a dinosaur. They share a common heritage, but that's all. They have evolved into very different organisms.

And this particular meme, this particular virulent strain of Islam, is canny enough to attack its host immune system directly. The Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai because she favors education for women. Education, in many ways, provides an immunological response to memes; it is no accident that Tammy Faye Bakker famously said that it's possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It's no accident that Fundamentalism in all of its guises tends to be anti-intellectual and anti-education.

I'm not saying that the meme of religion (or any other meme) is inherently bad, of course. Memes have different strains; there are varieties of any large religion that are virulent and destructive to their host population, and other strains that are less virulent and more benign.

But with parasitic ideas as with parasitic biological entities, it is important to remember that the goal of the parasite is not necessarily the same as the goal of its host. Parasites attempt to spread themselves, often at the host's expense. the parasite's interests are not the host's interests. Even a seemingly benign meme, such as a meme that says it is important to be nice to each other in order to gain an everlasting reward in heaven, might harm its host species if it siphons away resources to spread itself through churches that might otherwise have been used to, for example, research new cures for cancer. At the more extreme end, even such a benign meme might cause its adherents to say things like "We as a society don't need to invest in new biomedical nanotechnology to promote human longevity, because we believe that we will live forever if we abide by the strictures of this meme and help to spread it through our works."

Virulent memes tend to be anti-intellectual, because education is often a counter to their spread. Malala Yousafzai was targeted because she represents the development of an immune response to a virulent, destructive meme that is prevalent in the environment where she was born.
In Part I of this essay, I wrote some initial thoughts about the BDSM Pledge Web site. To recap briefly (as if I am ever brief): The BDSM Pledge site is an attempt by, a producer of BDSM-related porn, to start to codify a set of guidelines for responsible, ethical BDSM.

This is not really a new idea, of course. Folks have been thinking about how BDSM is distinct from abuse for at least as long as there have been words for consensual BDSM. A lot of folks have coalesced around two short, bumper-sticker-sized expressions: "SSC" (for "Safe, Sane, and Consensual"), and "RACK" (for "Risk Aware Consensual Kink"). They both have the notion of consent in common, but after that, things go a bit off the bend.

The RACK folks like to point out that no activity, from whipping your lover to climbing a stepladder with a hammer in your hand, is really entirely 'safe,' and 'sane' is often in the eye of the beholder. The SSC folks, on the other hand, see the notion of risk-aware consensual kink as overplaying consensuality to the point where it leads into some decidedly questionable territory; if two folks decide they have a cover-the-submissive-in-chum-and-drag-him-through-shark-infested-waters fetish, does that mean the unfortunate outcome is okay because they both knew the risks and were on board with the idea?

Honestly, I see both points. It makes sense to me that both SSC and RACK are reaching toward something that's simple in conception but slippery in the details: different people have different tastes, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and as long as the folks involved understand that and aren't being totally reckless with one another's safety, there's value in letting people get down to it.

But I don't think SSC or RACK are, by themselves, sufficient for ethical BDSM. In fact, I think they're both so narrow in focus that they miss something really important: There is more to ethics than what you and your lover get up to in the bedroom (or attic or kitchen or dungeon, as your tastes may dictate).

It's one thing to be ethical to your partner, your confidant, and/or the source of your nookie. It's an entirely different thing to be ethical toward members of your community, even ones you don't like, and toward the great mass of humanity as a whole. After all, we as human beings are arguably hard-wired to behave very differently toward people in our inner circle than we are toward acquaintances or strangers. One of the failings I see in many conversations about ethical BDSM is that the discussions tend to focus on the ways we behave toward our partners, but not on the ways we behave toward folks we aren't involved with. I think that's a shortcoming of ideas like RACK and SSC; a code of ethics needs to be broader in its scope.

I've written before about how we in the BDSM community tend to talk the talk about consent, but we often don't walk the walk. I have seen behavior at BDSM events and play parties which I think violate the ideas of consent and autonomy, in ways large and small--swatting the ass of that cute submissive who walks by, wrongly believing that just because she's a submissive so that makes it OK; disregarding people's boundaries because it's an acceptable thing to do (after all, isn't the point of BDSM to challenge people's boundaries? Right?); even full-on sexual assault. Granted, no community is perfect; take any group of people (folks interested in BDSM, folks with red hair, folks with medical degrees, folks who drive Toyotas) and if it gets sufficiently large you'll find some bad actors.

But it's particularly worrisome, to me, to see people behaving poorly in the BDSM community, precisely because the BDSM community claims to value consent so highly.

Consent is the cornerstone of what we do. Consent is the defining element that separates us from abusers. Yet, in spite of that, I have seen far too many examples of non-consensual behavior in the BDSM community for my liking, and more to the point, I've seen non-consensual behavior tolerated. That's something that a code of ethics needs to address.

When we talk about people behaving unethically in the community, it's surprising how many times it seems that everyone knows who the bad actors are. There's a good essay on this topic called The Missing Stair over on The Pervocracy. When something bad happens in any community, far too often everyone already who the perpetrators are. The bad actors are like a missing step in a staircase, in that when you become accustomed to jumping over that step, you can forget how dangerous the missing step actually is.

A comprehensive set of ethics must include not only ethical treatment of our partners, but also ethical treatment of other people in the community. And, as an important element of that, it must include creating a community that does not shelter people who behave badly.

I've seen the BDSM community close ranks behind a member who sexually assaulted submissive women in the community, without their consent; I've seen how people who came forward to talk about the assault were ostracized. This is something that simple slogans like "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" or "Risk Aware Consensual Kink" don't address. Ethics means more than "I will only engage in consensual behavior toward others;" I think it also extends to "I will not excuse non-consensual behavior on the part of others in my community," too.

I read recently about sexual assault that took place at Burning Man, and one of the things that struck me about the story was the commenter who said "I'm sure this guy [the rapist] knew someone out there... where were they to keep him in check?"

Which, I think, misses the point. In any community, it is not the responsibility of the people who know the bad actors to keep them in check. It's everyone's. If you're there, that means it's yours. If I'm there, that means it's mine.

It is incredibly difficult to intervene when we see something bad happening. It's easy to ignore evil; it's easy to rationalize non-intervention. Someone else will do something, we say. It's not my job to police the community. Where are his friends? They should be the ones to keep him in check. I don't even know this guy; why should I be the one to step in?

And so, nobody does. The missing stair goes unfixed.

So, let's get down to the meat of the issue. If I were to invent a set of ethical guidelines for BDSM, what would it include? It's important to understand that ethics go beyond simply taking responsibility for our own actions; they also extend to not standing idly by while other people behave unethically. And, most importantly, any reasonable code of ethics must include the idea that each one of us bears responsibility for making our community an ethical place.

So I were to invent a set of ethical guidelines for the BDSM community, it would probably look something like this:

• In my interactions with partners, I recognize that their ongoing participation is voluntary, even in total power exchange or M/s style relationships. I recognize the agency of my partners, and I understand that the moment I attempt to do things to a partner that he or she no longer wishes to participate in, or that a partner attempts to do to me that I don't wish to participate in, we have moved away from BDSM.

• I recognize that my tastes are not shared by everybody, and other people's tastes may not be shared by me. Because of that, I respect the agency of the people around me. They are more than simply a role; I will not make assumptions about what is and is not permissible to do with someone simply because that person identifies as "at top" or "a bottom" or "a submissive" or "a dominant," without actually considering that not everyone regards these roles to have exactly the same meaning.

• I acknowledge that unethical behavior is something that can happen in my community, and when it does, that is a reflection not only of the person who is committing the unethical acts, but also on me, and on the rest of my community. I can be judged positively on my willingness to intervene against unethical acts, or negatively on my willingness to look the other way.

• Consent is the cornerstone of ethical behavior. Even small violations of consent are unethical acts. Therefore, I will make consent a priority. Sloppy attitudes about consent, such as swatting the ass of any attractive submissive who walks by, or barking orders to anyone who presents as submissive regardless of whether or not any sort of relationship exists, are not acceptable.

• In addition, I will expect the rest of my community to step up and make it clear that sloppiness about consent isn't OK. There's a Geek Social Fallacy that says "Ostracizers are always evil." This fallacy needs to be recognized for what it is. Folks who behave inappropriately need to be told they are behaving inappropriately. It needs to stop being ignored. A person who witnesses inappropriate or non-consensual behavior in the community and does nothing about it, becomes complicit in it. It is not evil to take a stand against people who behave inappropriately. If I am the person witnessing inappropriate behavior, it is my responsibility to be the person who steps forward.

• I will not behave with hostility toward people, especially women and most especially submissive women, who come forward to report abuse. (When my friend was raped--and let me make clear that this was not an edge case, a fuzzy boundary thing, or an after-the-fact buyer's remorse thing, but a he-physically-restrained-her-and-put-his-penis-in-her-vagina rape--the amount of backlash she experienced when she came forward to talk to other people about it was astonishing. And not just from self-described dominants or from men; the number of women who responded with some variant of 'well, if you were REALLY a TRUE submissive then you wouldn't have problems with this' was just amazing.) I will make it my responsibility to build a community in which this kind of thing is not acceptable. I recognize that people who engage in victim-blaming and rationalization are part of the problem; whether it is their intent or not, they are providing cover for abusers.

• It is an unfortunate fact that abusers can exist at any level within a community, even among community leaders. This creates a particularly difficult situation, because when abuse done by a community leader surfaces, there can be a powerful incentive to look the other way. Rationalizing is astonishingly easy to do. "Well, I wasn't there and so I don't know what REALLY happened, and I've hung around with this guy and he seems like an OK dude to me, so you know, maybe there's nothing really to it, I bet she's just causing drama..." If I learn about inappropriate behavior in the community but do nothing about it, I become complicit in it.

• Reputation and references alone are not necessarily reliable indicators of a person's character. When a community punishes abuse victims from coming forward and shields abusers, then says "If you want to protect yourself, just see what other people have to say!" the result is to create an environment that makes it almost impossible to spot the bad actors. Of course people who have had bad experiences aren't going to come forward and say so; the price is too high. The result is a situation like the one my friend experienced where she asked a lot of folks around the community about her attacker and got glowing reviews, even though he was a serial abuser...because the community is so hostile to people who talk about abuse that none of his previous victims came forward.

• Affirmative consent is important. If someone does not say "it is OK for you to put your penis in me," I will not put my penis in that person. It's not enough that she didn't say "no, you can't put your penis in me." I will not assume that simply because I haven't been forbidden to do something, that means it's OK to do it. (This does not necessarily mean that it's not OK to play with consensual non-consent, of course. I personally am a big fan of consent play and consensual non-consent. I talk to my lovers about it before doing it; it is absolutely possible to have affirmative consent to engage in consent play.)

• It is my responsibility to be compassionate and receptive if I am told of abuse within the community. There are significant barriers to disclosure, both institutional in the community and personal in the shame that tends to follow sexual assault. I will not add to these barriers. I will not become part of the reason that victims feel they can not step forward.

• Consent for activity A does not imply consent for activity B. Consent to a light spanking scene does not imply consent to a singletail scene. Consent to being tied up does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. At the end of the day, if person A puts his penis in person B without permission, anything that happened in a BDSM context up to that point is utterly irrelevant; it's assault and it's not OK.

• There needs to be less trivializing and minimizing when assault happens. "So he fucked you after you agreed to be tied up. That's not REALLY rape; I was assaulted in an alley by strangers, and that's far worse than what you experienced!" is not OK. While it is part of human nature to do this, and identifying with the attacker and minimizing other people's victimization are part of the defense mechanisms we employ against abuse, this kind of minimization of poor behavior creates an environment where poor behavior is tolerated. A policy of no tolerance for assault, violent or not, in the BDSM community is an important part of ethical BDSM.

• On the flip side of the same coin, it is important to understand that if I am assaulted, the assault is not OK even if I did agree to be tied up first, or even if I did agree to play with this person first. People who are assaulted will often tend to trivialize their own experience. Better policing of the community, less tolerance by members of the community for assault, and better education for what constitutes assault are all important.

• It is not OK to play the "shoulda game." When my friend was assaulted, a lot of folks came forward to say "well, she shoulda done this" or "you know, she shoulda done that." When the "shouldas" are about things that happen before the assault ("well, she shoulda got more experience with him before she agreed to let him tie her up," "well, she shoulda said 'no' more plainly"), it's just plain old-fashioned victim blaming. When the "shouldas" are about things that happened after the assault, they're a form of abdication of responsibility. After the assault, I heard one person in the community who is generally an otherwise decent bloke say "Well, she shoulda gone to the police after it happened," and then used that as an excuse not to support her, but to support the attacker instead. We can't expeect victims to follow some script that we make up in our heads and then withdraw support from them if they don't follow that script. The community needs to be better at policing itself and enforcing standards of acceptable behavior regardless of whether or not people who are assaulted respond to the assault the way we think they should.

Many of these ideas center around the way we conduct ourselves in our community rather than simply in private. This is necessary, both to create a vibrant, healthy community that does not shield abusers, and to help ensure that our community is not targeted as a haven for abusers by the outside world. Whether we like it or not, and whether we agree with it or not, when members of our community behave poorly, it is a reflection on all of us...particularly if we fail to step up and stop it.

My buddy edwardmartiniii has written an essay on the value of policing our social groups in order to create ethical spaces. He also has some suggestions about fixing the problems we see around us. I have linked to these before, but I think it needs to be mentioned again. If we are to do what it is we do ethically and with compassion, these are important ideas.

To that end, I now wear a blue button on my jacket. That button is a reminder to myself: if I am to be an ethical, compassionate human being, it is not enough that I do no evil. I must also choose not to look the other way when others do evil within my community. If I want a community that does not offer a haven to abusers, it is my responsibility to make that happen.

Some Thoughts on Morality and Power

If someone walks up to you and starts talking to you about good morals and the importance of morality, what's the first thing you think of?

If you live in the US, odds are pretty good that anyone who wants to talk morality with you is actually talking about sex. How to do it, where to do it, when to do it, in what position to do it, who to do it with...the term "morals," especially in political discourse, has come to be a synonym for "sex."

And if the person talking to you is a conservative Evangelical, ten will get you twenty that somewhere in that conversation about morals, you're going to hear about sex with a partner who's the same sex as you are--something that seems to be right down at the bottom of the Pit of Immoral Behavior, just slightly below pedophilia and at least two and a half yards beneath genocide on the relative Scale of Morality.

And that's really weird.

Or at least, it seemed really weird, until I thought about it for a bit.

The word "immoral" isn't used to describe people very often these days. At least, it isn't used to describe heterosexual, monogamous, married cisgendered people very often in the court of political discourse. It's still quite popular among some segments of the conservative religious community, but it generally gets applied to sodomites, gay and bisexual people, transgendered folks, and other folks who don't fit tidily into the prescribed box of sexual norms...with occasional side-branches directed at atheists, of course.

In the late 1800s, notable cynic Ambrose Bierce defined the word "immoral" to mean "Inexpedient. Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral."

And I submit that the laser focus on sex that we see in almost any popular political or religious dialog has at its heart a very potent expediency indeed, because it serves to distract us from true immorality, and causes us to focus on that which doesn't really matter to the betterment of some very evil people indeed.

Take Pat Robertson.

No, I don't mean take him out behind the chemical shed and shoot him; I mean take him as an example. Pat Robertson has made himself a very wealthy, powerful, and influential man by talking endlessly about morality. Or, more specifically, talking about sexual morality: sex before marriage (he's against it), homosexuality (against), gay marriage (against), non-traditional sexual unions (against), sex work (against, even though he admits to having employed the services of prostitutes), oral sex (surprisingly, long as it's between a married man and his wife. He's silent on the subject of whether or not they can have onlookers watching the act.).

And yet, for all his preaching about morality, Pat Robertson is by any reasonable standards of decency an astonishingly, breathtakingly evil man.

Pat Robertson has yet to meet a wealthy foreign dictator he doesn't like, at least when it's economically expedient. He cozied up to Liberian strongman, sex trafficker, and war criminal Charles Taylor in exchange for a gold mining contract in Liberia. He owns African Development Company, a corporation which snuggled up to Zaire's warlord Mobutu Sese Seko to win rights to so-called 'blood diamonds' mined by slave labor.

Or look at "Family Values" candidate and politician Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first wife after an affair, married his mistress, then divorced her to marry his second mistress. Said second mistress, who is still married to him, is apparently spending her time these days doing fundraising for the Romney campaign...on a platform of (wait for it) family values.

Gingrich, despite being a serial adulterer, is perceived by many folks on the right as being "moral," presumably because hey, he ain't gay. Yet to anyone who believes that morality lies in treating others with compassion, he is unquestionably an evil man.

This is not a new observation, of course. Many of the people who talk the loudest about "morality," on both sides of the political divide, are deeply and profoundly evil. Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." It's not exactly a revelation that those who use talk of morality, particularly religious morality, in the public sphere are very often deeply immoral people.

Which is where Ambrose Bierce comes in.

It is not simple hypocrisy that explains the prevalence of evil among those who speak of morals. It is not that we are all born of frailty and error and each of us relates imperfectly to those around us.

It is, rather, a calculated and deliberate expediency.

Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, and all their ilk are evil people, consumed by a desire for power and wealth. They do not hide this at all. But there is a dilemma. In a Third World country, powerful strongmen can do pretty much whatever they like, without needing to justify themselves to anyone. But in an industrialized nation, maintaining power and wealth often requires maintaining the general goodwill of the people. How to do that, then, when you are a serial adulterer? How to do that when you own a mine that uses slave labor?

The answer, brilliant in its simplicity and obviousness, is to change the public dialog about what it means to be good, and what it means to be evil.

An evil man can gain the favor of generally good people, if he can set the tone of the dialog about good and evil. If he can redefine "evil" so that, rather than meaning "exploiting slave labor in Third World countries to become fabulously wealthy" it means "having sex in the wrong way," he not only can deflect attention from his own evil, he can short-circuit the conversation about his own evil before it even begins.

When this image dominates the public dialog about morality, someone is being snookered.

We have come to a place where "morality" means "sex" because that state of affairs is expedient to powerful, wealthy men who want to be able to indulge their lust for wealth and power unchecked.

According to the Bible, it is the love of money which is the root of all evil. It is not premarital sex, nor gay marriage, nor the burning question of whether or not married couples are allowed to give head.

Yet among the Religious right, discussion of money is strangely absent from the morality debate. The beginning and end of morality revolves exclusively around who one has sex with, and under what circumstances.

That didn't happen by accident. That isn't a coincidence. It happened because evil men set out, systematically and deliberately, to focus the lens of morality away from their own evil.

Every time we accept this definition of morality, every time we allow the conversation about morality to get bogged down in irrelevant sexual minutia, we work in the service of these evil men.

All sin lies in treating one another poorly. Rather than talking about the morality of gay sex, perhaps we should talk about the morality of slavery. Perhaps, if we re-focus our dialog about morality onto the evil that those who campaign on platforms of morality and virtue do, we will begin to see a better world. I would far rather that Pat Robertson divest himself from his blood diamonds and give the vast wealth he created from slave labor to the poor, than see him continue to hold influence by talking about how immoral we are if we don't have sex the same way he does.
When i lived in the South, I will admit I used to eat at Chick-Fil-A all the time. I was dimly aware that they had some sketchy religious leanings or something, and they tended to hire only surrealistically white people to work in their restaurants, but hey, the sandwiches were good.

Well, not really good. But at least better than much of the mediocre fast-food stuff you could get at, say, Taco Bell or Burger King.

I wish I could say that I was surprised to learn that Chick-Fil-A has bought into the virulent strain of anti-gay nonsense that seems to have the self-described Christian conservative bits of society in such a frenzy, but I'm really not. Like I said, I was dimly aware that ther was some kind of right-wing religious something something at play.

But the media attention about Chick-Fil-A and gay marriage got me to thinking. Most self-described Christian conservatives base their opposition to gay marriage on two Bible verses. Leviticus 18:22 reads:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13 says:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

The rest of Leviticus goes on to say similar things about cutting your beard, wearing clothes made of different fibers, eating shellfish, having sex with a woman on her period, letting different kinds of cattle graze in the same field, and executing women if their husbands cheat on them they cheat on their husbands (seriously, it's there, Leviticus 20:10).

Most Christians don't follow these rules, arguing that Jesus made them irrelevant except the ones about homosexuality because those are totally different from the shellfish ones because of reasons, and some will even quote a third Bible verse, Romans 1:26-27, to justify banning gay marriage:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

But the Bible, both old and new testaments, actually spends a whole lot more time talking about divorce than it does about homosexuality. Both testaments are very, very clear that divorce is never permitted, and that those who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery, a sin forbidden by the Ten Commandments, and with the penalty of death according to the old testament...

Um, wait a minute, didn't we recently see a serial divorcee running on some kind of pro-family, conservative Christian platform?

In fact, the Bible even claims that Jesus, who never spoke about homosexuality at all, had plenty to say about divorce, in Matthew 5:31-32:

And it was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The Bible has Jesus speaking the same message many more times, in Mark 10:2 and Luke 16:18, for example.

So I wonder...

What would the right-wing Christian pronouncements look like if they actually applied the same thinking on divorce to their supposedly "Bible-based" blatherings about homosexuality? What would happen if you took their hysterical anti-gay screeds and replaced the word "homosexual" with the word "divorce"? It seems a fair substitution; the same moral, Biblical justifications for opposing homosexuality even more strongly apply to divorce, after all.

I started Googling Christian proclamations about homosexuality, which...well, if you have ever felt the need to go trolling on a motorboat down an open sewer, doing that sort of Google search will give you a similar experience. And I took "homosexuality" and replaced it with "divorce." The results were...interesting.

Clicky here to see what happens!Collapse )


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