Archive for the ‘ Technical Reviews ’ Category

Empathy

I bumped into this disturbing gem of mental sickness via a pandagon post.  To summarize briefly: torturing people by simulating drowning can’t be bad because swimmers immerse themselves in water and have people yelling at them, and they’re fine.  My initial thought was to provide the teeny, tiny, bit of critical thought required to dismantle this argument.   Somebody beat me to it (also linked to in the pandagon post), and had come up with a half-dozen more and better examples than what I was thinking of.

Oddly, not a single person I know is compelled by the water-boarding = swimming-team = not-that-bad argument*.  We understand a very simple and, I think, ironclad truth: when it comes to physically interacting with, controlling, manipulating, modifying or destroying another a human’s body, if consent is not given, a crime is being committed.

I started thinking along these lines with the intention of hitting-the-broad-side-of-the-barn with a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the right-wing position–hey, sometimes I don’t want to think too hard before posting.  Talking it over with my better half lead me to an insight that I had previously lacked.  The red state author wasn’t glossing over the consent vs. non-consent distinction as a rhetorical ploy–he couldn’t face the reality that being in a consensual vs. non-consensual context changes the subjective human experience.

With morality put aside, why is it that so many people equate, say, standing at a music festival for six hours with standing blindfolded in a prison for six hours?  This seemingly absurd position can only be maintained in the mind through a stunning lack of empathy.  Immediately condemning this blindness as backwards and evil, as I did and tend regularly to do, also demonstrates a lack of empathy**.

Only two*** possibilities exist that could lead someone to be so callous to the reality of the human experience.  First, he might have lived a life devoid of non-consensual relationships.  Having no experiences in which his will is overridden by an asymmetrical power relationship, he has no understanding of being in such a position.  Because he was always treated with respect and dignity, he cannot conceive of the alternate subjective experience that results from surrender and obedience .

I believe that, while possible, a human experience devoid of dominance is extremely rare.  The most severe and, often, the longest lasting power disparity is between a child and its parents.  I imagine that a childhood free of dominance, while not providing much experience with non-consensual actions, would probably result in a tremendous ability to empathize with suffering.  I believe that this is the case because asymmetrical power relationships tend first and foremost to remove from the victim empathy for their own situation.

Let’s examine the other possibility that explains our red state author’s amazing inability to empathize.  The second possibility is that he was immersed for his entire life in non-consensual action, in an environment of violent dominance.  To avoid physical and emotional attack, he had to constantly surrender and obey.  As an adult, he lives in a world in which he perceives asymmetrical power relationships as moral necessities that provide order and structure in an otherwise chaotic world.

If this is the case, any glimmer of empathy for a beaten, sleep deprived prisoner is coupled to empathy for his own historical relationship with those who held absolute power over him.  This glimmer, should it ever occur, must be ruthlessly crushed within himself because he probably is still in close contact with his former captors and is, very likely, exercising similar dominance now over his own spouse and children.

I’m not attempting to justify the author’s advocacy of brutality.  It is impossible to compare subjective experiences.  We may dismiss empathetic feelings for any hypothetical suffering experienced by a white male political pundit.  Clearly, there are others who spend their entire lives subject to the violent dominance of others: women foremost among them.  It can be challenging to empathize with those who spend 18 years in prison when others linger there for their entire lives.

Rather, I am interested in the social mechanisms that disallow us from coming, collectively, to understand something as simple as “torture is always wrong.”  Is it possible to make rational arguments that undo the damage done by a lifetime of dominance?  Can we heap the evidence high enough that someone will concede that violent domination of another human being’s will is everywhere and always evil?

Empirically, the answer is “no”.  Rational arguments have been made, the pile of evidence eclipses the sun, and yet the brutality proceeds apace.  I’m not proposing a solution–I don’t have any.  If there is a direction that will lead to a saner world, it involves a radical increase in empathy.  Eventually, this implies empathy one human for another–currently difficult for the best of us, and impossible for most.  It must begin initially where all change begins–we need greater empathy, first and foremost, for ourselves.

* I use the not-a-single-person-I-know argument alot.  I am aware that plenty of people are not people-I-know.  I would like to recommend a policy of not knowing people for whom this argument makes sense after any amount of consideration.

** Meta-empathy?

*** That I can think of.

Moral Clarity

I’m going to go over this very slowly. I am doing this because I believe, purely by association, that you are intellectually capable individuals. I am doing this because I believe, purely by *faith*, that you will at some point in your lives realize that you once stood over a murdered woman’s body and argued about how much she deserved it.**
Violet (from punkassblog.com)

This quote demonstrates beautiful, and rare, moral clarity.  In this post we examine the opposite of moral clarity.  To very briefly recap the relevant evil position responded to above: the position was put forward that disappointed sexual expectations might be a mitigating factor in the extinguishing of a human life.

I wish to proceed with all due respect to the unique qualities of the above story and to the tender political sensibilities common at a time of societal upheaval and the transition of power.  Without comparing the nature of the crimes, here are a couple of situations demonstrating the sort of sick dehumanization that Violet was reacting against–and perhaps illustrating the destination and the source of the involved proto-lawyers and their ilk.

While reiterating his belief that CIA officers who carried out so-called “enhanced interrogations” should not be prosecuted, the President said he wanted the Attorney General to make a determination on how to procede [sic] with “those who formulated those legal decisions.”  — Daily Kos on torture prosecutions

This situation is related as if it were some kind of real ethical dilemma.  How is a college educated adult to know if he is justified torturing an Asian peasant?  Hmmmm.  I guess if he’s told to by his boss, then it must be OK.

Should the guy who ordered him to torture the peasant get in trouble?  Let’s see, if the lawyers (see Violet’s post again for insight into the humanity possessed by lawyers) said it’s alright, we’ll have to check with the Attorney General.

What do you say, AG?  Weeelll, It’s unclear how we should deal with people who set up legal structures authorizing torture.  We’ll have to check into it.

I have an idea, let’s ask a fucking kindergartner if people should torture each other.  It will save alot of time and we’re far more likely to have a morally sane verdict rendered.  Actually, the relevant public school curriculum may have to change to reflect the nature of our shared social code.

“Most schools that engage in strip searches do it because they are acting in good faith,” said Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association. “They are doing it because they feel an intense need to protect the safety of the students.” — Some Asshat defending the strip searching of a 13 year old student thought to possess advil.

Before everyone flees down their pre-programmed mental escape routes, let me state again that I’m am not comparing the severity of these crimes.  We, as a species need to battle through the layers of complicated exceptions, mitigating factors, and fear of apocalyptic outcomes and look at these events for what they are.  If we want to live in a better world, we must call these events, and all such events, by their proper name: crimes against humanity–and perhaps more importantly, crimes against a human.

At some point, if we are ever to evolve beyond the savage barbarism that has been the hallmark of the human experience, we will have to reach a point of moral clarity.  When is it OK to strip search a 13 year old?  Never.  When is it understandable to butcher another human being?  Never.  When can we excuse one individual for torturing or ordering torture of another individual?  Never.

A civilized society, if one is ever to exist, will require a fabric of human dignity and of an expectation of respect for persons.  This needs to replace the current and historic toxic environment of routine abuse, humiliation, degradation and inequality.

Have a lovely weekend.

(crossposted @ punkassblog.com)

Webery with WordPress

A couple of weeks ago, I started looking for software packages that could “host a website.”  My criteria were simplicity, since I’m not terribly web-savvy; and extensibility, because I don’t want to cobble together 3 or 4 packages to get all the features I’m looking for.  I knew that WordPress was pretty popular, and I’d heard users of the package talk about their surprise at the variety of plugins it supported.

I gave it a shot, and now consider myself to be a believer.  An expert user might be better off with a combination of stand-alone blog, wiki, and forum software.  He/she would have the chops to tie the disparate pieces together with a single theme, authentication piece and database back-end.  For the rest of us, wordpress provides an excellent blog, good-enough forum and wiki pieces, as well as automagic database administration and user authentication.

The WordPress community provides tons of modifiable ‘themes,’ which provide the overall look-and-feel for the website; and ‘plugins/widgets,’ providing added functionality from discussion forums to tagging, post-calendars, and site-search.  While the complexity for installing these extras varies, the themes and plugins I’ve played with have been trivial to install, set-up, and customize.

Although WordPress’ customizability is initially overwhelming, the defaults are typically sane.  I discovered most of the features when I wanted to make a change to the structure of a page/plugin and went about discovering how to do it.

WordPress is written in PHP.  To get a WordPress driven website up, you’ll need to find a web-hosting service that supports PHP.  The WordPress recommended host page lists webhosts who have worked with WordPress to ensure a friendly hosting environment.  I myself went with nearlyfreespeech.net, a pay-as-you-go host.  I will probably end up spending about 50 cents/month (the mySQL support required for WordPress costs 30 cents) for the forseeable future.  I may detail my experience with nearlyfreespeech in a future post.