A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

Clever, but absent-minded

by Stuart Brown

We are, in general, rather lazy creatures who avoid cognitive exertion wherever possible, and remarkably often fall back on established categories, tropes, and clichés. One can see how, in evolutionary terms, this could have developed: though I am suspicious of evolutionary psychology in general as it is only ever retro-fitting a plausible developmental narrative to the observable phenomena, a few of its basic principles seem pretty reasonable, and the tendency to interpret the world by reacting to novel stimuli using established cognitive categories rather than analysing the scenario from scratch is an efficient use of cognitive resources as (in evolutionary terms) a false positive never harmed anyone, whereas presuming the null hypothesis, or spending precious processing time and resources performing an online judgment almost certainly did. When the long grass waved in the absence of wind, the caveman who consistently interpretted this as the presence of a tiger will have been more likely to survive when it actually was a tiger than the ones who presumed it was nothing, or stood still for a while whilst they decided.

This, ultimately, is the origin of the tendency to believe in the supernatural—because assigning active agency to unexplained phenomena is the safer false positive—but also, for the purposes of this post, is the origin of interpersonal stereotyping: racism, sexism, homophobia, and thinking that all clever people are absent-minded.

Clearly, by asserting an evolutionary origin to these traits, I am not attempting to defend them: merely to explain them. As Richard Dawkins often asserts—when he is not busy applying several of the isms mentioned above, in direct contravention of his very assertion—we are better than our genes: we have arrived at a level of self-awareness where we can say “No, I will not do that, even though it be my instinct.” The fight against the evils of racism, sexism, and cleverism is long and drawn-out precisely because it is a fight against our basic natures. Again, this is not to defend these natures: they are repugnant. But if the Catholic Church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin can all agree that my basic nature entitles me to no more than eternal torment (though whether I escape that through faith, grace, or works I understand is something of a moot point), I feel I can at least assert this somewhat lesser stance of the worser devils of our nature.

All of this goes to explain that, though I understand why people persist in applying the “clever, but absent-minded” stereotype to me, I still feel perfectly entitled to my deep irritation at it. I am clever, yes—I have enough contempt for goddamn English false modesty to feel no embarrassment in asserting that—but it is only lazy, cavemanish cognitive simplicism which leads you to presume that I am therefore also forgetful, distracted, useless at things practical, and generally incapable of finding my arse with both hands.

I mean, a clever but absent-minded person would not be able to run their own business successfully for ten years, would they?

A clever but absent-minded person wouldn’t have the attention to detail to make them a rather good editor, would they?

And a clever but absent-minded person certainly wouldn’t be so spectacularly fucking brainless as to leave their passport in their jeans pocket when washing them barely two weeks before travelling to Australia …

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… would they?

Haarlem stake

by Stuart Brown

Haarlem stake (n.) an extremely tall, thin Dutchman obstructing your funky moves by standing stock still on the dancefloor, holding a beer, with his elbows therefore at exactly the right height to poke your eye out. Congregate in groups of twenty or more.

An awesome night out in Groningen on Saturday was afflicted by hoards of these. Seriously, Dutch people are just egregiously tall; and they really need to learn to shake their stuff or get out of my boogietastic way.

On freedom, responsibility, and obligation

by Stuart Brown

Three somewhat unrelated news items in the last few days have got me thinking a little about freedom, and how one asserts it through individual or institutional action: a couple of days ago it was, apparently, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and a number of the rationalist and atheist blogs I frequent exhorted their readers to draw and post images of the Prophet as a protest against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in particular, and against religiously-inspired restrictions on our freedom in general; the University of Western Australia, following protests from its own staff, returned a four million dollar grant to establish a “consensus centre” under the climate-change controvertialist Bjørn Lomborg;1 and a baker in Northern Ireland was found to have discriminated against a gay couple by refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.

Let’s first clarify the concept of “freedom” a little, and distinguish between freedom-to and freedom-from. Freedom-to is the freedom to do something without legal or cultural restriction, whereas freedom-from is the freedom to not have something done to you. Freedom-from and freedom-to can interact: for instance, in the general liberal understanding, I have freedom to wave my fists as I please, but that freedom ends at the start of your nose, because you have freedom from being assaulted.

We can also sometimes paraphrase one type as another, for instance, the freedom to draw the Prophet being exercised in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day could also be seen as asserting freedom from censorship by a religion of which one is not an adherent or freedom from religiously-motivated violence. It is not clear to me, however, that there is exact equivalence in these rephrasings; this is not a simple logistic operation.

The distinction and convertability between freedom-to and freedom-from is relevant because, in terms of individual action, it is easy to see how freedom-to can be promoted and exercised, whereas it is harder to see how freedom-from may be. If I feel that a freedom-to is being denied me, and wish to protest or counter this, I simply do (and encourage others to do) the thing prohibited, hoping that mass action will negate or neuter the restriction. It is harder to see how, in terms of individual action, I can do something that exercises a freedom-from right. When a freedom-from right has been violated, there may be institutional processes which can be used to rectify the situation, but individual action seems substantially harder: if the government of the UK, for instance, violate my right to freedom from intrusive surveillance, there is little I can do as an individual to stop them; I must pursue systemic solutions such as the European Court of Human Rights that they are so keen to remove themselves from the purview of.

As such, one way to handle freedom-from restrictions in the light of individual action is to recast them, as above, in terms of freedom-to. Thus, for instance, Rosa Parks protested the restriction on her freedom from being subject to systematic racism by asserting a freedom to sit where she bloody well liked on a bus. No-one thinks that having a nice seat is what what primarily motivated her: it was a deliberate anti-segregational act; but as institutionally challenging the segregational laws of the USA were beyond her individual capacities she found an individual freedom-to action to assert. In this case, the recasting of freedom-from as freedom-to seems wholly reasonable.

Thus far I’ve been talking about freedom as a kind of right and, without going into detailed analyses that are beyond me, and not particularly relevant to the broad brush of my argument, of the actual nature of a right, I think we can at least loosely distinguish between moral rights: those that a moral system, culture, or even simply an individual assert exist, and legal rights: those that are enshrined in law, giving a form of redress when the right has been violated. Rights are also often associated with responsibilities: the idea being that—setting aside certain specific universal or inalienable items—rights are due to a person conditionally upon certain behaviours. Again, to draw a terminological distinction, I would align responsibilities with moral rights; where the law enshrines as legal rights conditional upon certain behaviours it seems more accurate to describe these as obligations.

In the case of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day with the exception of those participating simply because they enjoy insulting others it is a freedom-from that concerns people taking part: in the light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we should all be concerned with finding ways to assert our freedom from religiously-motivated violence; this is particularly difficult as the system which attempts to restrict our freedom-from on this front‎—‎a particular strain of extremist Islam‎—‎is not a formal institution such as segregational laws in the USA: it is a cultural phenomena rather than a legal one, and it is seeking to control the behaviour of those outside of its cultural “jurisdiction,” so the problem of individual actions against freedom-from restrictions is compounded by the fact that there is no institutional action available. As such, finding freedom-to equivalencies to assert are important, and this seems to be the motivation behind Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

However, I think it misfires, and badly. The majority of ordinary Muslims who do not support the actions of the extremists are likely to be equally offended by this. Putting aside the fact that, frankly, that it’s just not nice (whether one is entitled to or not) to deliberately set out to offend a large number of people, the pertinent question is: in order to counter a relatively small minority of extremists, is it wise to alienate precisely the constituency from which they garner their supporters? Most extremist Muslims, it seems safe to presume, are ordinary Muslims who have been radicalized. I fully support any action to assert freedom from the extremists, but to do so in a manner that is likely to increase radicalization within their potential supporters seems, in purely pragmatic terms, wholly counterproductive. The moral right to freedom of speech, I would argue, does come with responsibilities—not obligations, and ultimately I would defend the gathered prophetic portaiteurs in their enterprise—but I think they are neglecting their responsibility to, when exerting one’s freedom of speech, at least give thought to the consequences of doing so.

The Everybody Draw Mohammed Day issue is clearly an issue around moral rights, but the gay cake issue touches upon the nature of legal rights and consequently obligations rather than responsibilities. Once we have a right enshrined in law then individual action to correct a freedom-from violation becomes possible through legal action; however we should note that it is still an institutional solution, not a simple case of individual assertion. In the case of the baker I think the judgment was wrong and I think it derived from conflict of freedoms, rather than the erroneous recasting of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. I say this despite being vigorously in favour of gay equality, and legislation to promote this. It is clear that the ruling of the judge oriented around a freedom-from: that the couple should have been entitled to freedom from discrimination based upon their sexuality. I don’t think it is coincidental that, having pursued an institutional rather than individual action, the couple had placed themselves in the domain where freedom-from restrictions are corrected, and that judges correspondingly tend to view matters in these terms. However, in doing so, the judge (in my view) overlooked the freedom-to of the business to refuse to enter into contract with anyone without necessarily having a reason, or without having a good one. A purchase is a business contract, and as such should be willingly and voluntarily entered into by both parties; to find otherwise seems to me to totally undermine the concept of private enterprise: the idea that I can oblige a private business to enter into contract with me seems ludicrous, yet it is the necessary corollary of this judgment. As I said, the law deals in obligations rather than responsibilities, and in this case the judge seems to have interpreted one person’s freedom-from in terms of another person’s obligation-to; and the restrictions on personal freedom that would be consequent should this principle be extrapolated out to all private or business dealings seems to me a far greater curtailment of freedom than the original offending (non-)action.

Let me make it clear that as far as I am concerned this freedom to refuse service for any or no reason is strictly limited to privately operating business providing private services: public institutions or private businesses running public services (whether or not I approve of that, but that’s a very different post) should not have this freedom to select their customers and, and such, I approve of the sacking of the registrar who refused to marry gay couples and would wholly support actions against, for instance, a private bus company that sought to reintroduce segregationist policies in the USA. But cake-baking does not seem to me a public concern, and though I may think that Ashers are a bunch of bigoted shites and would wholly support the couple’s freedom to publicly condemn them and encourage others to assert their freedom to shop elsewhere, in the balance of freedoms, I find myself having to support their freedom to serve who they please. The alternative is obligations-to upon private behaviour, which is one of the greatest anti-liberal positions possible.

Finally, I find myself wondering whether any reasonable concept of freedom and obligation is in any way being invoked by the right-wing, Murdoch-empire-led outcry against the University of Western Australia for having, belatedly, refused to work with Bjørn Lomborg. If you are not up to scratch on this furore: the management of the University of Western Australia accepted—with minimal consultation of its academic staff—a four million dollar grant from the Australian government (specifically pushed by the openly climate-change denialist Tony Abbott) to establish a policy research centre headed by Bjørn Lomborg. Following protests from UWA’s staff, the university decided to return the grant and not set up the centre, leading to vilification in the Australian, the Wall Street Journal, and other right-wing organs, claiming curtailment of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a right which does come with responsibilities: to be as transparent as possible, both in terms of sources of funding that may cause conflicts of interest, and in providing honest representations of the data. Yet Lomborg’s current Copenhagen Consensus Centre is startlingly opaque about the sources of the many millions of dollars that it spends—how UWA authorities managed to square this with their own research guidelines which, as for all reputable universities, require published research to disclose sources of funding (5.6) and potential conflicts of interest (8.1–8.7) is a bit of a mystery to me. And as my brother’s painstaking analyses exemplify, Lomborg flies somewhat fast and loose—to put it mildly—with data.

Lomborg considers the decision not to proceed with the centre to be a form of censorship akin to “being mugged.” Yet as a figure with a worldwide reputation and with a syndicated newspaper column that, according to Lomborg himself, reaches 30 million readers across more than 30 newspapers in 19 languages, Lomborg is hardly struggling to make his views known. Lomborg would appear to wish to convert his freedom of speech—the freedom to have and state views on any topic—into a responsibility or even an obligation to publish them on the part of UWA, or presumably wherever he next seeks to locate his woebegone centre. Thus once again one person’s freedom is interpreted as another’s obligation; this time in a manner that is ludicrous in the extreme. Even were we to look at the more rarefied concept of “academic freedom” rather than the wider “freedom of speech,” if UWA have any obligations or responsibilities in this direction, they are to ensure that the individuals and institutions they partner with meet the basic obligations of academic honesty, which Lomborg manifestly fails to do. The UWA’s freedom—no, responsibility—to deny its imprimatur to anyone found to be falling short of academic standards seems to have been lost on the cavalcade of outraged right-wing commentators.

As the UK government progresses with its deeply problematic commitment to rewrite our association with or withdraw completely from the EHCR, it is becoming increasingly important to me that we find ways to assert our freedoms. Citizen action—individual assertions of freedom-to—seems to me to be the most viable route to achieve this, but freedom does not come without responsibilities. Ill-thought-out pro-freedom actions or the interpretation of your freedom as an obligation on the part of another both run the risk of having the entirely contrary effect to that desired.


1 If you do not know who Lomborg is then, although academic neutrality is of importance here, I am not bound by it, and so will happily exert my freedom to call Lomborg a dangerous fool or a charlatan (I care not which) who cherry-picks and distorts data to provide a veneer of academic credibility to the most perilous narrative of our times: that climate change is either not man-made, or that it is not a serious threat to the well-being of people—and, indeed all life. Lomborg is nowadays of the latter type—he does not deny anthropogenic climate change; he simply claims that it’s not a big deal, or that money spent to address it is inefficient and better spent elsewhere.

Three voids

by Stuart Brown

I’m not a good finisher, and appear to have fallen at the last hurdle in the A to Z blogging challenge in which I have been participating, having not submitted entries for X, Y, or Z. In my defence, I have been moving house and trying to finish a number of work tasks so that I can go to Spain tomorrow (advice: never move house two days before a holiday), and so have barely had time to breathe, let alone write blog posts.

Still, I feel penance is due, and as I have defaulted over these three letters, it seems duly suitable for me to commit that all and any blog posts from Spain will be Perecianly devoid of the offending items.

On Mr Wearne

by Stuart Brown

All teachers like to think that, as well as dispensing information and essential skills, they are moulding young minds, inspiring the next generation, and leaving wisdom in their trail. It is perhaps an optimistic view, but not a bad one nonetheless, and occasionally may even prove to be correct. For me, the teacher who achieved these heights, who left in me a clear and distinct idea that would guide my young mind, and which I still remember now, was Mr Wearne,

Mr Wearne was a big, tragic, disappointed man who taught history in my secondary school. He was one of those whose bodies are too big for their personality. He did not tower impressively, or fill a room with his presence: rather, he hunched awkwardly and apologetically, trying to hide his bulk. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his crowd control skills were desultory and, in a large school in the somewhat rough and rowdy city of Plymouth, this made him an instant target. Children can smell weakness, and they will exploit it mercilessly. I have no count of the number of times that he was driven to storming out of the room or throwing a pile of books on the floor in frustration. We were not kind to him; and I must confess that—having worked out early on in my school career that as a smart, glasses-wearing, posh-voiced boffin, I needed to obtain the respect of my classmates to remain safely unbullied, and had selected upon exploiting and exaggerating my natural disrespect for authority figures to achieve this end—I was often one of the ringleaders.

There is no doubt that Mr Wearne was a failure. He was almost certainly one of the most intelligent teachers in the school, he had—and very occasionally succeeded in demonstrating—a real passion for his subject, and I suspect that when younger he had been an idealistic and energetic educator. But he had been pounded into disappointment, misery, and almost certainly alcoholism by decades of the relentless awfulness of massed teenagedom.

Even the nugget of wisdom he left us, and which still inspires me, was a failure.

One day, when we were being unusually co-operative, Mr Wearne decided to take it upon himself to offer us his Words of Wisdom, his Design For Life for our formative minds. I forget the exact circumstances which led up to this, all I remember is the sense of profundity in his voice as he declared to us:

“The majority of your lives will be boring, and they should be. You will have moments of excitement and wonder in your lives, but for these to stand out, to really stand out, the rest of your lives should be boring and ordinary.”

That is, I think fairly verbatim, Mr Wearne’s Words of Wisdom, and they had an immediate effect on me. Even then, beneath the rabble-rousing, disobedient little oik I had made myself, I flatter myself that I was humane enough to see through my contempt for him to the tragic awfulness of his existence and I hope I felt then, as a certainly do now, a level of pity for the man who had been roundly beaten by life. But the message that I took, and hold on to, was simple: that I will have failed in life not when I am bored, not when I am poor, or miserable, or weak. I will have failed when, like Mr Wearne, my ambition for my own happiness has so desperately collapsed that not only is the very best that I can hope for boredom, but that I must rationalize that boredom into a virtue to retain what few scraps of self-respect I have left.

A to Z blogging challenge: W

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