What Not To Do on Palm Sunday – and all the rest of the year, too.

Black palm leaf

public domain image from Pixabay

I’m very easy-going about religion. I generally find religious stuff quaint and charming, even the stuff I’m actively involved in — and I am more actively involved in religion than almost any of my lay colleagues. I go to church every week, drop in at centering prayer, participate in and publicize my participation in church activities and initiatives. Yet I often seem to be the person in my circle who cares the least about religion, either as a support or a threat.

There’s one bit of religion, however, to which I react as strongly as the most anti-religious of my friends, and that is Palm Sunday. I hate Palm Sunday as much as some of them hate being sprinkled with holy water, which makes it a useful natural experiment and guide for churches of What Not To Do. How did those churches of long ago poison Palm Sunday for the most easygoing christian in the western world?

It was by telling me I was guilty of stuff I hadn’t done. You know (or maybe you’re lucky enough not to know) those play-acting services, the ones where at one point you have to parade around the outside of the church waving palms and then later you have to yell ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and sit through a sermon about how we all are to blame. This was the pattern in the episcopalian church of my youth, and I can still feel the combination of embarrassment  and indignation it sparked in me. I would never have waved these pitiful bits of stiff green leaves to indicate approval and had never heard of anyone called Barabbas, so it was all pretend, right? But then if you really pretended and got into the ‘struck him over the head’ part, people were mad at you.

My episcopalian days are long over, and for years I have belonged to churches whose Palm Sunday ceremonies involve donkeys and dyeing Easter eggs; but the poison of the past is still in me, and I decided last year that I am old enough to just stay home on that day. It’s become obvious that no amount of more enlightened churching will ever overcome my indignation at having been blamed for something I didn’t do. I see the day coming when I will skip Easter as well; it was always the Sunday when you went back to the church you were mad at and pretended they hadn’t grievously insulted you just the week before.

This isn’t just a lesson for churches. There’s an awful lot of blaming people for things they haven’t done nowadays. An awful lot of policies and positions from both sides of the political spectrum stand on it. So let me go on record as saying that whatever momentary acquiescence can be forced out of people by such arguments, it will not last as long as their indignation – not even if you give them chocolate and colored eggs afterward. The day will come when they decide they are old enough to stay home, and you will be very lucky if they only stay home one Sunday out of the year.

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Unasked Questions

man at table in park with sign; 'I will argue with anyone about anything'

My google-fu has failed me: I can’t find the original source of this.

Thirty years ago, when I began my teaching career, I taught a course with a unit on natural selection.  I was qualified to teach this, having just finished a PhD in systematics; what’s more, I had spent the summer reading a book about where natural selection applied. So I could lay out the conditions clearly and create a wide variety of case studies for my students to apply it to.

But I had three students who simply could not do it.

I spent hours in my office with them, going over the basic steps, but when I gave them case studies – even ones we had just gone over together – they could not apply the main concepts.

These students became thorns in my paw for other reasons as well, but I have since realized that they probably simply didn’t believe in evolution. It’s easy to forget that students come into your class as adults, with their own positions and opinions even on the topics you think you will introduce them to.

I couldn’t answer their questions because they never asked them and I was too green to even realize those questions were out there, much less make my classroom welcoming to them. It’s only come to me lately that this was an instance of a bigger issue – deciding when a debate is settled, and the fact that it seems debates never really are settled.

“The subject is closed.” “This discussion is over.” “Let’s not open that can of worms.”

Then along comes somebody who does open that can of worms, and none of us know how

alt.right dude welcoming the chance to educate questioner.

Once again I cannot find an original source for this. I got it off twitter, from an archived page that will no longer load; though this copy is modified from sizzle.

to make the argument that we’ve relegated to history books. Or worse, none of us even hears the discussion because we haven’t been included, people seeing that for us the topic is settled. Nobody asks us why they should believe evolution; they just refuse to do it on our exams. Nobody asks us why they should accept Black Lives Matter or avoid the alt.right, they just go off and talk about it with people for whom it’s not settled.

Why am I thinking about this today? Middlebury, of course. The people who opposed Charles Murray’s talk were very invested in declaring the conversation over. But they couldn’t have accomplished that, even if they’d succeeded in preventing his talk. They could only have sidelined themselves.

The conversation is going on, with or without the people who wish it were over. And colleges are about teaching, about new people appearing every darned year with no knowledge of the topic, about conversations never being over and topics never being closed. A new generation appears who have never even heard the basic, most taken-for-granted things in our fields.

One of my friends in grad school said ‘How can you stand the thought of teaching the same thing over and over and over again?’

‘When I get bored with it I can always quit,’ I said; and 30 years later, I have never gotten bored with it.

If we can’t stand the thought of nothing ever being settled, we shouldn’t be teachers. Being part of the endless repeating conversation is our job, our privilege, our responsibility and our opportunity. If you’re bored with it, you should quit.

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I Amn’t Dead (Writing-wise)

Cover of After Avalon; raven and sword in the snowSeems as if we’ve all had a lot to think about for a long time, writing being low on the priorities list, but I did publish in another 18th Wall anthology. I sold a retooled version of The Knight of the Ice Moon to their After Avalon anthology of stories from after the fall of Arthur, and as always it was a very pleasant experience. In addition, I got a shout-out in an interview Nicole Petit did at Greydogtales.

Is that a grand cover to be associated with, or what? The artist, Barbara Sobczyńska, won for best artwork in the 18th Annual Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll.

 

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Is Ideological Diversity Dodging the Question?

I like Heterodox Academy. I like the fact that people outside it are identifying that parts of our society are too dominated by people of one political persuasion. I like the way more and more college administrators are saying the antidote to speech is more speech.

But I don’t like the assumption underlying all of these. It’s an assumption of bias: an assumption that we should not only accept that everyone has biases, but that we individuals shouldn’t even feel an obligation to try and overcome them. Our workplace ought to compensate for our failings, this model assumes. If it provides enough people with enough different biases, we will hash it out between one another.

I agree that people with different biases hashing things out between one another is preferable to a bunch of people with the same bias congratulating one another. But individuals challenging their own biases is preferable to either of these. Isn’t it, in fact, one of the main duties and obligations of a scholar? If we didn’t challenge our understanding of things, we would stop leading the life of the mind. We would stop welcoming and reacting to new discoveries – stop making them. We’d stop re-evaluating things we knew. I would not be angsting over whether topics I’ve been teaching for 30 years really make any sense in light of what I learned yesterday.

I can’t wait for some physiologist with a different bias to point out that my understanding of respiratory acidosis is simplistic – and it’s not because I’m at a small college.  Even the largest university probably doesn’t contain two people with different biases about that topic. I had to find it out for myself, though there was no pressing reason for me to think I had a problem. The fact that I find something like this out for myself every semester reassures me that I’m still learning and growing, doing my job. The year I go without discovering that something I’ve been teaching is inadequate or outdated is the year I stop living up to my profession.

Have faculty in general given up this ideal? Have we decided we can outsource the critical eye to people with other backgrounds, other ideologies, other experiences? Have we despaired of our ability to question ourselves and hold our opinions lightly, as provisional and subject to refutation?

I may be misreading the movement entirely. The idea may be that by hiring a diversity of colleagues, we will be better enabled to challenge our biases. I just dont see much of that in the discussion. Personal development and the virtues of a scholar seem sadly lacking, and that makes me sad. Because we shouldn’t be satisfied with being the representatives of an ideology, partisans of one side or another.

It’s the life of the mind. Arent we in it to expand our minds, to improve ourselves, to become greater than we are? Having time to do this, to make it our major focus, is a tremendous privilege. Let’s be worthy of it.

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Yet Another ‘How Did I Not See This Coming?’ Post

Being at the intersection of academia and SFF has been like watching two battlegrounds lately. But the wars have been almost entirely within the ranks, between progressives and liberals, so I thought they were politically irrelevant.

After all, when a liberal says something, is schooled by a progressive, and humbly apologizes, nobody’s vote has changed. Just in case any of us thought it might, it’s been repeatedly pointed out to us that someone who abandons a commitment to social justice just because they were yelled at on the internet is a fragile, sniveling turncoat whose only real commitment was to self-righteousness.

Liberals are safe targets. Their manners and opinions can always be corrected, and they’re not going to turn around and vote for Trump out of resentment.

Even when Sad Puppies and Gamergate and Heterodox Academy came along, I still kept viewing these internal battles as safely left-wing. I didn’t like the prospect of a world of tiptoeing around and watching one’s every word, but I really saw no alternative. Even when I read debates and thought ‘that liberal’s mistake was in sympathizing with these bullies in the first place,’ I never considered becoming conservative.

I was stupid. I apparently thought that nobody less liberal than myself knew how to use the internet. Even when every article that challenged the PC policing garnered pages full of comments thanking the author for saying what the commenters dared not say, I still thought everybody posting was safely liberal and that the only potential republican voters in the picture were the ones over at Mad Genius Club.

How dumb was that? A lifelong liberal like myself can be brought to ‘To hell with this and its little dog, too,’ yet politically undecided observers were supposed to just take no notice?

It’s common to say that you can judge character by watching how someone treats subordinates. I now think you can also judge it by watching how people treat their friends and allies. People on the sidelines can see how much damage is done by friendly fire. They can imaginatively put themselves in the participants’ shoes, and ask ‘Do I want even one iota of this in my life or my children’s lives?’

I imagine myself as a truly undecided voter, standing in that booth on election day where nobody can see or comment on what I’m about to do. I imagine myself asking myself which side I want in my life for the next four years. Weighing economics, concern for various identity groups, the general feel of the future each side conjurs up. What will my life be like if each group prevails? What does it look like in settings where these groups have prevailed? Which of those would I want to live in, to engage with? How do they treat their friends?

I voted for Hillary because I care about a lot of people who have reason to fear the racist end of Trump’s coalition. I want them to be happy and secure. But on a lot of other levels, my vote for her felt like giving up hope. I don’t want to live in a PC future. I don’t want positions that were respectable in January to be ‘bigoted’ by June. I want off the euphemism treadmill, and into a world where we – at least those of us on the same side – treat each other as if we meant well.

Undecided people are watching. I want them to see something they’d like to be part of.

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Satire vs SFF

10917836I’ve been reading brutal satire lately. It feels like cleansing my palate, brushing off cobwebs, struggling out of a too-tight sweater that was given me by an easily-wounded elderly relative who’s been here for an extended visit… OK, that metaphor got a little out of control. But it’s how I feel when I pick up something like Lightning Rods or The Sellout.

After spending years reading SFF, my jaw drops when I pick up something like this. She didn’t just say that! Did he really — holy crap!

Then I go to google, expecting a hundred reviews calling out these books for sexism, racism, general problematicality, and find nothing. The folks who put every SFF novel, comic book or movie under a social justice microscope have nothing to say about these books. It is as if I’ve stepped into an alternate universe with completely different standards.

I suppose this is the nature of genre. Someone who picks up a romance with a soft-focus cover would not be pleased to find Lightning Rods between the covers. But SFF has always advertised itself as the freewheeling exploration of ideas, the genre that boldly goes where no-one has gone before. We puff out our chests and say Look at our bad-assitude! Our intellectuality! Our courage and innovation! when in fact right now most of our critical voices seem more focused on reshaping the field into a moral niche market.

I like moral niche markets. I own all of George MacDonald’s novels in two versions. Maybe I’ll be happier with the state of current SFF now that I’ve realized that’s what it is.

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Bring Back the Luddites

I read it over and over. “President X can’t possibly bring back jobs, because ROBOTS. AUTOMATION.” People write it as if they were saying ‘President X can’t possibly fly because GRAVITY.” As if increased automation were an irresistible force of nature.

Know what I hate? I hate when the parochial interests of one segment of society become enshrined as irresistible forces of nature. As a scientist I hate it on two levels – not just the political corruption but the incoherence. Know what was an irresistible force of nature? Smallpox.

Tell me that we could overcome smallpox but we can’t overcome automation. It becomes obvious that you’re talking nonsense, and giving a pass to the people who benefit from automating away all the jobs in the country except their own, and those of the politicians who enable them.

I’ll tell you what’s a real force of nature; unless we start killing unwanted people, they are going to hang around for decades, and they will do something with their time and their energy and their anger and their desire to, I dunno, have meaning? Have money? I’ve been saying this for years, I know, and for years they weren’t doing anything and I would have looked like a fool if anyone were looking at me.

This year, I don’t feel so foolish.

 

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Politics needs the Cladistic Revolution

Phylogenetic groups, public domain via Wikipedia.

Phylogenetic groups, public domain via Wikipedia. Birds and reptiles are grouped together on shared evolutionary novelties; birds and mammals, on the single significant trait of being warm-blooded.

This was a big issue in my previous life in the world of systematics. The field was in a huge paradigm war between people who classified dead fish based on shared evolutionary novelties (the cladists) and people who classified based on the most significant shared characteristics, the classical evolutionary synthetics of the historical greats. Cladists won this battle, which at the time even participants realized was not one of the great disputes of history.

Only now I begin to believe it was one of the great disputes of history, or at least it should be. Because misclassifying our fellow citizens is becoming a real thorn in my side, and leading to misunderstandings with public significance.

For instance, right now too many of my friends apply evolutionary synthetics to people who don’t support Clinton. Not supporting Clinton is the most significant characteristic for them, so Berniebros like me are in the same group with Ted Cruz. What useful generalizations can be made about this group? None that I know of, but that doesn’t stop the constant stream of posts about how we are all sexist, despite the fact that so many of us Berniebros love Elizabeth Warren.

If we applied cladistic methods to classifying the group of ‘not supporting Hillary,’ we would realize that it is completely divorced from reality (polyphyletic, for jargonistas). Like the bird-mammal grouping in the illustration, it consists of parts of two widely different groups, which cannot be expected to resemble each other in anything except the one characteristic the group is based on. They would be better classified by their evolutionary novelties: Berniebros, Trump fans, Tea Partiers, neoliberalism-haters. None of these groups have much to do with each other, and predictions based on one group will not help you manage the other groups.

This problem afflicts every social issue I can think of. When we classify by the most significant characteristic instead of the novelty that unites a group, we do not see what’s going on. Should a college classify all the students who didn’t enroll in one big group, or look at the students who left after a certain event as a distinct group? Should we lump together all people who are blocking the street during a protest, or distinguish the people who came together in the church van from the people who live on that street? Should I lump all the students who are passing my classes together, or distinguish those who already took it somewhere else from those who are being exposed to it for the first time? Should a pollster ask whether people feel the country’s ‘on the wrong path,’ or break them down into people who feel it’s becoming too socialist and people who feel it’s not socialist enough?

The answer depends on if we want to accomplish something, make useful generalizations and predictions, or just massage our presuppositions about what’s significant.

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Credible Fiction

from 'How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop' on blog.spoongraphics.co.uk.

from ‘How To Create a Surreal Hollow Face Portrait in Photoshop’ on blog.spoongraphics.co.uk.

I read a book this week that lacked credibility.

It wasn’t a non-fiction book, so those criteria of credibility didn’t apply. It was a novel about a well-defined phenomenon – the decline of the Jesuit order after Vatican II – and it contained lots of well-reasoned explanations for the phenomenon; it was obvious that the author had done their homework and thought a lot about the topic, but still it had a spectacular lack of credibility. Which naturally has gotten me to wondering about what ‘credibility’ means for fiction, and why I would even want it, and to what extent a lack of it affects my judgments about novels.

A lot of people talk about credibility in fiction in terms of accuracy. Have the characters been written in ways that are believable? Would a reader in the know view this character’s attitudes and actions as plausible? Yet the book I just finished was full of academics, saying the kinds of things academics would say in the kind of settings in which academics say them — it even included the transcript of a class lecture — and I still found it lacked all credibility.

Credibility can be derived from internal consistency. Do the characters’ actions reflect their personality traits? Do they relate to the situations? Yet in this book, the characters’ actions, personalities, and situations matched for the most part.

A book might lack credibility by being obviously biassed toward one position, forcing the facts to support the author’s favorite conclusion. Yet in this book, every person had a different opinion and the author was scrupulous about not judging them. So that wasn’t why I found it lacked credibility.

No, what this book lacked was any real explanation of the phenomenon at its center. Which seems odd, when the entirety of the book was people going around asking each other about its cause. And when I realized that’s what I was missing, I was confused – because I certainly wouldn’t have thought the book credible if it had pushed one answer too vigorously. So what did I want, anyway?

I’ve read a lot of novels about religion that satisfied me and were extremely credible, so I thought back to them and realized that they had the kind of credibility a novel can justifiably claim – credibility about the characters’ internal lives. Their opinions, actions, and personalities were credible given their histories, positions, and internal values. We got to know them deeply and see all the underpinnings to their actions.

That was what I had hoped for from the book I was reading. It was why I chose to read a novel rather than a series of blog posts. But what I got was a series of blog posts put in the mouths of characters in a novel; a novel whose author obviously knew the setting they were writing about, but that simply was not interested in chronicling how individual people made their decisions. It was exactly what I wanted a novel to get beneath, and it made me realize that the credibility of a novel, in contrast to a non-fiction book, lies in that exploration of the individual.

My critique group has been telling me they can’t get into one of the major characters in my WIP, and this may be what they’re getting at. So even though I was very frustrated with this Jesuit novel, it was worth reading for that insight.

Perhaps I’ll spend part of the weekend writing out backstories for all of my characters.

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Connect – or not?

Network, by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Network, by
Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A friend of mine was in a class of really shy people this summer, and the leader finally had them play the ice-breaking game Connect. Heard of it? I hadn’t either.

It’s one of those games where you talk about yourself until someone else in the group finds they have something in common with you, upon which they shout ‘connect!’ and talk about themselves until someone else finds… etc. etc. I gather you can use string, but my friend didn’t report that. What she did report was how much fun it was. She became quite animated as she described the things people had in common, how folks leapt in to state their connections, how everybody became at ease with one another and laughed and enjoyed themselves.

When I got home, one of my friends had posted a video on how to have conversations on Facebook. It contained the advice that’s become so familiar — don’t try to answer someone’s recounting of their experience with anything you think is similar in your own experience. They are not comparable and you don’t understand what it is like. In other words, don’t connect.

As I considered it this morning, I thought that a lot of our current advice about how to converse with one another assumes that we’re mad at each other. It’s advice about how to talk to someone who already expects the worst from you, who will tip over into regarding you as an asshole at a moment’s notice, and who enters into the discussion with deep misgivings about your agenda, motives, and basic cluelessness. In which case yes, it’s probably smart to not tell them about your experiences, or try to voice what you think theirs were like. It’s probably smart to just keep your mouth shut and listen. It’s also probably smart to excuse yourself after a while, and let both participants relax and talk to people they’re not mad at.

But is this how to form relationships? Personally, I have trouble forming friendships with people who are following the rules of good discourse with me, listening so considerately to my stories and not disclosing anything relatable of their own. My friendships are with the people who compare their experiences to mine, getting into deep discussions of mothers and what is it with them, or workplaces and what is it with them anyway, or what each of us liked about our latest vacation, what we ate at State Fair, or so forth. Without that give-and-take of shared, compared experience, I don’t see how I could become someone’s friend.

I wonder if we’re being given a set of etiquette rules that not only assume conflict but prevent friendship. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in these tense times. Maybe it’s an artifact of the people laying down the rules; in the video my friend posted, it was a professional interviewer rather than a professional friend-maker. Maybe these rules, like so many etiquette rules, are really telling us how to have a superficial interaction with someone you don’t care about. Maybe the best goal you can have in an initial encounter is to follow the rules and not make a bad impression.

Or maybe what we really need is for some leader in every social gathering to stand up and give us permission to connect.

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