Sunday, August 28, 2011

Between a rock and a crunchy place

Despite my initial complaints, I've gotten really into Less Wrong. It's refreshing to talk to people who don't write me off as weird/cold/unfeeling for trying to think through things carefully. And yet it's mostly populated by male techy types, which has got me thinking about signalling.

In college when I started going to protests and hanging out with activist kids, I considered ways I could change myself to fit in better with them. I briefly believed that ripping my clothing and wearing a fair-trade head scarf might make me a better activist. One evening I remember going from an activist meeting to a Campus Girl Scouts meeting and realizing there was nothing I could wear that would make me look at home in both groups. The answer, obviously, was that I didn't need to look like either group to do good work.

But the pressure for outward conformity isn't as bad as the pressure for conformity of thought. I was at a women's college when the Larry Summers scandal happened. In class after class, my professors lambasted Summers for suggesting that biological differences between women and men could have anything to do with the maleness of the science and engineering faculty at top universities.

Except . . . there was nothing wrong with what he actually said. He cited a study that did indeed show men's intelligence varying more widely than women's, creating more idiots and more geniuses. In fields that demand extremely smart people, it makes sense that there's a larger pool of good male candidates. And he didn't even list this as the main reason for the disparity - the other factors he listed were discrimination, different socialization, and the fact that the jobs require something like 80 hours a week. Nothing that feminists haven't been saying for decades. But because he mentioned IQ, the feminist community went nuts without, in most cases, even reading what he said.

I'm a feminist. Given the absurd things that have been said about gender and intelligence in the past, I understand getting your hackles up when you hear anything about it. But when you start a ruckus for no good reason, you're embarrassing me. I believe in social justice work. Justice does not just happen by itself. But ignoring truth in the pursuit of justice is not okay.

I refuse to signal less as a feminist so I can signal more as a rationalist. That would be as silly as ripping my jeans to be a better activist. But I expect better of both communities.

Dear rationalists: please welcome people who aren't white male atheist computer programmers under the age of 40. The fact that the site was 96% male at last count is obviously not due only to a longer right tail on the IQ curve.

Dear social justice folks: please be sure your arguments make sense.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Yearning to breathe free

This summer I'm volunteering helping refugees find work. When I ask, "What was your last job?" I'm often surprised by the answer from people who are now applying for jobs as dishwashers or housekeepers.

"In South Africa, I own clothing store."

"I taught at a university in Angola."

"I distributing rice in Haiti after earthquake."

"I never had a job - I was studying to become a teacher. My parents already came here, so I was running the house for my brothers and sisters."

It's amazing how versatile they've had to be. Today I listened to a worker writing a resume with an Afghan woman. "What languages do you speak?"

"Well, Farsi and Tajik and Russian. Now English."

"Wow. Tell me about your work history."

"I was gynecologist seventeen years. When I live in Russia I doing massage. Also, I make all clothes for my family. Also, I make carpets."

"You make carpets? With all those little loops?"

"Yes. Also, I can cut hair, but I don't have license."

These people have been through things I can't imagine. They've started over and over again, fleeing from one country to another. By the time they get here some are still proud, still trying to find jobs worthy of their qualifications. Others are more pragmatic and fill out application after application. The hardest part of this work is not breaking down in tears when I help a professor or doctor apply for a job cleaning floors.

America, be grateful. The professionals of the world are lining up for visas. Their English is often faulty, but they are not. How will you welcome them?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

This sorry scheme of things

Bible-centered folks often start explanations with, “The Bible tells us…” The quotations which follow this phrase sometimes address the topic directly, but more often there’s a lot of inference involved. The Bible gives a lot of specific injunctions about what to eat and how to build an ark of the covenant, but very little about bioethics.

What would a religious document look like, I wonder, that actually told people how to live? If an all-seeing God intended the document to be a guideline for people not just in 600 BC, but for all ages, what would that instruction manual contain?

It could be a lot shorter and less repetitive, for one thing. The hygiene rules could focus more on hand-washing. I hope the moral rules would still include some version of the golden rule, which is useful enough to appear in most major world religions. I hope it would emphasize kindness.

On the poetic side, Biblical prayer could also use some improvement. The words Jesus specifically tells people to use are now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good prayer. It doesn’t have any particular theme, and gives the impression of being a mishmash of phrases from Jewish prayers. The only bit of poetry in it (thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory) doesn’t appear in any original text and was tacked on later. The Muslim and Jewish daily prayers are also pretty convoluted and not especially good poetry. My understanding is that in both cases they’re quotations from religious documents that somebody decided would be good to recite every day, not cases where the document says “God told us to recite this text every day.”

If one were trying to pick a prayer for everybody to recite, what would it be? Something like the Prayer of St. Francis would be my pick. I like that it hints at actions we can take.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy . . .

It would be nice if this really were St. Francis’s prayer passed down over seven centuries. But its earliest appearance is in 1912, and it wasn’t connected with St. Francis until 1936. Maybe I just like it because it’s in a modern style, and in a few hundred years it will seem terribly dated.

Actually, maybe daily meditation would be a more sensible, and less time-sensitive, thing to prescribe in a religious instruction manual.

In the words of Omar Khayyam (or more accurately, FitzGerald riffing on Khayyam):

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unaskable questions

At a party this week I witnessed the following exchange between two friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time, one of whom has ongoing medical problems.

Asker: How are you doing, dear?
Answerer: I'm . . . okay.
Asker: Now, are you really okay, or are you just saying that?
Answerer: (bursts into tears)
Asker: (hugging her) There, there.
Me: (not out loud) What were you thinking?  She obviously didn't want to talk about it!  Did you provoke her to that just so you could comfort her?

There is a category of question that only has one acceptable answer.  They include, "Do I look fat in this?" and "Do you love me?" and "Do you regret marrying him?"   If there's only one answer you can accept hearing, or there's only one answer the other can acceptably give, don't ask.

Friday, August 05, 2011

What would change your mind?

There's not much good philanthropy evangelism out there. Individual charities have marketing departments, of course, but not many people who advocate philanthropy in general. By philanthropy, I mean personally significant giving to causes you think are important (not $20 here and there to random charities that send you mailings).

Giving What We Can is one attempt at this, which I think is quite well done. Bolder Giving is another, though it has rather a lot of millionaires and not a lot of ordinary people. Peter Singer's writings seem to have reached a lot of people, or at least gotten some media attention.

Here are my guesses at why people don't like to think about giving:

  • It's scary to think about what you might give up. In fact, I've found the thinking to be more painful than the actual lifestyle changes. Jeff and I have a very high quality of life on not much money. Philanthropy does not have to be a drag.

  • It can be difficult to make financial decisions once you realize your pocket money could be saving someone's life. I used to agonize over every purchase, which was not good for my mental health (and thus my ability to keep giving). Laying out a budget with money that definitely will and will not be given away has made my life much easier.

  • It can be lonely. I waited about 10 years before I heard of anyone with a giving philosophy similar to mine. The internet is helping create communities, though.
  • Talking about money is hard.  I'm afraid of being a guilt tripper, and I think other people are afraid of being guilted into something.

  • We all know people who are richer than us, and it's easy to feel deprived in comparison. This mindset does not encourage generosity. A feeling of abundance does.

  • Serious givers are often intense/kooky people. People who disagree with Peter Singer about animal rights or euthanasia may discount his writings on giving. I used to think the existential risk people were cranks, but I'm starting to take them more seriously.
So here is my question to you, dear readers: what are your qualms? Are there things that would make you think differently about giving?