Blog: Cruel Humour

Cruel Humour
Cruel Humour
Date: 2019-Feb-09 21:29:39 EST

I don't think of myself as a particularly cruel person; I don't make a lot of effort to be kind, but nor do I usually enjoy the suffering of others. I don't think the world can consistently avoid the broadest notions of harm, and I see it as the business of politics to decide what harms are worth avoiding and what are not. For most harms, serious efforts to avoid them would cause, in practice but also often in theory, another harm. And so the harms we sweep under the rug get a categorisation as nonactionable harms and we don't think about them nearly as often.

None of this, at least at a societal level, is a priori; we're continually squabbling over it, and there are all sorts of things some groups call harms nowadays that were not even in the public consciousness when I was growing up. The process is continual. And like all politics, we have a choice to stand for or against (or to refine) these ideas when they seem to come rolling up for consideration. Different subcultures will take different sides if they're interested, and if (temporarily or permanently) those subcultures are nearly entirely convinced of a stance, they will likely, using the same mechanism of society at large, mark it as rude to not side with them on the norm. Among other societal tools for consensus. How might people resist proposed norms that strike them as bad ideas? Often humour, and this is what I often do - I will almost never be rude to an individual face-to-face, but I make fun of weird ideas, often in cruel ways, and usually when I see another argument for their adoption. For something that's an idea but not a norm, a good example would be the "chosen people" rhetoric I sometimes hear in Jewish circles - I find it terribly self-centred, and so I mock it to deflate the respect the idea can have. And to let off steam, and for a number of other reasons. So long as I'm not rude to a particular person, I don't usually feel very bad about it; the pain of others (even when trying to limit it would cause much greater harms by my metrics, and they're pushing hard for that) usually bothers me, but the notion that they have to lose for their bad ideas to go away (or at least remain non-influential) greatly reduces that. It still makes me think occasionally, thus this (I recently did a tweet poking fun at BdB's efforts to let people revise their birth certificates to be based on what I call gender-identity rather than gender).

Recently got into another unpleasant exchange with someone I follow on Twitter - a conservative professor of history (who focuses on the cold war). Not so much on politics per se, but rather on linguistic absolutism - he bragged about having gone to some forum and having insisted that his definition of socialism is the true one; I find it odd that this kind of debate is often surprisingly heated but its specifics are usually orthoganal to politics - I think it might be a larger gulf in perspectives than that of religious folk versus not. At least for the last decade and likely longer I've been firmly convinced that every individual has subtly different meanings of terms, that there are no true meanings of these things, and that we should learn to navigate differences when we spot them on a conversation-by-conversation basis. My opponents on this front love to bring up dictionaries or just insist their definition is correct - I call them linguistic absolutists. I recognise that definitional diversity can sometimes make conversation difficult, but my claim is that it already is, and unavoidably is, and efforts to centralise definitions are the equivalent of perspective-injection and pose a danger for clear thinking (as individuals) and intellectual freedom.

This week has been very difficult healthwise - had a very bad migraine last sunday night that persisted until Tuesday, left work early on Monday and didn't go in on Tuesday, but I wasn't recovering - went to an Urgent Care center, then wandered around the city in a haze of pain to get perscribed meds. The one bright side of it is that the urgent care doctor offered an insight that might help unravel my current most common migraine trigger - she noticed that my neck is incredibly tense and speculated that I have a pinched nerve in a particular spot (that has been bothering me for awhile) - this would explain a lot. It would be great if this is true and can be solved and I can get my migraine frequency back down to maybe once a month. Seeing a specialist again (for the first time in a long while) at the beginning of next month. Feeling at least a little hopeful.

I'm still feeling particularly great about having a new member on one of my teams at work - an early-career programmer who has machine-learning expertise. He can do things I can't, and while those skills will be hard for me to learn, I can at least get a trickle of learning. Plus the project benefits. That corner of my world, at least, makes sense and is alright. I still often feel worn down in life more broadly - I often don't like the directions broader society is moving, I don't think there's anyone out there high-profile that's pushing my values, and the things I need for more happiness (even things like an absense of physical pain) are hard to get. I feel I have peace without contentment. But maybe in that I'm not that different from other humans, I just think about it more than most I think.

Some takes:

  • While I think this take by FIRE that it's a good thing that UIowa can't bar student orgs that discriminate as part of their creed, I think it's important to tread lightly and to enter this ground means being willing to dive deeper into interpretation and possibly not treat each case entirely on its own. Meaning that while I think it's acceptable that a student Christian org wouldn't want someone who's not straight in their leadership, and might even explicitly bar it, I think the ability to do that should be limited to groups where that creed is central - a knitting club, for example, shouldn't be able to claim a creed and perform a similar exclusion (and I hope that other Christian clubs would be permitted that have beliefs that, however intellectually strained, are more open to such leaders).
  • I have a high bar for when stifling open sharing of information should be stifled, but as this example on speed cameras offers, it's not impossibly high - I don't know if it should be illegal to share such information, but it's at least, I think, irresponsible to broadly share info on speed cameras.
  • I'm impressed at this story of how a board member helped unveil problematic governance within the company she was serving for. I still sometimes think about board service somewhere; were I to do it I'd like to do a good job and, if necessary, do these kinds of things.
  • It may be wise to change how our legislative bodies appoint people to committees; it sounds like a mess.
  • Impressed at the very high recycling rate reported by this article for Oregon. If the bottles themselves are highly recyclable, this is a very big win.
  • I find it strange that I actually substantially agree with the platform for NYC social progressives and still dislike them so much. I think it's largely that their platform is phrased in ways that hint at a number of other things I strongly disagree with that they might take action on. It also hints that the "how" of their approach to these issues is something I'll dislike. Their 18th clause, which would give voting rights to permanent resident immigrants is the thing I disagree most strongly with, I'm not fond of the idea of closing Rikers, and I'm wary of providing legal counsel to illegal immigrants. Otherwise, I'm at least theoretically on board with what they want.