Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why Do We Confuse Ethical And Legal?

Last time I posed the question: why are people so keen to conflate questions of ethics with questions of legality? One possible explanation is that the law offers people a ready-made ethics, backed up by social pressure and convincing punishments, so it's easier to just go along with that than put in the effort to think up an ethics of your own. That explanation is very self-congratulatory, though, so for that reason alone I'm inclined to reject it. What other options are there?

Well, you might say that discussing ethics is pointless, since there's no way institutions are going to respond to ethical accusations. They might respond to legal accusations, though, so discussing legality is useful. However, discussing ethics can help you decide whether you support the way an institution is acting - it won't affect the institution, but it might prevent you from taking unethical actions later (say, joining the army).

You might argue that the law, in general, is ethical - that the existence of the law is morally a good thing, despite the problems with it. To obey the law is to maintain it, since the law in part is sustained through constant obedience, so obeying the law is a good thing. This doesn't seem like a major consideration, though. If we're debating whether to drop bombs on some Middle Eastern dictatorship, is general social attitude towards the law really that important?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Legal Is Not Ethical

Conducting interventionist wars is wrong. Whether you agree with that statement or not - and, while I'm confident in my position, there are arguments on both sides - you have to admit it's a statement about rightness and wrongness, not about the law. That is, it's an ethical claim, not a legal one. You might mount a detailed, sourced and accurate argument that interventionist wars, under certain circumstances, are not illegal and are in fact mandated by certain provisions of international law. Spend ten minutes on any political blog's comment section and you'll see a hundred examples of this kind of argument. However, the law is totally irrelevant to the question of whether we ought to use military force (read: kill people) in Syria etc. I think that the irrelevancy is obvious, but I'll argue for it anyway.

Here's the obligatory argument against using the law as a basis for morality. Unlike ethics, which in theory proceeds from empathy, rational thought, conscience and so forth, the law proceeds from political considerations. Even if we conceive of the State as a wholly benevolent entity (which, as an anarchist, I do not) the law is still not a guide for ethical action, but rather a guide for how a far more powerful third party might force people into acting as ethically as possible. That's why we don't have laws against being rude or lying - not because those things aren't wrong, but because it would be wrong to try and enforce politeness with the police. If we conceive of the State as a partially-benevolent or minimally-benevolent entity, then using the law as a basis for morality is laughable. Here are some reasons why, each of which is decisive:

1)  Unethical laws exist in every real-world State. Segregation, protectionism, criminalization of things that should not be criminal. If the law was a basis for morality, this trivial statement would be incoherent.

2) Seeing the law as inherently moral gives us no way to fight back against and change bad laws - which is what defenders of the law generally want people to do.

3) The process of how law is formed is transparently influenced by corruption, compromise and political consideration, none of which are appropriate ways to form ethics.

So while the legal system might help us judge what we ought practically to do, if we wish to avoid the boot and the Taser, it's poorly suited to help us judge what we ought morally to do. The larger question, however, is this: why do people constantly bring legal considerations into discussions of ethics?

Friday, 22 June 2012


This series is kind of amazing. If you've ever wondered how the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio is found in nature - or, more interestingly, why - these videos explain it clearly and entertainingly. Bonus: they also show you how to turn pinecones into cool Christmas decorations.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

I Get Plagarized

I write articles about things to do in major Australian cities. One of those articles - about some strange illegal things to do in Melbourne, so it might have some interest for you filthy anarchists - was recently copied almost word-for-word on the site of one guy who has since taken the article down for good and will remain unnamed. Apparently he paid for some freelance content that he didn't know had been stolen from me. Here's a tip for people soliciting articles: do a quick Google before you put work up on your website, just in case the writer has, ah, cut corners.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

I Rap About Rainbows

I post a lot of hip-hop, but this is the first Australian track I've posted: a short rap from Jeremedy, formerly of the Melodics, currently of Grey Ghost. It's a tragedy that he's not better known.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sexism In The Anarchist, Atheist Movements

Check out this article by Angela Beallor on problems with sexism within the anarchist movement. She argues that combating sexism is a difficult, moment-to-moment struggle - not something you do once and are thus purified, but an incessant process of questioning your words and actions. She warns against male feminists who proclaim themselves to be allies so loudly "that they fail to hear the voices of women". And she cautions that, in removing structure, we make it more difficult to protect oppressed groups (women, people of colour) in political organisations.

Here's the key paragraph:

Structurelessness is often a means to perpetuate sexism, racism and class stratification. If men are socialized to be leaders and women are not, then it is not hard to imagine who would develop into leaders in a non-structured organization. A lack of structure provides no means of balancing those with certain privileges with those who are oppressed. We must create organizational structures that inherently guard against these forms of power imbalance.

And the preceding quote from Jo Freeman:

The idea of structurelessness does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. A 'laissez-faire' ideal for group structure becomes a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to the few, and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.

There's an interesting parallel here to the current kerfuffle in the atheist movement. People, especially women, are speaking out about sexual harassment at atheist conventions, and advocating for explicit sexual harassment policies to be put in place. They're receiving a certain amount of pushback from the convention organizers and other attendees, especially men. DJ Grothe, the man behind The Amazing Meeting, accused the complaining women of spreading rumors and driving other women away from the convention, which sparked predictable (and justified) outrage among many people.

I think there's a clear reason why many atheists minimize or dismiss sexual harassment at conventions. The vast majority of religions are systems for keeping women oppressed, obviously. Atheists comment on this with commendable regularity. However, there's a temptation to go a step further and say that religion is the main or only system for the oppression of women - and that in removing religion, the primary vector for misogyny is removed too. Atheist conventions are theoretically religion-free, so they must be harassment-free as well. If women contradict this by reporting their experiences of harassment, then they must be exaggerating or lying. Those silly, hysterical women. Can't they see we're their allies?

Do you see where I'm going with this? The state is a vast system for keeping women oppressed (men too, but women slightly more so), obviously. Some anarchists comment on this with commendable regularity. However, there's a temptation to go a step further and say that the state is the only system that oppresses women - and that when the state is smashed, misogyny is smashed with it. Anarchists, then, simply can't be sexists. So there's no need to put in place sexual harassment policies in anarchist organizations.

Unfortunately, religion and the state are only lenses; focusing mechanisms which amplify the existing tendency humans have to oppress those weaker than us. A world without guns would be a world with less death, but of course there would still be a horrible amount of violence. Removing the mechanism is desirable, but it won't combat oppression by itself. Solving the problem of sexism is harder than many male atheists and anarchists believe. It's a task that is performed in the heart more often than the courtroom or the houses of government, and it's a task that forces us men to relinquish much of our own power, much of our own privilege.


Of course, IOZ got here long before I did.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


...was a very pretty movie. It would even have been a good movie, if it had an ending. The big question it raised - the relationship of the creation to the creator - went entirely unanswered. The single alien (spoilers ahead) who could have dispensed an answer was content to blunder about like a Frankenstein's monster with better complexion. The female lead, although she filled Sigourney Weaver's shoes pretty well, lapsed into sentimentality at the end.

David, the android, was far and away the best character (not coincidentally, he's the only one I remember by character name instead of actor name.) Prometheus is worth watching for him alone. Idris Elba is excellent as well, of course.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Aspire To Be Maladjusted

Hat tip to SC over at FTB for this:

Engaging in behavior that reflects the dominant culture, and ours is a sexist-misogynistic culture, is adjusted.
You should aspire to be maladjusted.

When you consume popular media - television, film, books - you should expect moments of discomfort, friction with the culture. When you talk to 'normal' people, people who are entirely comfortable in their social milieu, you should expect the occasional disconnect and mis-communication. Keep track of these carefully. They're markers that you're 'maladjusted', that the forces that shape our culture haven't managed to shape you totally. 

If there's one thing I believe about capital-S Society, it's this: nothing that the crowd believes is right. The boilerplate anti-racism and anti-sexism in Western countries (you can say the word 'bitch' but not the c-word,  and as long as you stay away from the dreaded n-word you're okay) is only correct in the most general sense. In practice, it's thoroughly racist and misogynist, serving mainly to focus on the 'great gains' we've made and obscure the current manifestations of privilege and oppression. Any ethics that is comprehensible by millions of people simultaneously is not even worth consideration; like daytime television, you can immediately assume that its primary purpose is entertainment, not edification.

Kierkegaard wrote that one's relationship with the 'crowd' is a quick test of one's Christianity. If you're loved and praised, if you wield political power - if, hypothetically, you wear a golden crown, fancy red shoes, and live in a palace in a small country you rule - then you are as far removed from Christianity as it is possible to be. If the crowd is more ambivalent towards you, you're doing a little better, but you can only be sure that you're on the right track when the crowd turns on you and kills you.

That's relevant to ethics in general. True positions are not popular positions, and if a true position somehow catches popular attention, it will quickly be stripped down to a milquetoast variant fit for public consumption. Ethics by its nature is confronting: it demands full commitment and scorns compromise. As soon as an ethicist advocates half-measures, she loses her authority (or at the very least transitions from discussing the ethical to discussing something else - the 'practical', perhaps). Where we are at as a society - where we have always been, maybe - is fully removed from that. In general, we celebrate compromise and scorn commitment*, and we label individuals capable of independent thought as 'maladjusted'.

* One huge exception here is in the domain of history. When an independent individual dies, she's often converted into an idol, a 'moral hero', before the last shovel of dirt has fallen on the grave. While he lived, MLK was a dangerous radical, but in death he's venerated. This is what Kierkegaard wrote about when he discussed society's attitude to the "monumental" - by raising people like Shakespeare and Gandhi to divine status, the keepers of society discourage others from imitating them in the present, which would be, uh, inconvenient.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

More Dinosaur For The Cadillac

That's Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free), the new single from the upcoming sequel to Food and Liquor. Lupe Fiasco's previous album Lasers was mostly trash - corporate, bland, meaningless - which, compared to Food and Liquor, was a spectacular disappointment. This track gives me hope, though. Any anarchist who's into hip-hop (especially an American anarchist) should love it, since Lupe's political sensibilities are thoroughly radical.

And we marvel at the state of Ottoman
Then turn around and treat Ghana like a garbage can
America's a big motherfuckin' garbageman
If you ain't know, you're part and parcel of the problem
You say no you ain't, and I say yes you is
Soon as you find out what planned obsolescence is
You say no they didn't, and I say yes they did
The definition of unnecessary-ness manifested
Say that we should protest just to get arrested
That goes against all my hustling ethics
A bunch of jail n***as say its highly ineffective
Depart from Martin, connect on Malcolm X tip

What a delicious shot at civil disobedience.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Non-Voting As Privilege

As a dirty anarchist, I see voting as fundamentally deceptive. Like the button at a pedestrian crossing, it's there to give the illusion of control; the traffic will eventually stop for a moment, but on the city's timetable, not yours. Moreover, I see many state practices - harmful military and economic intervention in other countries, domestic imprisonment of drug users - as immoral, and I feel that by voting I lend legitimacy to those practices. It's a small symbolic act of defiance: I can't impede the functioning of government, but at the very least I can refuse to participate in its PR exercise.

However, I've recently found myself unable to give a coherent response to voters who make this argument:

Yes, both parties are bad, but one is marginally better than the other on particular issues - abortion, women's rights, employment rights - so not voting for the slightly better party causes real harm.

My previous response (and I suspect the response of many anarchists) is this: you're claiming that state-sanctioned foreign murder and domestic slavery is less important than a few bones the political machine tosses its citizens every now and then. I used to think that a symbolic blow to state power is worth more than a few political gains. Here's my current response to that:

Choosing an airy symbolic victory over, say, abortion rights is almost always an act of extreme privilege. If you're a white man, you have the opportunity to weigh up harm to minorities and women against your own involvement with the war machine. If you're a minority yourself - or you're pregnant, or you might be pregnant one day - then you don't really have that opportunity. You've got to protect yourself. People who will never be harmed by anti-woman or anti-gay laws can afford not to really think about them. They can disassociate themselves from the real consequences of such laws and consider the issue from a pure, objective standpoint. However, the problem with an objective standpoint (and here I stand on the shoulders of the Great Dane himself) is that to reach it you have to set aside your own subjectivity, all that makes you human - and by the time you're capable of considering things objectively, you've lost sight of everything of real importance.

Well. You might respond that by not voting, you hasten the eventual fall of the state, which will bring serious long-term benefits to women and minorities alike. Here, in brief, is my response:

You're fooling yourself. Sure, not voting takes away a little legitimacy from the state, but you're still paying taxes. Refusing to vote is an act of hand-washing, cleansing oneself symbolically while simultaneously funding immoral practices. Legitimacy is not primarily conferred by the practices with which it sustains itself; rather, at base it is conferred by the possession of money, guns and lawyers. When the state finally crumbles, it will be because it's run itself into the ground, not because a few anarchists are letting their lives (or one day of their lives every four years) be a negligible friction in the machine.

If you don't vote, your illusion of utopia is harming real people, right now - people without the luxury of enjoying masturbatory survivalist fantasies of an anarchist country. You don't have to like it. In fact, if you like voting, there's something seriously wrong with you. But you're ethically obliged to do it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Drunk On Your Breath

This is Drunk On Your Breath, by Catherine Traicos. She supported the Mountain Goats on their recent Australian tour - chosen, in fact, by John Darnielle himself after he saw this video. I hope you'll agree with me that she's woefully underappreciated.

If you didn't like that, maybe you'll like this! It's Catherine Traicos singing a duet with a saxophone - wonderfully discordant and interesting.