Plain old conceit


Who doesn’t want to be this guy?!

Trigger warning: Long rant; gender and racial theory; I may use the qualifier “cis-” in a non-ironic way[1]; Since saying “male genitalia” or “female genitalia” is apparently bad, I may use the words “cunt” and “cock” to refer to the things they refer to; Aussie pride; excessive footnotes[2]; dead naming of dead dudes[3]; anti-Americanism; as always, sex positivity, along with a healthy dose of trans positivity (I hope, though maybe 800 people will judge me a bastard) and my usual disdain for radical feminism; insufficient or excessive trigger warnings

TLDR: WTF is going on with feminist philosophy?! Also, if you think that transgender people are serious and real and should be given full rights and respect, you probably also need to accept that transracialism is cool; but unless you’re American you probably already did, without even thinking that it was A Thing.

I just discovered a horrific conflagration overtaking the world of feminist philosophy, which has got me thinking about a concept that I didn’t even really know existed, but which is apparently A Thing: Transracialism. Transracialism is the practice of people of one race adopting the identity of another and living that identity even if they hadn’t been born into or raised with that identity, so superficially it has this transition process in common with being transgender. I’ve obviously been out of touch with left wing radical social ideals for a while, because I didn’t know that transracialism was A Thing, and that it is Bad while being transgender[4] is Good. In this post I want to talk about transracialism and the stultifying consequence of Americans hogging the debate about sex and race, and also about the disastrous state of modern leftist discourse[5] about so many things.

The controversy concerns an interesting paper in the philosophy journal Hypatia, discussing some of the logical consequences of accepting transgender as a real and serious issue[6]. The article, In Defense of Transracialism, examined the similarities between transitioning to a new gender and transitioning to a new race, and argued that logically if you accept one you really run onto rocky ground if you don’t accept the other. For case studies (and not, apparently, as the fundamental logical basis of the argument) the paper presented the case of Caitlyn Jenner as a transgender, and Rachel Dolezal as a transracial person (“transracer”?) As we know, Jenner got widespread public acceptance for her decision, while Dolezal received widespread public scorn. The article argues in what, to me at least, appears to be a quite tightly reasoned and accessible style, that it’s hard logically to accept one and reject the other, and maybe that means transracialism is actually okay.

The paper was published in March but recently a bunch of Associate Editors connected to the journal published an open letter demanding that the paper be retracted because its publication caused many “harms” to transgender people, and because it was academically poor. The outline of the case, and a solid takedown of the public letter, can be read at this New York Magazine post. It should be noted that the author of the paper is a non-tenured Assistant Professor, a woman, who is therefore quite vulnerable in a highly competitive field dominated by men, and that some of the signatories to the open letter were on the author’s dissertation assessment committee, which makes their signing the letter an extremely vicious act of treachery, from an academic standpoint. For more background on the viciousness of the letter and its implications for the author’s career and for the concept of academic freedom, see Leiter Reports, a well known philosophy blog (e.g. here) or the Daily Nous (e.g. here). It appears that the author has a strong case for defamation, and that many of the leading lights of feminist philosophy have really made themselves look very bad in this affair. (In case you haven’t gathered, I am fully supportive of the author’s right to publish this article and I think the open letter, demand for retraction, and pile-on by senior academics to an Assistant Professor near the beginning of her career is a vicious over-reaction of which they should all be deeply ashamed).

Beyond the obvious bullying and the ridiculous grandstanding and academic dishonesty involved in this attack on the author[7], I am disappointed in this whole issue because it is such a clear example of how Americans can dominate feminist (and broader social justice) debate in a really toxic way. I’ve discussed this before in regards to the issue of sex work and radical feminism, and I think it needs to be said again and again: American influence on left wing social debates is toxic, and needs to be contained. Just look at the list of signatories to this attack on this junior academic – they’re almost all American, and this is yet another example of how America’s conservatism, it’s religious puritanism, its lust for power, and its distorted republican politics, combined with its huge cultural output, is a negative influence on left wing politics globally.

I’m also really interested in this paper because I think it shows not just that transracialism may actually be an okay idea, but when I thought about the implications, I realized that I think most people on the planet already accept transracialism, and if Rachel Dolezal had occurred in any other country we would probably just have shrugged and got on with our lives. So in this post I’d like to discuss what Americans can learn from other countries’ approach to race.

Transracialism in Australia

Just to clarify, I was born in New Zealand to British parents and moved to Australia aged 13, taking Australian citizenship when I was 21. My grandfather was a Spanish war hero, a proud soldier in the losing side of the civil war and a man who spent nine years fighting fascism, and I was raised by him and my (deeply racist, white) British grandmother for two years as a child. So actually I’m a quarter Spanish, and so in theory I could have been raised Spanish but wasn’t, and don’t know anything about my birth race, which at various times in history has been defined as a separate race or just a culture. This makes me probably really normal in Australia, because Australia is a nation of immigrants making a new life in a land swept clean by genocide. It’s my guess that if you grew up in Australia you know a lot of mixed-race people, and if you paid any attention to the discussion of the Stolen Generations in the 2000s you’re aware that race is a very contested and contestable concept, and that Australian government policy has always assumed that race is a mutable concept subsidiary to culture. I think it’s likely that if you grew up in Australia you will know at least one of the following stereotypes:

  • An Aboriginal person who doesn’t “look” Aboriginal, and who maybe has no connection to their Aboriginal culture; you may even not be sure if they are Aboriginal, suspect they are but don’t know how to ask
  • A young Asian Australian who looks completely Asian, acts in ways that are stereotypically associated with Asian Australians (e.g. the guy holds his girlfriends bag for her, the girl is a complete flake in a very Asian Australian way) but is in every other way completely and utterly unconnected from their Asian heritage and is thoroughly through-and-through “whitebread” Australian
  • A completely Australian guy who speaks fluent Greek and goes back to Greece to “be with his family” every year
  • A person who has discovered that they have an ethnic heritage of some kind and is trying to recover that heritage in some way that might inform them about their own past, even though they are effectively completely disconnected from it, but they are clearly serious about rediscovering their heritage and all their friends and family support this apparent madness
  • A black or dark-skinned Australian who literally knows nothing about the culture of whatever race gave them their skin colour

If you’re a little older, like me, or know a wide range of older Australians, you may also have encountered an Aboriginal Australian who was stolen from their family at an early age and raised white but is on a bittersweet quest to recover the heritage they never had – and may have found that that heritage was extinguished before they could be led back to it. When I was 20 I was paid to provide maths tutoring to a bunch of 50-something women who were training to be Aboriginal Teaching Assistants – a kind of auxiliary teacher who will assist fully qualified teachers in remote Aboriginal communities – and some of them couldn’t even do fractions. When I asked how they missed such an early stage of education they told me they were taken to “the mission” when they were young, and didn’t get a proper education. I was young and this kind of issue wasn’t discussed then but now I understand that they were from the Stolen Generation, and were at various stages of understanding of their own racial heritage. They were going back to help their community, and recovering their own heritage, not just to settle the question of their own background but also to right wrongs done and change society[8]. These kinds of people are a normal thing in Australian cultural life. But can you look at that list of archetypes and say they aren’t all in their own way transracial? Indeed the underlying philosophy of the Stolen Generations was that you can eliminate racial traits of Aboriginality in half-Aboriginal people simply by raising them white; and the underlying principle of Multiculturalism is that culture transcends race, and we can all get along. Also in Australia there is a lot of tacit recognition of the problems second and third generation migrant children go through as they “transition” from the cultural heritage of their parents to that of their born country, where although racially they’re distinct from the majority they are clearly culturally more similar to the majority than to their parents. In the 1990s this was happening with Greek and Italian kids, in the 2000s with Vietnamese kids, and in the 2010s with Lebanese kids. Everyone in Australia knows that this happens, which surely means that everyone in Australia sees transracialism as a common pattern of multiculturalism.

Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve seen this confirmed in many ways, but the best I can think of is a child I knew in a rural country town. His parents were both white New Zealanders but he had been brought to Japan at the age of 3 and raised in rural Japan, and when I met him at 17 he was thoroughly and completely Japanese. He didn’t speak English, communicating with his parents in a mixture of Japanese, really really bad English, and typical adolescent boy grunts. He hadn’t experienced much racism in Japan and had been sheltered in a very nice and welcoming rural environment, had a good group of close Japanese friends, communicated in the (ridiculously incomprehensible) local dialect, and was a typical cloistered Japanese boy. But he was also a big, white lump in his Japanese world, standing out like dogs balls. His race was irrelevant to his cultural background, except that he knew he was “white” and that therefore every Japanese person who ever meets him will engage in a boring conversation about why he is so. Fucking. Japanese. How is this not transracialism? Sure, a lot of transracial experience is not a choice per se, but whether it is a choice is surely irrelevant to the fact that it is completely possible and that for some of us – probably only a small proportion – changing “race” is a choice we feel compelled to make. I.e. not a choice. Rachel Dolezal might be a bad example, but whatever her motives might be, is her ability to do it under question? I would suggest that from an average Australian perspective, it is a completely ordinary concept. The only thing at issue is “why?” But since most well-meaning people don’t impugn the motives of strangers, who gives a fuck?

Race is a social construct

The possibility of transracialism becomes even clearer when you recognize that race is a social construct. This doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist – it clearly does – but that it is an invention of humanity structured around clear physical lines, not a real thing. While there is a clear difference between black and white people, there is no boundary at which this difference can be defined, and no genetic markers that clearly distinguish between one and the other. This isn’t some weird fringe idea popular only amongst Black Panthers, but a fundamental plank of modern science, reasonably well accepted at least in the biological sciences and anthropology. When we talk about races what we really are referring to is distinct cultural identities that can be mostly distinguished by noticeable visual cues (e.g. Nigerians are black, and stress the first syllable of every word in a cool way). This also means that race has very little influence on the culture you can actually adopt, which is why although I’m a quarter Spanish I’m completely white, while there are Aboriginal or Maori people who are one quarter Aboriginal but completely wedded to the culture of that quarter.

In comparison, sex is an absolute category that is definable and distinct. It has a chromosomal origin, and multiple definable, distinct characteristics. It is also clear across cultures that men and women tend to be different in many physical and personality characteristics, though these aren’t always the same in every culture and there can be lots of differences between people of a single sex between and within cultures. But sex is a clear, binary concept that, for all its massive cultural baggage, is not independent of its biological underpinnings. This, by the way, is not an idea anathematic to feminism – lots of feminists accept that the sexes are fundamentally different, and although there may be argument about to what extent these differences are biological vs. cultural, there is a large body of feminist work that assumes these differences are real and important.

And yet still people can want to change sex. Really want to change sex! And this phenomenon is common across almost every culture, though it receives higher levels of acceptance in some cultures (e.g. some Asian and Indigenous cultures) than others (e.g. modern USA). It’s also clear that you can’t force someone to change sex the way you can race. You might be able to “breed out the colour” of “half-caste” Aboriginal people by stealing them from their parents and raising them in a white family, but you can’t breed out the pink by forcing a girl to grow up as a boy – she’ll still know that she’s a girl. The same is true of sexuality of course – most people can define their sexuality clearly by the gender of the people they fuck, but we have no evidence that you can change that, no matter how hard you try. We know in fact that down that road lies tragedy. And so most of us take people’s sexuality – and the right to express it freely – very seriously. Yet most of us also accept that the right to change sex, to express a desire to be the opposite sex to our birth sex or even to be a third sex, very seriously as well.

So why not race? It’s way more fluid than gender, it has no biological basis, and we have huge amounts of evidence that people do it by accident all the time. Yet when Rachel Dolezal was outed as white she attracted general derision across the political spectrum; and Trump trades on the Pocahontas slur for Elizabeth Warren, whose sole crime apparently is to have been raised thinking she might have Native American heritage. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture, especially if like me you grew up in a race-fluid environment. Why is it so wrong to be transracial?

The toxic American influence on sex and race debates

Of course in America race is not a simple issue, because of slavery. America has a complex, toxic and quite unique racial environment which makes it very hard for Americans to react reasonably to these debates. Just consider the “politically correct” term for black Americans – African American. How is this not a transracial identity? Africa is neither a country, nor a culture, nor a race. Being “African American” is a completely concocted identity, a race that didn’t exist until the 1970s and the advent of pan-Africanism. Nothing wrong with that per se, obviously, but it leads to strange contortions in which, for example, the previous president[9] was dismissed as not “African American” enough by some of his critics even though his dad was Kenyan. We also see unedifying moments like this, where we discover that one of Dolezal’s trenchant critics was raised in a white household from the age of 2, and has clearly made a conscious choice to be black – but rejects Dolezal’s choice on clearly spurious racial grounds.

I think the problem here is simply that Americans need to come to terms with their own racist history, and simultaneously with their role as centre of empire and cultural hegemon. It’s not just that white Americans are beneficiaries of a long history of slavery, or that a sizable portion of white Americans can’t even yet accept that slavery was really wrong, or that treason in defense of slavery was really bad. It’s also the case that black Americans are simultaneously deprived in their own country but hyper-privileged globally, benefiting from many of the profits of empire just as their white compatriots do. This is why, for example, in response to the water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan we heard so much about how this was happening “even in a developed country” – black Americans are used to certain basic things that many of the people in America’s tributary nations don’t get. Similarly, black Americans can talk about pan-Africanism while black Americans are bombing Libyans. This is a complex, messed up problem that Americans have to come to terms with before they preach to the rest of us about transracialism. Combine this with America’s well-established puritanism and religious extremism, and you have a perfect storm of stupid. It makes you wonder why they even bother doing philosophy.

It also makes me think that they don’t really have a proper grip on some of these issues. Instead of talking about their own race issues, I think a lot of American feminists could stand to look around the world and learn from others. Australia has a unique culture of multiculturalism and acceptance that, while far from perfect, offers important lessons on how to negotiate racial conflict. We also have a history of genocide and responding to genocide that is deeply entangled with old fashioned racial theories that still seem to have some influence on both the left and right of American politics. But as an Australian I think we have learnt a lot and grown a lot, both about sex and race, in ways that Americans need to learn from. Instead, however, these American philosophers seem to think that their experience of race is unique and universal. I even recently stumbled across a tweet by a “key” philosopher of transgender issues (American) who claimed that transracialism had never been practiced anywhere except by one person (Rachel Dolezal). What a joke! This shows deep ignorance of broader issues of race and culture and a kind of infantile understanding of what the rest of the world is doing. I bet right now there are huge debates going on in China in Chinese about people faking ethnic minority identity (or vice versa) that no American philosopher of race even knows about, let alone can turn into a lesson for American philosophical dialogue.

I think it’s time Americans learnt some humility. America is a nation of religious extremists with a history of slavery that just elected an orange shitgibbon for president. Some humility would be in order.

And a little less bullying too! So if, like me, you think that this article might have pointed you to a phenomenon that is more common than you think, that you didn’t even know existed, maybe you should read it. And then reconsider whatever passing judgement you might have made of Rachel Dolezal, and ask yourself how easily the media are fooled by ugly narratives, and what that says about their quality.

And then, I guess, be whatever race you want to be!


fn1: Google it!

fn2: Including but not limited to references to Aussie pride

fn3: Until today I didn’t know that this term existed, though I think that I probably tried to avoid doing what it refers to. Google it!

fn4: You’ll note that I am writing “transracialism” but not writing “transgenderism”. This is because apparently the latter term is offensive while the former is not; and this has nothing to say! Nothing at all! About how one of these processes is accepted by those who police our language in the name of social justice, while another is not.

fn5: Add “will non-ironically say ‘discourse'” to the trigger warnings! Too late!? Too bad!

fn6: Because for arbitrary and stupid reasons I can’t say “transgenderism”, every sentence where I want to refer to the process or state of being a person who is transgender is going to involve these slight awkwardnesses of English language. I’m going to stick to the politically correct phrasing here, but I hope that everyone sees how awkward this is, and how telling the acceptability of one -ism but not another -ism is.

fn7: I’m making a decision not to name the author because I suspect that if things go badly for her and the paper is retracted she is going to want her name not to be associated with the paper that she struggled over; I know that my actions won’t make a difference to the google search results, but I choose not to add to them. Nonetheless I think this is work she should be proud of and I hope she doesn’t have to retract or disavow it. Also what kind of budding philosopher wants their name turning up on a disreputable blog like this, associated with fantasy gaming and sex positivity?!

fn8: And they were being taught fractions by an ignorant white dude half their age. Can you imagine the indignity!? But they were very nice to me, and I think I did a good job of the teaching. But teaching fractions is HARD.

fn9: Please come back!

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Let's be good to each other this year, too!

Let’s be good to each other this year, too!

Another year has come to a close, and as I relax on the laziest day of the Japanese year, I naturally think about all the great gaming I have done over the past year, and my plans for next year. Although I only have one gaming group, which we loosely refer to as Team WTF, and this year our gaming group’s cohesion has been compromised by life commitments, it’s been a pretty great year. Here’s a brief review of our main campaigns and the one-offs I have enjoyed in this year of gaming.

New Horizon Campaign

Our regular, ongoing campaign has been our Cyberpunk campaign, set in the fantastic multi-tiered city of New Horizon and GM’d by the Fantastic Mr. E (not me). This campaign started in 2014, and we’re up to the 16th or 17th session, all of which I have recorded here. Most of my campaign reports are written in the voice of my character, Dedicated Retribution Unit 471 (Involuntarily Demobilized), aka The Druid or Drew. Drew is a 19 year old girl with pscyhopathic tendencies who is good at only one thing: shooting people. She is also very poorly educated and not so bright, and playing her is really fun – she’s been one of the most entertaining characters I ever played, and an excellent evolution from a similar girl I played in a Feng Shui campaign some years ago.

This cyberpunk campaign has been a GMing revelation. Our GM has put so much effort into the world and the plot, and produced such a convincing world and adventure, that even though we all agree the system sucks (seriously, Cyberpunk 2020 is bad news), we have been completely immersed in our world and really enjoying every aspect of what has been a very tough campaign so far. This campaign will probably end sometime around March, which means it will be up around 20-22 sessions and have lasted 18 months, a pretty sterling effort for a group of working adults. It will be, I think, one of the most memorable campaigns I have ever played in.

After the Flood mini-campaign

I managed to GM a short campaign called After the Flood, set in a post-apocalyptic ocean world based on the books by Stephen Baxter. This world has been flooded by some geological catastrophe (not global warming) and all the land but for a small patch of the Himalayas has been drowned. Set about 70 years after the catastrophe, the campaign followed the adventures of a small group of operatives for an ocean community called the Gyre, as they first tried to recover some vital information on lost resources, and then explored a possible lost community in the Arctic. This campaign was run using the Cyberpunk rules as well, because they seemed suited to the low-tech and basic nature of the world, and although it was only six or seven sessions long it was a really enjoyable world to game in. The game reports are on this blog, along with a bunch of background material, but I wrote the whole thing into a book that you can download in pdf form.

GMing this campaign was a lot of fun, even though it had no magic and was very rules-lite. I intend to revisit this again sometime in the next year, but to run it using a Fate-type system that is a bit more freeform and a little less punishingly stupid than the Cyberpunk system.

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

I also started GMing a Traveler campaign in a post-scarcity space opera setting called the Spiral Confederacy. We’ve only played four sessions so far with a reduced crew, on off-sessions, but it has run well and I’m enjoying it, though rumours have reached my ears that some of my players find the system itself boring. The settings so far have been great – an exploding space station over a blockaded desert world, an encounter with a huge and super-powerful space ship, and an ice planet with strange spiders and behemoths – and the PCs seem to have been caught up in some kind of human trafficking mystery by their own stupidity.

I’m really excited by the possibility of a big campaign arc for this setting, with a lot of mystery and conflict along the way, and hoping that in 2016 this can become our main campaign commitment once Cyberpunk finishes. It’ll be my first Traveler campaign in 20 years and hopefully will involve wide exploration of a galaxy that is part Culture, part Firefly and part Star Wars. I’m hoping we can achieve big things in the gulf between the stars this year!

One-off adventures

In 2015 I also joined a couple of one-offs, though my work schedule prevented me from enjoying all the games our group played. I GMd two sessions of Warhammer 3, running an old Warhammer 2 adventure, Slaves of Destiny, for two stupendously strong Dwarf PCs, which the players say they want to continue with more players in 2016. At the beginning of the year I joined an entertaining Dark Heresy adventure set in the Hive Desoleum, playing a fanatical voidborn seeker called Suleiman the Lost. Playing Dark Heresy is fun because it is so comically grim, and you can really let out all your inner demons in a world where no one is innocent and no measures too extreme. The adventure I joined was finished in a subsequent session, with a lot of heretic-burning and sacrifice before the chaos was hunted out and destroyed, but I wasn’t there for that, unfortunately. I don’t really like the Dark Heresy system, which is a shame because the universe is a lot of fun. One of our members, Tall B, objects to Dark Heresy as a campaign setting on the grounds that it is too grim, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this.

We also played a session of Seventh Sea, which I never got a chance to write up, in which I played a hilarious little arsehole called Tom Fumb, a tiny thief who “goes where ‘e’s gotta go, to do wot’s gotta get dun.” The Seventh Sea system is entertaining and it held a lot of promise but the session got drawn out and exhausting in a duel that no one could win (broken combat rules, I think). One of Team WTF’s members, Grim D, wants to run more of this, so I think we’ll be revisiting it sometime this year. More Tom Fumb will be awesome.

Finally I got to sample a brief End of the World adventure just before Christmas, my first ever attempt at playing in a zombie setting, and it was fun but not as satisfying as I expected. I missed out on Dragon Age, which the group ran as a 2-3 session mini-campaign, so I think in total this year I missed one Dark Heresy, a couple of Dragon Age and one Cyberpunk session.

Experimental writing

I also tried my hand at writing a few short stories for this blog in 2015, something I might try and do a little bit more of in 2016. I wrote a brief cyberpunk story, Naming Rites, about the past of one of the campaign characters, that got linked to on Reddit and attracted a tiny bit of attention. Along the same theme I wrote a bit of background for my cyberpunk character, Drew, called Russian Ghosts, and she also tried her hand at travel writing in A Siberian Druid in Venice, in which she takes a brief trip to Venice after killing the Pope. I wrote that while I was in Venice, as my attempt at offering a critique of some of the museum-like aspects of that strange town. I tried out a few other voices too, for example Gael the Plague Doctor in the Loser’s Vignette, my report of a Darkest Dungeon (computer) gaming session that didn’t work out. A lot of my writing is based on game reports, for example the attempt at fragmentary stories for Cyberpunk session 16 (Chaos Vignettes), but this year I aim to try my hand at a little more writing from outside of the games. I have also written a few personal posts this year, about growing up in the UK and Australia, and dealing with family, and I might put a little more of that on the blog too this year – I have things I want to say about growing up poor, and maybe some more historical gaming experiences to talk about. If I can find the time …

Gaming plans for 2016

In total this year I think I played or GM’d on average every fortnight, and our group met slightly more frequently than that, though we weren’t all present at every session. That’s a really excellent level of gaming for a group of adults in their 20s to 40s, with all the life commitments that adults have. I’m hoping that in 2016 we can maintain the pace. We lost one member, Killkat, to a different country, so we need to recruit new members. For 2016 I aim to explore other groups a bit, to see what else other people are doing and look for new members, but my main gaming goal for 2016 is to run a full-blown Spiral Confederacy campaign with Team WTF, and to see what fantastic adventures they can take me to in that universe. Let’s enjoy gaming together in 2016!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Indiana, USA[1] has just passed a law that discriminates against ordinary arseholes, and especially confirmed atheist arseholes. This law would make discrimination okay so long as the discriminator [hereafter referred to as “the arsehole”] is religious, and clearly sets up three categories of people with different sets of rights: nice people who want everyone to get along, religious arseholes and non-religious arseholes. Into the latter category we can add arseholes who are religious but whose arseholery is clearly not religiously-based, which is a distinction I’m sure the current Supreme Court can have a lot of hours of fun with.

As a confirmed, unrelenting but unfortunately atheist arsehole, I will be boycotting Indiana from now on. I was planning to visit later this year, rent a massive gas guzzling car with sealskin hubcaps and drive around throwing money to passing orphans while snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of zero-size barely legal models, but I refuse to throw away my arsehole currency in a state that classifies me as a second-class citizen. I will instead visit a state that allows all arseholes to be equally arseholey[2].

I mean, what is the point of this law except to redefine arseholes into two categories? It can’t possibly be the case that the LGBT couple who are refused service will be all peachy about it just because the refuser is wearing a funny hat, or believes in some funny beardy dude; I accept that intent is important in framing law (see e.g. manslaughter vs. murder) but usually it is limited to classifying degrees of severity, not allowing some people to break the law with impunity. Sure, if the law defined degrees of discrimination it might make sense (and a whole new season of Law and Order would be born) but to just define away criminality for certain classes of arsehole? Isn’t that … discriminatory?

This Vox article tells me that 20 states in the USA have these laws in place, and suggests to me that arsehole freedom is the next great civil rights movement in America (we could call ourselves the moonies). It also makes me wonder if there are any adults left in America, because it suggests that most of these laws have been passed to protect “religious minorities” and gives an example of Amish trying to protect themselves from a law that requires them to hang a glowing light on their buggies. They had to go to court to get protection against that law? Couldn’t everyone just discuss the law and come up with a compromise? Apparently not in America. And did the Amish really think they were so special that they were willing to go to special legal lengths to ensure that they didn’t have the same road safety responsibilities as everyone else? And why should they?

The same applies to vaccination exemption laws. If you believe in some beardy dude who says that women are second-rate citizens, gay people should be shot (I’m looking at you, Californian arseholes!) and pi is 3.0, you get to endanger other peoples’ kids by refusing  a medically safe and proven technology. But if your intention is simply to endanger other peoples’ kids because you’re a misanthropic arsehole who is too smart to believe the blather of a 2000 year old book that was written before people understood how to be nice to each other then too bad! You gotta be nice or face a fine.

Why this extreme double standard against arseholes?

America needs a movement of arseholes, willing to throw off their shackles and rise up against discrimination, before it becomes impossible to be intelligent and mean in any state of the union! Rise up, arseholes of America, and reclaim your right to be mean to people you don’t like for no other reason, without having to dishonestly cloak it in superstitious blather! Truly, liberation of pure arseholes is the movement 21st Century America needs, and truly 21st Century America is ready for it!

fn1: What is it with Americans thinking they don’t need to specify which country their states are in?

fn2: Suggestions in comments please

In preparation for a post on the political origins of anti-vaccination ideology, I want to make a point about the way that the ordinary public interact with scientists. My last post on anti-vax and Republicans has been linked to by a climate change blog, and on that blog one of the commenters is making big claims about what the public should do to understand climate science. In particular he or she says:

‘Trust the science’ is a very ambiguous statement. People should follow the scientific method, but I think what you mean is closer to ‘people should blindly believe what authority figures in science tell them’. This can get very dangerous and appeal to authority is not part of the scientific method. Rather the scientific method involves questioning authority and skepticism.

I think this is an incredibly unreasonable and unrealistic depiction of how people should interact with scientists, and is an advanced form of epistemological nihilism. I want to give a specific example of why, though I’m sure there are many others.

My father left school at 15 to take up a trade as a typesetter, my mother left school at 13 to work in a cake shop and her father left school in Spain at 15 to fight fascism (he subsequently became a forester in England after the war and devoted his spare time to raising a family and learning English). Not only did all my forebears leave school before they got a chance to receive an advanced science education, but they went to school before computers were common, when quantum mechanics was still in its learning stage (e.g. before Bell’s Inequality) and in my grandfather’s case before the invention of the microwave, the guided missile, or a man on the moon. The idea that my parents and my grandfather can “follow the scientific method” – indeed, that they even know what it is – is ludicrous, as is the idea that they have any kind of skill or capacity to question authority where science is concerned. Furthermore, the idea that they should work 9 hour days of physical labour and then come home and devote their time to learning about these things in order to understand policy about important issues like global warming is both unreasonable and, frankly, insulting. If you can’t explain this shit to these people in a way they understand, don’t get uppity that they aren’t willing to put the time into learning your shit properly. They’re busy, and their reasons for being busy are just as valid as yours. I would go further and say that most scientists don’t have a clue about how typesetting works (that’s why LateX was invented!) and would get quite miffed if they got an email from their publisher saying “we can’t be bothered fixing up the typesetting in your paper so that it can be legible in print. You should have learnt this stuff. Your paper is going to look like shit.” Life is too big to learn everything, and this is why we have specialization. Expecting everyone to engage with your trivial little skillset[1] is called “arrogance” in the real world.

So, I don’t think this is how ordinary people should interact with science. In a functioning society, ordinary people should be able to assume that scientists are working for the good of all, that government funds are expended on science in a way that is somehow subject to reasonable oversight and judgement, that experts translate this stuff into public policy, and that ordinary people with no science background can trust that their political representatives are handling the science in a way that is open, rational and coherent. With proper governance structures they can have mild confidence that science is being done ethically and to certain basic standards of intellectual rigor, and with a professional and well-run media they can have some confidence that the popularization of science doesn’t also debase and ruin it. In this sense, while “appeal to authority” is not part of the scientific method it is very much part of how we the public interact with and make decisions about the implications of the scientific method for policy. If 97% of climate scientists say the earth is warming through human influence, then the public should be able to be confident that this means mitigation needs to be debated. If doctors say vaccination for mumps, measles and rubella is needed at a certain age, we should be able to go along with it because we trust that those doctors came to that position through a transparent, ethical process of scientific inquiry, and this position only entered practical health policy through a well-governed and robust process of policy development. We should not have to follow the chain of logic, statistics and biological science that led to this decision in order to support it.

This process by which people actually engage with science in practice is the reason that ideologically-determined views of science are both unavoidable and necessary. Left-wing or working class people will trust that the science minister they voted in from the labour party interprets science into policy in a way that is both a) in the interests of all of society and b) in their class interests; similarly right-wing or rich people will assume that the science minister they voted in will interpret science into policy in a way that represents their love of the free market and eating puppies while kittens cry. This is both inevitable and right (except for the kittens crying). The breakdown of political responses to climate change and the acrimonious debate surrounding it has not occurred because ordinary people failed to follow the scientific method (or did, and found it wanting); it has occurred because a certain part of the political scene in the rich west has abandoned its responsibilities to its electors and started lying to them about a fundamentally important issue. This is a failure of governance and ethics on the part of our leaders, not a failure of ordinary people to engage in scientific critique.

Provided their political representatives hold their best interests at heart, people can be as ignorant as sin about science, and still see good scientific outcomes without even knowing that there is such a thing as “the scientific method.” Conversely, when our political representatives go feral on us and refuse to act on science that is compelling and urgent, it doesn’t matter how educated and engaged ordinary people are – we’re toast. This is why the global warming issue is not being addressed, and in my opinion (as I hope to show in my next post) there is absolutely no lesson to be learnt about vaccination policy from the clusterfuck that is global warming. And in any of these scientific debates, the expectation that ordinary people should engage with science rather than judging it through reference to their authority figures is simultaneously arrogant, unrealistic and ignorant.

fn1: “Skillset” is one of my most hated words, and I use it here to be deliberately insulting

This week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has a perspective piece by a doctor from Kentucky, describing the changes wrought by Obamacare in its first year. The doctor, Michael Stillman, is writing from a clinic serving a relatively poor area with limited health access: 60% of the doctor’s patients had no health insurance in the year before Obamacare’s introduction. It’s a short but quite powerful piece, and worth reading if one wants to get a sense of the transformative effect of Obamacare for the working poor. Dr. Stillman writes:

Last year, I encountered a patient with widely metastatic colon cancer whose diagnosis had been delayed because of lack of health insurance. He had clearly become ill at the wrong moment in our commonwealth’s history. Before Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear decided to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion, the 60% of my clinic patients and 650,000 Kentuckians who lacked health insurance received disjointed and disastrous care. They could be seen in subsidized facilities and be charged for their visits on a sliding scale, but they were asked to pay in advance for most diagnostic tests and consultations. Many of them avoided routine and preventive care — and worried that a medical emergency would leave them bankrupt.

This describes a pretty terrible situation in the world’s richest nation, and something that could hardly be imagined in any other developed nation. Dr. Stillman’s first sentence in this paragraph has a reference to another perspective he wrote last year, Dead Man Walking, in which he describes the case of this patient with colon cancer in more detail:

We met Tommy Davis in our hospital’s clinic for indigent persons in March 2013 (the name and date have been changed to protect the patient’s privacy). He and his wife had been chronically uninsured despite working full-time jobs and were now facing disastrous consequences.

The week before this appointment, Mr. Davis had come to our emergency department with abdominal pain and obstipation. His examination, laboratory tests, and CT scan had cost him $10,000 (his entire life savings), and at evening’s end he’d been sent home with a diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer.

The year before, he’d had similar symptoms and visited a primary care physician, who had taken a cursory history, told Mr. Davis he’d need insurance to be adequately evaluated, and billed him $200 for the appointment. Since Mr. Davis was poor and ineligible for Kentucky Medicaid, however, he’d simply used enemas until he was unable to defecate. By the time of his emergency department evaluation, he had a fully obstructed colon and widespread disease and chose to forgo treatment.

This is not the fate that should be allotted to the working poor. Obamacare will change this situation for a large number of Americans: in Mr. Davis’s case, Obamacare made him eligible for Medicaid, so had Obamacare been passed just a little earlier he might have been able to diagnose and treat his cancer earlier; or at the very least, would not have used up all his life savings on a mere diagnosis. The author reports that in Kentucky Obamacare has expanded access to 430,000 previously-uninsured Americans, and the same process is being repeated across the country. The Obama administration itself is forecasting a total of 9 million people will gain health insurance through the ACA, and I earlier reported on the first assessments of its impact from the Commonwealth Fund. Although most of the rest of the world agrees that Obamacare is flawed and doesn’t go far enough towards universal health coverage, this is still a huge achievement and any politician who opposes it, or any pundit like Michael Cannon who deploys disingenuous arguments to destroy it on ideological grounds should be seen as the wrecker and low-life that they are. Responsible politicians of any political stripe should be focusing on improving it, not destroying it, but sadly this is not the way the American political system seems to work.

Dr. Stillman finishes his article with this little observation:

I was once uncomfortable discussing politics with my patients, but now I routinely ask them if they are registered to vote and remind them that certain candidates do not support the legislation from which they have so palpably benefitted.

This little sentence should have Republicans and other opponents of Obamacare worried. If they can’t destroy it in the Supreme Court soon, they’re going to have to hoodwink 9 million Americans at the next election. The fact that they would even consider such a reckless and destructive policy is a depressing indictment of the cruelty and shortsightedness of the modern Republican party. I hope their intransigence on this issue destroys them at the next election, and Obamacare survives to be improved and consolidated, rather than dismantled and discredited. For where will the working poor be without it?

Over the past few years I’ve looked at a lot of the probabilistic and statistical aspects of specific game designs, from the Japanese game Double Cross 3 to Pathfinder, including comparing different systems and providing some general notes on dice pools. I’ve also played various amounts of World of Darkness, Iron Kingdoms, D&D, Warhammer 2 and 3, and some Japanese systems, that all have quite diverse systems. Given this experience and the analytical background, it seems reasonable to start drawing it all together to ponder what make for some good basic principles of RPG system design. I don’t mean here the ineffable substance of a good RPG, rather I mean the kind of basic mechanical details that can make or break a system for long term play, regardless of its world-building, background and design. For example, I think Shadowrun might be broken in its basic form, to the extent that people who try playing it for any length of time get exasperated, and this might explain why every gaming company that handles Shadowrun seems to go bust.

So, here is a brief list of what I think might be some important principles to use in the development of games. Of course they’re all just my opinion, which comes with the usual disclaimers. Have at ’em in comments if you think any are egregiously bad!

  • Dice pools are fun: everyone likes rolling handfuls of dice, and the weighty feeling of a big hand of dice before a big attack really makes you feel viscerally there, in comparison to a single d20
  • Big or complex dice pools suck: Big dice pools can really slow down the construction and counting parts of rolling a skill check, but on top of this they are basically constructing a binomial distribution, and with more than a couple of trials (dice) in a binomial distribution, it’s extremely hard to get very low numbers of successes. So large and complex dice pools need to be limited, or reserved for super-special attacks
  • Attacks should use a single roll: Having opposed skill checks in combat means doubling the number of rolls, and really slows things down. Having cast around through a lot of different systems, I have to say that the saving throw mechanism of D&D is really effective, because it reduces the attack to one roll and it makes the PC the agent of their own demise or survival when someone attacks them. On the other hand, rolling to hit and then rolling to damage seems terribly inefficient
  • Where possible, the PC should be the agent of the check: that is, if there is a choice in the rules where the GM could roll to affect the PC, or the PC could roll to avoid being affected by the GM, the latter choice is better. See my note above on saving throws.
  • Efficiency of resolution is important: the less rolls, counts and general faffs, the better.
  • Probability distributions should be intuitively understandable: or at least, explainable in the rules – and estimates of the effect of changes to the dice system (bonuses, extra dice, etc.) should be explained so GMs can understand how to handle challenges
  • Skill should affect defense: so many games (D&D and World of Darkness as immediate examples) don’t incorporate the PC’s skills into defense at all, or much. In both games, armour and attributes are the entire determinant of your defense. This is just silly. Attributes alone should not determine how well you survive.
  • Attributes should never be double-counted: In Warhammer 3, Toughness determines your hit points and acts as soak in combat; in D&D strength determines your chance to hit and is then added again to your damage. In both cases this means that your attribute is being given twice the weight in a crucial challenge. This should be avoided.
  • Fatigue and resource-management add risk and fun: Fighting and running and being blown up are exhausting, and so is casting spells; a mechanism for incorporating this into how your PCs decide what to do next is important. Most games have this (even D&D’s spells-per-day mechanism is basically a fatigue mechanism, if a somewhat blunt one), and I would argue that where possible adding elements of randomness to this mechanism really makes the player’s task interesting. But …
  • Resource-management should not be time-consuming: this is a big problem of Warhammer 3, which combined fatigue management with cool-downs and power points. Too much!
  • The PCs should have a game-breaker: we’re heroes after all. Edge, Fate, Feat points, Fortune … many games have this property, and it’s really useful both as a circuit-breaker for times when the GM completely miscalculates adversaries, and as ways for players to escape from disastrous scenarios, and to add heroism to the game
  • Skills should be broad, simple and accessible: The path of Maximum Skill Diversity laid out in Pathfinder is not a good path. The simplification and generalization of skills laid out in Warhammer 3 is the way to go.
  • Wizards should have utility magic: the 13th Age/D&D 4th Edition idea of reducing magic to just another kind of weapon is really a fun-killer. The AD&D list of millions of useless spells that you one day find yourself really needing is a much more fun and enjoyable way of being a wizard. It’s telling that D&D 5th Edition has resurrected this.
  • Character classes and levels are fun: I don’t know why, they just are. Anyone who claims they didn’t like the beautifully drawn and elaborate career section of Warhammer 2 is lying. Sure, diversity should be possible within careers but there should be distinction between careers and clarity in their separate roles (something that, for example, doesn’t seem to actually be a strong point of Iron Kingdoms despite its huge range of careers). At higher levels characters should really rock in the main roles of their class
  • Bards suck: they just do. Social skills should be important in games, but elevating them to a central class trait really should be reserved for very specialized game settings. Bards suck in Rolemaster, they suck in D&D, they suck in 13th Age and they suck in Iron Kingdoms. Don’t play a bard.
  • Magic should be powerful: John Micksen, my current World of Darkness Mage, is awesome, but mainly because he is cleverly combining 4 ranks in life magic and 3 ranks in fate magic with some serious physical prowess and a +5 magic sword (Excalibur, in fact!) to get his 21 dice of awesome. Most of the spells in the Mage book suck, and if you made the mistake of playing a mage who specializes in Prime and Spirit… well, basically you’re doomed, and everyone is going to think you’re a loser. Mages should be powerful and their powers – which in every system seem to come with risk for no apparent justifiable reason – should be something that others are afraid of. You’ll never meet a World of Darkness group who yell “get the mage first!” What’s the point of that?
  • Death spirals are important: PCs should be aware that the longer they are in a battle, the more risky it gets for them. They should be afraid of every wound, and should be willing to consider withdrawal from combat rather than continuing, before the TPK. Death spirals are an excellent way to achieve this combination of caution and ultra-violence. Getting hit hurts, and players should be subjected to a mechanism that reminds them of that.

I don’t know if any game can live up to all these principles, though it’s possible a simplified version of Shadowrun might cut it, and some aspects of the simplified Warhammer 3 I used recently came close (though ultimately that system remains irretrievably broken). Is there any system that meets all of these principles?

Will Self has declared war on George Orwell, anointing him the “Supreme Mediocrity” in a mediocre essay distinguished only by its needless use of the word “lucubrations.” For those of you Americans out there who know of Orwell but have never heard of Will Self (I wonder how that came about?), Self is a novelist who is something of a darling of the British “lovie-liberal” inner city late-sipping champagne socialist set (and Guardian readers, where those two don’t overlap), who is famous for a pretentious writing style that uses too many fancy words. If you doubt the quality of my judgment, try anything from this extract from his new book:

Claude experiments, turning his whole head because his eye sockets …are filled with gritty sand, – he sees the sea green to aquamarine to cobalt blue to silver blue to silvery to silver white then vanish completely as …I push my head up her skirt… Mm–mm, finest ear-protectors a fellow can get – flesh-filled nylons fitted snug to the head and dried with talc… The kid is maybe forty feet down now, yet his dancing plummeting body can still be clearly seen

Unadulterated bullshit, or quality literature? You be the judge.

Will Self, of course, is emblematic of a vanguard of … how can we put this nicely? … dickheads who have managed between them to kill much of the joy of the English novel over the past couple of decades. Over that time I’ve met a few people – some literature majors – who have told me they’ve basically given up on reading novels, because for example “I couldn’t give a toss about another rich white person’s shallow imaginary world,” or because “it’s all showmanship and self-importance, there’s no joy in it” or just because “Oh my god what a pack of tossers the literary world has become.” The Man-Booker prizelist is an example of this: supposedly composed of the best writers of English in the Commonwealth, it is actually a shortlist of writers to avoid if you want to read a good book, and for all the reasons those who eschew the modern novel have given me. The Man-Booker prize winners are a small clique of stuck-up novelists who write to impress each other, rather than to extend the joys of the English language. That’s fine, soggy sao is a fine public school tradition and if that’s what gets you off then by all means, do your worst … but must you demand a prize for it? Will Self, of course, has been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and if he keeps randomly resampling his thesaurus, eventually he’ll win. He’s a pretentious writer who knows how to use long words and wide vocabulary to hide a lack of ideas or talent.

In short, the antithesis of everything George Orwell stood for. With a new book out, so of course it’s a prime time to lay the boot into one of his dead idols.

It’s telling that Self opens the essay with a quote from Chesterton, an author who would very much fall into Orwell’s camp where opinions about pretentious writing are concerned. He then lays out a rather petty theory of why British people laud mediocrities, against all the evidence that the real heroes of the British are not mediocre at all (Churchill and Thatcher, mediocre? “Individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality”?). This is an example of the kind of theorizing a vapid writer-at-large can pull out of thin air, gloss with a few fancy words and toss about without regard for truth or sense, but it is certainly no kind of comment on Britain or how the British construct their idols. So from this lead-in to the conclusion that Orwell is a mediocrity, we have a logical failure built on a failed premise. He then manages to find two paragraphs of his entire essay to actually discuss what might be wrong with Orwell’s work, though again here he bandies his opinion about without any evidence or logic. No support for the claim of “obvious didacticism” and no discussion of what makes an “unadorned Anglo-Saxon style,” or indeed what might be wrong with such a thing. Make no mistake, this is how famous people troll – with fact-free assertions they can get away with because they’re given free rein over the BBC’s essay pages.

But it’s from this piss-poor effort at criticizing Orwell’s actual written work that Self then goes on to make his biggest fail in this essay. Citing Orwell’s famous essay on straight English, Self spends several paragraphs showing exactly the extent to which he failed to understand that essay. He says first of all that it is wrong, and then explains why: because language grows and mutates, and is defined by how people use it and why they use it, and attempts to dictate centrally how language should be used are morally wrong, whether enforced by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.

The thing is, Orwell’s essay has nothing to say about how language mutates or is reformed, he doesn’t give a toss about “African American Vernacular English” (oh Will, why did you choose such a pathetically PC-baiting example?!) or how much English consumes other languages and reconstitutes them to feed its voracious needs. His famous essay is about the dangers of using whatever language is at your disposal in disingenuous or deceptive ways, to hide what you mean rather than to say it. Furthermore, the primary value of the essay is not in what it says to authors and fiction writers, but to all those other users of English who are clearly beneath Self’s gaze: scientists, bureaucrats, business people, journalists, politicians and the like. Of course Will Self doesn’t have to actually work, except inasmuch as he is overpaid for occasionally dressing up shallow and simple ideas so that they look interesting. But for the rest of us – those of us for whom English is important to express to others the content of our real jobs – the ways in which English can be abused to hide meaning are very important and require a lot of skill to grasp.

For example, if you’re going to be paid a crapton of money to talk about some dude watching a kid drown while imagining going down on his nanny, it frankly doesn’t matter how much florid language you use, you’re just trying to make a dumb non-sequitur look interesting. But if you’re writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics and you have to explain the interpretation of a Bayesian credible interval compared to a frequentist confidence interval, you already have a lot of jargon to juggle and you need to think very carefully about how to calibrate your prose so that it is comprehensible between all the technical language. If you have to polish your language down to a couple of thousand words expressing a huge research task, you need to be very careful about when and how you embellish your language. And conversely, if you want to reassure the American public that you aren’t water-boarding innocent people when in fact you are, but you don’t want to be caught lying, you need to very carefully use language deceitfully in order to get away with it. Orwell’s concern is not with whether someone lies in the Queen’s English or Ebonics; his concern is with the deceitful use of language to lie or obfuscate, or the accidental embellishment of language in a way that makes it incomprehensible.

That Will Self didn’t understand this fundamental point of the essay he presents as evidence for the mediocrity of Orwell’s writing style would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. And roping in a poorly-understood version of Chomsky to help in the task of getting it wrong is really not a good look either. Nor is mistaking the clear elucidation of a terrible dystopia as “didacticism” just because you think that making a thing clearly understood is the same as talking down to someone like an authoritarian teacher. This says more about Self’s insecurities than it does about Orwell’s writing style.

Self finishes his ignorant little rant by talking about how poorly he views “those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George.” For a lot of people, Orwell’s essay on how to use English has been a guiding light in a world of business jargon, weasel words, dissembling and deceit; many of us work in jobs where English is important for expressing the actual content of our work, rather than as a way of dressing up our shallow, imbecilic imagination for a sycophantic crowd of fellow-travellers. For us, work like Orwell’s essay on politics and the English language is a clear guide on how to improve our writing so that we can express complex ideas clearly and accessibly; and also a workbook on how to identify when people are lying to us through creative use of language. To Will Self, however, we are “mediocrities.”Faced with a choice between the “Supreme Mediocrity” and an advanced thesaurus-user who can’t even win the Man-Booker prize, I think I’ll stick with Orwell for future writing advice. And I suspect that 50 years after Self’s death, the majority of the English-speaking world will be making the same decision as me.

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