The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

To Support and Defend

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

That's the oath of office I took almost five years ago when I entered the Academy and again just last year when I was commissioned. (I did kind of skip over the last four words, as is common practice for atheist officers... or anyone with some form of political or religious objection to saying them.) I meant every word, and I still do, and I think the idea of any military officer not believing in and upholding this oath is ludicrous.

High school students, on the other hand...

Apparently Arizona's up to some interesting things again. According to a blog post on the Friendly Atheist blog, they're coming up with a bill that would require graduating seniors to take that same oath. (There are minor changes to the last bit, since they are not entering any specific office; otherwise, it is exactly the same.)

Really, my question boils down to: what is the point of this, again? It's not that I don't think having loyal citizens is important. I just don't think all of them need to be involved in actively defending the Constitution. Granted, I would hope they vote for people they expect to uphold the Constitution, but that's about the only activity the average person will engage in where such concerns matter.

On top of that, as many bloggers, news sites, and their commenters have pointed out, there is something seriously wrong with the idea of telling someone that they are taking an obligation of their own free will while simultaneously threatening them with adverse consequences if they don't take it. By which I mean they're completely contradictory; no one can swear this oath freely with the threat of not getting their diploma hanging over their heads. Anyone honorable enough to believe in and uphold the oath would therefore refuse to take it in the first place. If we're lucky, the people taking it are only going to be lying for that one part - if we're not, they don't mean any of it and any point in having it goes away.

And all that is without worrying about foreign exchange students or religious objectors. Adding those into this mess makes the whole thing even more of a poorly thought out debacle.

To put it bluntly: Let's not cheapen everyone's honor and our oaths with something like this.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Abuse and Criticism

Topic for this week's post is insulting behavior; sparked by a blog post on a blog I read called Starlight and Shadows.

To summarize the issue: what's the appropriate reaction to insulting or abusive behavior? The post in question refers to a discussion on the League of Legends forums about the appropriate reaction to a player who is undeniably good, but rather caustic towards... probably everyone, but particularly those people who he sees as inferior to himself. For that matter, I'm willing to bet that every online multiplayer game that allows players to talk freely has this debate going on somewhere. So what's the answer?

I'm very much of two minds on this issue... or perhaps I should say that my stance is somewhat complicated. Speaking for myself, I almost always decide to ignore that sort of thing. I'm not even quite sure how I decided it, but I think I basically decided somewhere between high school and here that I would only let my own conscience judge myself that way. Which doesn't mean that other people can't criticize me, but if I don't think the criticism is valid, I tend to ignore it completely. Even if there's valid criticism mixed with invective, I tend to be able to distinguish between things I do need to worry about (e.g. job performance) and things I don't (e.g. being a useless waste of space).

Perhaps more to the point, I think this is a good thing for me. It makes my life easier, and I think it's generally a good attitude for anyone to have... and I have no idea how to convey that to anyone who is suffering due to abuse like that in a way that doesn't look like me telling them to fix themselves.

Basically, I also agree with the other point that the linked blog post made: telling someone who is not taking abuse well to just ignore it is unhelpful at best... and actively destructive at worst. It's been a long time since someone was abusive enough to get to me, but I file that response under the trite, simple solutions that everyone trots out... and that no one seems to know how to actually use. I may not deal with such platitudes due to abuse, but I have heard them before when I was depressed or unhappy for other reasons - and what they mostly accomplished was to add loneliness and fear to the mix. The fear in particular was particularly destructive; it was the idea that nobody understood, possibly even that nobody could understand what I was feeling, with the simple use of such an unhelpful, nonspecific solution as evidence... Maybe that's just me, but somehow I doubt it. And I really don't think that anything like that is truly necessary.

About the only point there I disagree with is the idea that the other option is to take the advice in question and suppress your own identity and emotions in the process. Simply put, I think that the given strategy worked in my case without those negatives; I was able to incorporate that note about my own conscience into my identity, and as I already stated, I'm content with that. It might not be who I was back in middle or high school, nor who I would be if I'd never dealt with any abuse, but I'm happy with it nonetheless.

Even with that note, I do still agree with the post's last bit of advice; telling people to cut it out works much better. Not so much because it will stop the abuse - I think there are, unfortunately, some people who wouldn't stop acting that caustic even in the face of physical violence - but because it will let the victims know that someone stands with them. That might be what's necessary to prevent tragedy, or it might "merely" brighten someone's day to know that someone's willing to help and listen. That offers a better chance of a good outcome than ignoring it and telling them to toughen up, and its consequences even when it doesn't work as well as we might hope are usually better as well.

One final problem (because naturally, life never seems to leave me with anything I can say is conclusively solved): balancing my own willingness to ignore some of these problems with the need to stand up and support others if necessary. That one, unfortunately, has also caused real problems for me - on one hand, I'm not going to force myself to care about insults directed at myself; on the other, I won't deny that it can make me slower to react when I'm not the target. Ultimately, I think I'm going to have to do my best (namely: reacting to my problems in ways that make me comfortable while still reacting to others' problems in a way that makes me helpful instead of part of the problem), trust myself to realize when I'm not, and check myself in whatever ways I can to make sure that my trust isn't misplaced.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Changing course...maybe

As I think about all the posts I've written thus far, I'm beginning to think that most of are following the same line: I use some aspect of a random event or debate I recently had to have a more meta discussion about debating itself and about what I believed constituted a rational position.

Which is fine in some ways. It's more or less what I wanted to do with blogging in the first place, actually; I gave up on my first attempt at blogging because explicitly spelling out that I was criticizing other people's decision making processes made me too afraid of making mistakes with my own to actually post anything. This blog's focus on commentary is the result of a conscious decision on my part to try something which I can (at least theoretically) do (and one for which a mistake is something to correct instead of evidence of arrogant hypocrisy).

With that said, I really would like to try and get back to that whole commentary thing - actually discussing issues instead of using them as excuses to go on random tangents. I may have ended up where I originally wanted to go, but where I wanted to go is looking less interesting than it did when I came up with the idea. It seems to be just as well that I came up with the focus for this blog, since finding issues I'm legitimately interested in and discussing them is looking interesting now.

Of course, the first half of that last sentence is harder than I thought it would be. The number of daily blog posts on Freethought Blogs and the number of WIGO entries on RationalWiki's pages both indicate that there's plenty going on in the world... whether I'm interested enough to come up with something to add to the discussion is another matter. And while my weekly schedule provides at least some consistency for readers, it's also harder to keep than I thought it was going to be. I don't expect to abandon it, but as I have in the past, I may miss a week or two (and I hope my one or two current readers won't mind those hiccups).

So, in summary: going to try to talk about more actual issues instead of going off on tangents. And announcing my intent to do so conveniently accounts for this week's post.

Oh, by the way: I actually do like the "x and y" conceit for the title... I hope no one minds if today is only a temporary break, because I intend to do it until (and maybe even if) I start repeating titles.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Conviction and Rationality

Sorry for missing last week.

Anyway. Every so often, RationalWiki points me at something interesting; in this case, it's a blog post about what the author terms "epistemic learned helplessness". (I have no idea if this is a more widely accepted concept than I think it is, which is why I only say that this person uses this term.)

To put it as simply as I can, it's the idea that some people learn that they can't distinguish between an argument which simply sounds good and an argument which actually is good. (Of course, the really ironic point is that I'm not sure if my one-line summary is precisely accurate...)

I do think there's some truth to the idea that it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between a well-argued point and an accurate point. I draw a distinction between rhetoric, which I define as the skill used to convince others of a point, and reason or logic, which is the skill used to actually prove a point true. More to the point, I believe it's possible to employ the former and neglect the latter - I'm pretty sure I've made that point before, though.

This epistemic learned helplessness is a response to that, obviously; now the question becomes whether I believe it's a good response. The most general answer I have is that it is not. In fact, I believe that in tricky situations, our own ability to reason is the only thing we can trust completely. It has its limits - I've expressed enough annoyance about various cognitive biases to be quite certain of that - but awareness of those limits acts as a powerful mitigating factor. Or, at least, the most powerful mitigating factor that can be reasonably expected out of anyone. I think it's better for people to use what logic they have to come to a conclusion than it is for them to completely abandon the debate.

With that said, using that skill properly and using those mitigating factors can be very difficult and time-consuming. Certainly doing both those things to the point where it becomes possible or easy to explain it to others, particularly in the face of powerful rhetoric, can be troublesome. I'd say that that's where this epistemic learned helplessness comes from in the first place - from people who lack the time or motivation to fix the gaps in their knowledge. This is the basis of another problem; I can understand that nobody has time to exhaustively study every issue, but I also encourage them to take a position anyway and don't like the idea that those positions should be automatically discounted. That leads to a lot of people who may have poor conclusions arguing that their conclusions should be respected despite their lack of ability to defend them, as well as giving us no way to distinguish between that and people with good ideas who lack the time or background knowledge to defend them properly against hostile rhetoric.

As usual, my idea for a solution contains responsibilities for both the speaker and the listener - in fact, I very much suspect that I'm about to repeat arguments about the nature of debate from some of my previous posts. The speaker should be aware of the weaknesses of his own position - essentially, instead of using any epistemic learned helplessness as a justification to ignore the arguement, it should be used to make any listeners aware that the argument being made isn't as strong as the speaker might wish. Obviously, this will affect how much weight any of those listeners will give to the argument, and the speaker has little recourse if they dismiss it entirely beyond doing more research and presenting more evidence. At the same time, those listeners should be aware of the possibility that simple fatigue is the reason for such a declaration, rather than malice, and should endeavor to make their own points accessible and account for competing views - essentially, they should be aware of the difference between rhetoric and logic and how that can help cause that fatigue, and aim to use as much of the latter as is reasonable, particularly when they are also deploying the former skill.