heron61: (Heron - about me)
After seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Aaron and I talked a bit about masculinity. This is of particular interest to Aaron, likely due to some combination of being trans and growing up in Nebraska in the 70s & 80s, where gender seemed even more fraught than on the coasts. As someone with no particular attachment to my sex and even less to my gender, such conversations are always a bit odd. However, we discussed one topic that I rarely talk about, but which is very much at the heart of my social persona – the appearance of harmlessness.

I dress as a fop and a dandy, and tend to come across as significantly non-masculine. In part, this is due to having Jon Pertwee’s wonderful Third Doctor as one of the more important media characters in my childhood, combined with an overall distain for mainstream style and culture. However, there’s well more than that going on. In my late teens, when I first began to become a social being, it became clear to me that traditional masculinity was not merely repellent to me, it very much got in the way of things that I considered to be vitally important. Shortly after I got away from my seriously touch-starved family, I found that I enjoyed hugs, cuddling, and all manner of friendly and positive physical contact with people I like, just as I value people opening up to me emotionally. I also noticed that one of the central masculine dynamics, that’s still present today, was all about threat, fear, power, and dominance.

I have no use for any of that sort of thing. I greatly enjoy having things go the way I want them to, but this is very different from being in charge of a situation or acting as any sort of leader, a state that I’m rarely all that comfortable with, especially if the alternative is someone I like being in charge. I most especially have no interest in anyone feeling afraid of me or being threatened by me, I can see no possible benefit to me from that state and it was also very obvious to me that being that way got in the way of people feeling comfortable with me. Thus, one of my goals has been to come across as a kind and harmless fop, with a strong emphasis on being harmless. Put in the very direct & house-cat-like psychology that is my norm, my underlying impulse is the awareness that individuals who are at all aggressive or dominant are typically not regarded as cuddly, approachable, or safe to talk to. It’s mostly quite easy for me, since I am not a particularly dominant individual and am both disinclined to violence and in fact recoil from much violence, so some of this is perfectly natural behavior, but other bits of the image and behavior set that I normally use were consciously constructed to help set people at ease and to signal to them that I am safe to talk to, spend time with, and touch. All this puts me well outside the bounds of standard US masculinity, and while it is partly a construct, it is my own construct, and all social presentations are inherently constructs. On a related note, I have no idea if most people think as much about their social persona or personas I as I – perhaps it’s due to the fact that in part mine is a conscious construct designed to accomplish certain goals.
heron61: (Heron - about me)
So, here's yet another post sparked by that radio stations one year per day song countdown. Today, they played songs from 2001, and played two particularly memorable ones back to back. The first was Fragile by Sting, which called up memories of hearing it in the first days after September 11, and brought tears to my eyes. The surprise came with the next song they played. It was Let's Roll by Neil Young, and I found myself filled with rage at the song and the entire idea of turning the desperate and doomed events on that plane as some symbol of fighting for freedom and justice – two things that have had absolutely nothing to do with the US reaction to the events of that day slightly more than 7 years ago. I was angry at the use of people's deaths as a political statement, I was angry at someone most known for somewhat progressive songs producing such a jingoistic piece of crap, and most of all I was angry at the idea of the whole idea of glorified violence. I've grown increasingly intolerant of cinematic and glorified violence in media I watch, and seeing real life violence (even violence against insane attackers) being glorified in this fashion made me very angry indeed. I'm not certain that I'm a complete pacifist, but I do know that I can no longer accept violence of any form as anything to be celebrated and that the very idea of fighting and killing people in the name of justice or freedom makes a mockery of both. I had not know how strong my views on this had become until I listened to this song. I rather expect that the events of the last 7 years have changed everyone in the US, and clearly this is how I have been changed. I do not know what a good reaction to violence is, but I know in my heart that more violence in return may occasionally be necessary, but is never a remotely good act. I know there's a considerable body of literature about non-violence, and perhaps it's time for me to study it, since I would like to know strategies for dealing with violence that are both effective and acceptable. I don't expect to have to deal with violence in my own life, but I'd love to be able to offer advice to others who might that goes beyond the (to me) obvious truism that violence solves nothing. I suppose another thing that I would like for the holidays is a recommendation for well written and well considered books and on-line articles on this topic.
heron61: (Default)
After reading an article in Popular Science about life extension & the people who are looking into it and writing this comment about upgrading our species to better deal with rapid change, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to discuss my own take on transhumanism.

Essentially, I consider humanity (like all life-forms) to be a deeply flawed species. This is and obvious truism known by theologians, philosophers, biologists, and social scientists. To roughly paraphrase something [livejournal.com profile] byzantine_ruins wrote on usenet many years ago, we are insufficiently smart apes that live a pathetically short time.

On a personal front, I have absolutely no interest in ever dying, I believe in souls, reincarnation, and suchlike, but it is clear to me that retaining even a fraction of one's memories after death is exceptionally rare and I firmly believe that my personality w/o my memories is in no useful way me, so I believe that death is a final ending for me. As such, I have no desire for it to ever occur. Also, the world is full of many wonders and joys [1] and it seems to me that I would require a minimum of several thousand years to experience them (at which point, I would likely be very different than I am now, at which point I am almost certain that the me I will be then will find many other interests to pursue. Also, while all test scores indicate that I am smarter (or at least better at taking standardized tests) than 99.9% of people in the US I am continually frustrated with the fact that I forget facts I've read or minute details of my life. I would strongly prefer to be able to do complex math in my head and to never forget anything unless I wanted to. Given various advances being worked on now (like an artificial hippocampus), all this may soon be possible (in addition to genetic therapy to introduce genes for improved memory).

However, my fascination with transhumanism is more than simply a desire to be smarter and live forever. I think this is clearly the best path for our species. Far too many people do not sufficiently consider the consequences of their actions and short-term thinking is disturbingly widespread, even among the heads of governments and transnational corporations. Increased intelligence and increased lifespan would almost certainly improve both. Our world is changing increasingly rapidly and w/o some sort of horrid disaster, these changes aren't going to slow down anytime soon. I do not believe in paradise or utopia and in fact find the enire concept stifling, since nothing is ever perfect and everything can be improved and tinkered with in some useful fashion, but the world can clearly be far better than it is now and transhumanism seems to obvious path.

What puzzles me is even with something that is as much of an obvious good as increased longevity, there are people who disapprove of the concept, including to an extent the author of the Popular Science article:
If people don’t exit the stage for 5,000 years or so, there’s not much room for babies, not unless you want to contemplate a population bomb of massive proportions. Human life would become something like a union closed shop or a Senate subcommittee, where seniority rules and newcomers aren’t welcome. De Grey has thought hard about this, and his answer is unflinching: "We have a long tradition of prioritizing the rights of people who are alive over [those of] the unconceived."

Personally, I cringe at the cultural stasis of a world without a steady infusion of young people. (I believe John Archer, the bioremediation expert, put it best when he said, "If we’re still listening to Britney Spears in 5,000 years, we really will be buggered.") I go on for a bit about the importance of finitude, how we are meaningfully defined by the things we don’t get a chance to do—plumping for a more wistful, tragically tinged view of life, one that would be right at home in a college literature essay. “Death is the mother of beauty,” the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, and so on. (Later I discover that my rap on choices and the human condition has been advanced more skillfully by Leon Kass, the University of Chicago professor turned head of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.)
Such thinking both baffles and appalls me. As I have said before, I see absolutely no innate virtue in any sort of "natural" methods or ways of life, if we all lived in a more natural environment, most of those of us older than 35 would already be dead and all of us would have gone hungry more than once.

In short, I am a transhumanist because I firmly believe that if we can change or improve something in a way that would aid both ourselves individually and our species as a whole, then we should do so.

Even if there turn out to be absolute limits to human intellectual improvement, we might at least be able to create hyper-intelligent A.I.s (current research on quantum computers seems like a possible way to achieve create such beings), and I'd far rather be governed by a hopefully benign A.I. hundreds of times smarter and more knowledgeable than I am, especially when the option is a human ruler who is very likely dumber and less knowledgeable than me and who is no more likely to be benign.

[1] The idea found in almost all older religions, from Buddhism to Christianity, that the world is either innately evil or a place innately filled with suffering seems exceedingly outdated and no longer useful or applicable (at least to most residents of the First World). For people who are not in constant danger of starving or being murdered, the world obviously (to me at least) seems to be a rich and wonderful place that no one should have any desire to leave.
heron61: (Curious Cat)
Several nights ago, we were talking and [livejournal.com profile] imester mentioned to me that one of the more unusual things about me was that I had refused in any way to become a typical adult in our society. Despite having very little of it, I refuse to worry about money and let cleverness and luck take care of my financial problems, I am extremely causal about a great deal of paperwork (especially regarding my student loans :) and have absolutely none of the Protestant work ethic. I will happily spend many hours on tasks that I love, but see no reason to even consider pursuing any sort of career that isn't exceedingly enjoyable, regardless of how much it might pay. I also completely avoid deferring gratification more than a few weeks - if I don't enjoy the process of achieving something, the results are almost never worth it.

She also said that I have the morals of a house-cat, which I take to be an extremely high (if admittedly eccentric) compliment. I'm loyal and deeply loving, I take great care in my pleasures, and in general, no one noticing what I am doing is functionally equivalent to not doing it [Being told not to eat that tempting plant just means that I don't get to eat it when the humans are watching]. I simply possess very little of the complex of guilt and shame that limits much social behavior in our culture (and causes far too many people to be wracked with guilt over trivialities). Ripping off a friend is deeply wrong, ripping off a total stranger who isn't extremely wealthy is rather crass, but mostly simply foolish because the cost of doing so can easily outweigh the gain.

However, ripping off a large corporation that will never notice the loss is (for me) no moral quandary at all - I have something I wanted for free and don't get caught, so all is well. On rare occasions, I may worry about getting caught doing the various (generally quite minor) schemes I'm prone to, but that's as far as such things go [if someone leaves a plate of food just sitting there, it's obviously OK for me to have some]. These attitudes most definitely explain why I have only ever purchased one computer program in my life and now that I have a CD burner, I can't imagine ever buying another program. Arguments about the immorality of such actions are essentially meaningless to me because any negative consequences of my actions are both quite small and affect no one I know (or honestly anyone except a few wealthy people who have more money than they require). I've always found abstract principles like "theft is wrong" similarly meaningless and operate far more by the principles that both getting caught and upsetting anyone I care about are both very bad both because I don't wish to make anyone I care about feel bad and because either of the above consequences can result in extremely bad things happening to me (ie punishment by a government I do my best to avoid or having someone cease to care about me).

hopefully amusing thoughts on how all this applies to my personal relationships )
heron61: (Default)
Anger and the urge to do violence puzzle me. I have met a good number of people who talk about having the sort of anger that makes them worry that they might someday hurt someone. I've also met seemingly well-adjusted and fully functional people who find the idea of harming others enjoyable. I've also seen this happen on a truly terrifying scale in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, where it seemed that at least half of the Americans on the internet were overcome with rage, bloodlust, and the overwhelming desire to make someone responsible for that horror suffer and die. I felt none of this and was honestly horrified by most the sentiments I saw expressed. Such reactions both baffle and worry me. I am quite certain I've never felt that way since I was in elementary school, and even back then I don't know if my feelings were the same.

In part, I think the difference is that for many people anger is a "hot" uncontrollable emotion that fills them with a desire to strike back and potentially do violence. I have an exceptionally mild version of that that sometimes causes me to say a couple of sharp comments, but it fades within a very few minutes. For me, real anger is "cold" calculating emotion where I carefully consider how best to attain my goals w/o regard for the feelings or welfare of others. However, it is also extremely controlled and I've never once worried about doing anything I would later regret.

However, something more is going on – I've heard many people who I'm certain would never actually harm anyone talk about the appeal of violence and doing harm. Even apart from anger, there is something about violence that many people find greatly appealing and I do not share or even understand this feeling. The only times I have ever enjoyed inflicting pain on anyone is when they wanted me to – I love to power of inducing powerful sensations in someone, but all such desire vanishes the instant they cease enjoying it.

I see such tastes reflected in the media. I enjoy action pictures as much as anyone, but greatly prefer ones w/o graphic violence. Fancy vehicles, cool gadgets (including weapons) and fast-paced action are all exceedingly fun to watch and read about, but graphic violence of any sort greatly bothers me, which is why I avoid graphic horror films and action pictures that show any form of graphic death or serious suffering – watching such things makes me mildly sick and somewhat sad. I'm troubled that some people actually enjoy watching such films.

In reading back over this, I worry that I may come across as someone who is (or more likely believes myself to be) a better person than others. The urge to do violence baffles me, but this certainly doesn't make me a more moral person in any objective sense. If I were given the ability to kill people without risk of getting caught or harmed I'm fairly certain I would use it – mostly on several political figures, but a couple greed-motivated killings would also severely tempt me. I can easily see being quite certain that the world would be better off without some important person or that someone's death could bring me great personal benefit, however I believe that other options that would accomplish the same goal (positive social change or making me seriously rich) are generally superior. The idea of anger driving someone to commit violence or of being in a state where committing violence is in any way enjoyable makes absolutely no emotional sense to me.
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