Asking why the day exists shows why it’s needed

Today is International Day Against Homophobia And Transphobia, and Twitter has been ablaze with comments asking what’s the point of having a day dedicated to it.

The same happened on International Women’s Day: people asked what the point was. Surely equality had been won and so, there was no point to it all? Wrong

That people do not see prejudice is precisely why such events are needed.  

The battle against homophobia and transphobia is not won. Uganda is perpetually attempting to pass legislation allowing gay people to be executed. This would not be problematic under international law; recently the UN voted to remove sexual orientation from the resolution condemning summary executions. Even in the UK, homophobia is still rife: consider the story two men thrown out of a pub for kissing. When other people arrived to protest, the pub decided to close its doors rather than risk seeing more same-sex kisses.

For trans people, the situation is equally bad: violence against trans people is commonplace–to the point that websites commemorating the dead are necessary. In the healthcare system, abuse and discrimination is frequent, as is sexual assualt.

Homophobic and transphobic jokes are still frighteningly frequent, and seen by many as acceptable. If you don’t laugh, you must be part of the PC-brigade (warning: link goes to a horrifying display of utter cuntbaggery).

Homophobia and transphobia haven’t gone anywhere. The need for a day to raise awareness of its existence is still there. The need for a day for activists all over the globe to get their shit together and fight oppression is still there. The need for a day where every person can ask what they, personally, can do to help the fight is still there.

When people cannot see the oppression and hate that exists in the world, a day is needed to make it clear.

Broken brain

Sometimes my brain tries to kill me.

It sounds melodramatic, but this is precisely how epilepsy works. It explodes in an electrical storm, and I might die.

Sometimes my brain doesn’t bother with the killing, instead choosing to give me a powerful, reality-bending experience which I am told many pay money to induce.

There are times when I am overwhelmed by a delicious tug of deja vu. It is not nostalgia; nostalgia denotes a painful yearning. For me, it is like a hazy feeling that I had been to this place before in an endless childhood summer; bright sunshine and the smell of cut grass mingle with offices and faceless hotel rooms.

There are times when time distorts itself, and I am falling calmly. A big, shit-eating grin crosses my face.

There are times when I feel entirely at one with nature. I can feel every atom in my body connected with every atom in the universe; I am a child of the stars, made of grass, fleetingly conscious. I am but a small part of something unimaginably huge. I see the fabric of reality and how I am woven in.

Then there are times it intensifies. I hear a sound; a high-pitched squeal, electronic angels singing. A peace descends, a lull before a storm. I know what will happen, I do not care. A big, shit-eating grin crosses my face.

My amygdala joins the party. The peace is replaced by fear, and my chest tightens.

Then there is nothing until I wake up somewhere else, tongue bitten to ribbons. I know that my brain has tried to kill me once again.

It has failed again.

Usually by this point I do not feel much; often I have been pumped full of diazepam which steals emotion.

It has been almost a year since my brain tried to kill me. I am sure it will again. For now, though, I embrace the spkes of altered reality. They are as much a part of me as all of my brain that works.

A big wet guff from evolutionary psychology

I don’t really have much to say about this.

The evolutionary psychologist who believes incredibly daft things like Muslims become suicide bombers because they can’t get laid because of polygyny has absolutely excelled himself.

He has written an article for Psychology Today–which has since been pulled–which suggests that black women are ugly because they are manly, even when controlling for the fact that they are ugly and stupid.

At no point does the author address any of the following issues:

1. That black women are rated as less attractive by a completely subjective measure, of which we have absolutely no information about the raters. In fact, the author gushingly declares this method of rating as objective. Yes. Apparently Hot or Not is now a scientifically-valid instrument.

2. The relationship between race and intelligence is utter cock.

3. BMI is an equally poor measure, with limited utility even in epidemiological studies. It is not even a particularly good marker of “fatness”.

4. He throws around phrases like “mutation loading” willy-nilly. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Instead, he chooses to interpret dodgy data with a dollop of racism, concluding that evolutionary psychologists’ favourite hormone must be at play: testosterone.

Evolutionary psychology has a peculiar obsession with testosterone, and it is trotted out to explain everything from aggression  to bad relationships with your mum. Perhaps testosterone does explain these things.

Here, though, the explanation requires no hard-to-measure hormones at all: it’s bad data interpreted by a racist.

Edit: This fantastic post at Racialicious gives a more thorough account of how to debunk this bollocks with 100% less swearing.

26

I turn 26 in two hours’ time. Here are 26 things I am angry about and intend to overthrow before I turn 28*

1. The Coalition

2. The patriarchy

3. The distinct lack of free chlamydia screening for people my age

4. Theresa May

5. Bankers

6. Hiding anchovies inside perfectly nice olives

7. The Coalition

8. The kyriarchy

9. Tories

10. Lib Dems

11. Labour

12. Fuck it, parliamentary politics on the whole

13. Rapists

14. People who don’t find lame puns funny

15. Andrew Lansley

16. The government

17. The patriarchy

18. Putting milk in tea without explicit prior consent

19. Plane trees

20. The police

21. Rape apologists

22. Prawn crackers

23. Tax avoiders

24. Nadine Dorries

25. The government

26. The patriarchy

There may be some overlap between concepts. This is because everything is connected.

*I have a slight aversion to the number three and its multiples, and therefore will be skipping 27 (3^3) and doing 28 twice.

Wisdom teeth: Evolutionary psychology and gender

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is an area of psychology which views many psychological traits as evolutionary adaptations; for example, having a good memory is an adaptation, and organisms which do, tend to survive better.

I have no quibble with this general thesis; I do not subscribe to the tabula rasa view, and I am sure, despite what Steven Pinker believes, that very few do.

There are, however, some examples of very shaky science in evolutionary psychology, particularly in regards to controversial work surrounding gender and gender roles. I myself am particularly interested in what the discipline says about gender, having studied it previously and being a massive raving feminazi.

Evolutionary psychology considers traditional gender roles, i.e. the dominant, aggressive man and the submissive, nurturing woman, to be adaptations. Much of this essentially comes down to sex and childcare: women need to be gentle and empathic to raise children, while it is necessary for men to be agressive and strong to protect their offspring.  In and of itself, this is vastly contestable: using a comparative approach, as is often used in evolutionary psychology, it is evident that there is a plethora of childrearing strategies in the animal kingdom.

Evolutionary psychology has been used to explain a variety of gender differences and gendered behaviours. For example, this article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” outlines a few: beauty standards are hardwired, men are not naturally inclined to monogamy and will cheat, male sexual harassment of women is perfectly natural, and, my personal favourite, Muslims become suicide bombers because polygynous culture means that they cannot get laid. Really.

These claims have a vague intuitive appeal, and yet, for the most part, they are largely built on hypothesising about how such behaviours can be hardwired, with very little empirical investigation as to how this can be the case. Often these claims come from popular science books which theorise, such as Pinker’s Blank Slate. This “storytelling” that behaviours are adaptations is particularly noticeable in theories such as the suicide bombers idea: polygyny is not particularly common in Islam, and therefore it cannot possibly explain the prevalence of Muslim suicide bombers. Another example of this is the infamous evolutionary psychology paper which claimed that girls’ preference for pink was an adaptation, while cheerily ignoring the idea that a hundred years ago, pink was the colour for boys while blue was the colour for girls.

Such data-free just-so stories are worryingly popular in the media: google “girls prefer pink evolution”, and there are many gushing newspaper articles reporting uncritically the girls’ preference for pink myth.

Not all evolutionary psychology is quite so evidence-free. Sometimes hypotheses are tested, although often with small sample sizes, or findings which go against the general big-strong-dominant-man-is-sexy dogma. In the media, though, empirical studies are treated with the same weight as hypothesising: both are seen to be painting the status quo with science.

With the ease with which one can hypothesise an evolutionary basis for a trait, it is no surprise that so many become armchair evolutionary psychologists, theorising after having once read Blank Slate. For example, this rather silly blog seems to suggest that there is an adaptive, innate reason that little girls want to be princesses when they grow up. In the comments, the blogger rather unparsimoniously tries to defend this view by suggesting that advertisers capitalise upon girls’ innate lust for princess-based paraphernalia. Such lay theorising and justification of behaviour is common: the man who cheats  may say “it’s in my genes”; the woman pregnant by another man may say “his sperm looked stronger”, the plastic surgeon will declare there’s a valid evolutionary reason that you should have a nose job, or you’ll never find a mate. Evolutionary psychology has even been used to justify the existence of rape, adding a pseudoscientific sheen to the myths that men can’t help themselves and women should stop wearing short skirts.

The science behind evolutionary psychology is not as strong as many appear to think, and it is an area to which many professed-sceptics show a distinct lack of critical thinking. I advise caution in interpreting evolutionary studies: many are not actually studies, but stories. The remainder are often poorly-conducted, as it is very hard to empirically test evolution without a fossil record of thoughts.

Suppose, though, that all or some of the claims made by evolutionary psychology are true: perhaps, that men are indeed, genetically, big hairy dominant hunters, while women are nice pink mummies, and these roles are hardwired as adaptations to the environment in which humans evolved.

The human body is rather imperfectly designed. We have a lot of various things that we don’t really need, for example, the appendix. Once, we needed our appendix to digest grass. These days, it sits there, until suddenly it might fancy getting blocked and exploding everywhere. Or, more often, it’ll just sit there, doing nothing at all. The appendix, though, was never really used by humans. It is just a vestige.

Wisdom teeth, though, were highly useful to humans when we first evolved. Humans were still a long way off inventing dental hygiene, and, so, tended to die once all of their teeth had rotted away and they could no longer eat. Wisdom teeth, emerging in the mid-twenties, gave an extra few years of life: four more teeth meant more time being able to eat. With the advent of dental hygiene, we no longer lose all of our teeth to decay, and wisdom teeth have become an annoyance. When a wisdom tooth grows into a mouth full of healthy teeth, there is often not enough room, and the new tooth impacts. I had a wisdom tooth that solved the lack-of-space problem by growing horizonally. Each time I bit down, it would take a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. I had it removed.

Wisdom teeth, then, are a solution to a problem that no longer exists, and when the tooth becomes a problem we have it yanked out.

If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth. They are a solution to a problem that no longer exists: we shop in supermarkets now; we have modern health care; our children are sent off to school; we have DNA testing for identification of fathers; we can have sex for pleasure with a very low risk of reproduction. The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

We can overcome wisdom teeth, and, if any of the shaky claims of evolutionary psychology regarding gender turn out to be true, we can yank that out of our society, too.

The contents of a uterus are in the public interest

I spied the front page of the Metro today, that free rag that appears to be spontaneously generated from bus seats.

The news–front page news, the most important of all of the news that is happening in the world–was that famous woman had a miscarriage. It featured a picture of the woman and her boyfriend leaving the doctor’s office, grim-faced and grief-stricken with the gleefully-captalised caption “HEARTACHE”. The text featured two quotes from “sources”, both saying that the people wished to have their privacy respected.

The hypocrisy was stark. Quotes of a plea for privacy juxtaposed with an invasion of privacy.

Front page news? Why are the contents of a famous uterus so important that they are front page news?

It is hardly surprising. The media is obsessed with pregnancy. Famous women are monitored from the second they announce that their uterus is occupied. Breathy features praise these women for maintaining a rake-thin figure with a bump in the middle, like a sated anaconda with a “healthy glow”. Some women are criticised for the fact that pregnancy takes a strain on their body, causing weight gain and fatigue and bad skin. Body language experts are called in, invited to guess the sex of the foetus from the position of the woman’s stomach. The woman’s diet is recounted in great detail. Speculation about how the foetus will emerge is rife: is the famous woman “too posh to push”? Will her cunt ever be the same after a small person has crawled out of it?

Even when a famous woman is not pregnant, the media cannot help themselves but gossip. She has a new boyfriend, and she is wearing a loose top. She must be pregnant. Her stomach bulges slightly. This is unnatural; she must be pregnant. She hasn’t been out and about for a while. She must be pregnant.

For those women unlucky enough to experience a miscarriage, this news is brazenly splashed across the media. It is in the public interest. We must be updated on every second of a woman’s pregnancy, at the expense of her personal privacy.

Her uterus is public property.

Is it really so surprising that the contents of a woman’s uterus are considered so fascinating?

After all, since the dawn of civilisation, women have tried to abort pregnancies, and the patriarchy has tried to stop them. Throughout the ages, society has tried to control the contents of a woman’s uterus. Forced pregnancies and forced abortions are written into our culture.

To many, the contents of a woman’s uterus are her own business; she may do with them what she wishes. We are pro-choice because we do not believe we have the right to make that choice for another person.

To others, though, the contents of a woman’s uterus are their business. They try to exert control through the law, through religion, through hijacking sex education and through harassment. They have jammed our culture; our media is riddled with detailed accounts of pregnancy, infertility and miscarriage.

They have made the contents of a uterus public interest.

In a bow to this, I shall declare the contents of my uterus: tumbleweeds, cobwebs, and the skeletons of old lovers who went too far.

You need to know this.  The contents of a uterus are important to you.

Default options

Despite being the worst book about behaviour change ever written, Nudge has a point: people tend to pick the default option. If the default option is a plain digestive and you have to work a little harder to get a chocolate digestive, chances are, you’ll stick with the plain digestive. It’s still a digestive, after all. By manipulating the default option, one can manipulate behaviour. If one wanted to stop people eating biscuits at all, the default option would be a dry hunk of Ryvita, with hoop-jumping required for digestives, plain or chocolate. Fewer people would eat biscuits.

We are bombarded with default options. Everywhere we look, we do things without thinking.

Businesses know this, and have been capitalising on this tendency of ours. Open up a phone book. Count the number of companies with names such as “A1 Cabs, ABC Cabs, Aardvark Cabs”; the ones that you will call before you ever bother reading down. Consider how shelves are stacked, with the cheap goods at the bottom so the eye is drawn to the identical, yet dearer, products placed at eye level. Think about the last time you went to a supermarket? Did you buy the special offer chocolate near the till, just because it was there?

Not everything comes so naturally and so easily. Sometimes it needs some marketing to point out a problem people never knew existed in order to sell products: many beauty products are targeting ugliness that did not exist before an advertising executive had a smart idea. Removing most body hair has now become default and automatic for women. Make-up is sold as something which does not look like one is wearing any make-up at all. It is, after all, normal and natural for women to wear make-up, so they should paint their faces to make it appear as though they are wearing none at all.

Most of us swallow this without ever really thinking about it.

We then convince ourselves that we made the right choice, and that we consciously chose the product we did.

What it is, is control. We will unthinkingly purchase products not because they are better, but because they’re there and everyone else is doing it. There is not a readily visible alternative, and our big brains are used to taking shortcuts to get things done.

A lot of what we do is based on this. Take monogamy.

There is absolutely no good reason for monogamous relationships to be the only way to have a romantic relationship or to raise a family. None whatsoever.

Yet monogamy is the default. It is taken as a given that relationships should and must contain two people: no more, no less. It is visible in formal forms: always “partner”, never “partner (s)”. It is visible in invitations: “bring a plus one”. It is visible on Valentine’s Day: a restaurant with orderly tables for two set out.

Unthinkingly, we accept monogomy to be normal and natural. Everyone else is doing it. To reinforce this supposedly natural default, a little intervention is undertaken: the institution of marriage. Here, the state validates what it perceives as appropriate ways to love. In the UK, marriage is only available to a couple consisting of a man and a woman. It is not even open to monogamous same-sex couples, who receive a similar but different state-sanctioned seal of approval on their relationship.

Many people claim to have consciously chosen monogamy. When it is presented as the norm, as the default option, how is that a choice at all?

It is a conscious choice in the same way that the slightly pricier, equally inferior noodles you chose to buy was a conscious choice. Everyone else does it, it’s right there, it is sanctioned by external forces who do not present alternative options.

The default is as normal and natural as any other choice. Think. Beware the nudges.