The Box-Out

Because the Internet won't write itself.


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John Gray on Progress

“Actually, humanity cannot advance or retreat, for humanity cannot act: there is no collective entity with intentions or purposes, only ephemeral struggling animals each with its own passions and illusions.  The growth of scientific knowledge cannot alter this fact.  Believers in progress – whether social democrats or neo-conservatives, Marxists, anarchists or technocratic Positivists – think of ethics and politics as being like science, with each step forward enabling further advances in future.  Improvement in society is cumulative, they believe, so that the elimination of one evil can be followed by the removal of others in an open-ended process.  But human affairs show no sign of being additive in this way: what is gained can always be lost, sometimes – as with the return of torture as an accepted technique in war and government – in the blink of an eye.  Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result.  They remain prone to every kind of barbarism, and while the growth of knowledge allows them to improve their material conditions, it also increases the savagery of their conflicts.”

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007.

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Gallery of Decadent Art: Sleepwalker, Tony Matelli

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All-female college terrified by creepy underwear man statue (Gawker)

Petition: Move the “Sleepwalker” inside the Davis Museum (change.org)

“…an inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to our community that we, as members of the student body, would like removed from outdoor space immediately… we ask that in the future, the Davis Museum and the College notify us before displaying public art.”

A Wellesley Student (from petition text)

Comments from change.org petition:

“All I can think of is a naked man is terrorizing the campus. I really don’t get the point of this thing which I will not call art.”

Yue Xing, Wellesley, MA

“Regardless of the artist’s intent, you must listen to your students: they are telling you that to them, this is a daily reminder that white men get to do whatever they want, wherever they want, displaying their barely-clothed bodies openly regardless of how it makes others feel, and women don’t get to say anything about it.”

Charlotte Badler, Boston, MA

“This is not art. This is offensive and meaningless garbage.”

Peter Resnick, Sharon, MA

“Yes, our campus has an art museum but the campus itself is not an art museum. It’s an educational institution.”

Hilary Allen, Homewood, IL

“How about a sculpture showing a child being molested, or an African-American being hung by the neck on a tree?”

Susan Turnley, West Pawlet, VT

“A number of women pay big bucks to go to an all women’s school precisely to get away from society’s phallocentric bullshit and now it is invading their space on campus, and as many have said, making young women feel unsafe.”

Irene Glassman, Jamaica Plain, MA

“I am shocked and horrified that in this day and age vulnerable young women are still subjected to such rampant misogyny. I weep for this woman-hating world of ours and would like to apologize on behalf of my sex for any harm done by this latest salvo in the war on women.”

Michael Claymore, NSW, Australia

“Our campus, our safety — “art” be damned.”

Elizabeth Shirey, Los Angeles, CA

“Freedom of artistic expression, while vital, needs to be limited in the interest of public safety. Just as there are limitations to our freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment, so too must artistic freedom be limited.”

Jeanne McIntosh, Charlotte, NC


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The Difference Between Fact And Opinion

Back when I were a lad, I got up at 6:30 every morning and went down t’university, where thanks to diligence, hard work and luck, I acquired two degrees in a science subject. I learned about the scientific method, and about how hypothesis are developed and turned into theories, gradually making our understanding of the world more accurate.

Later in life, I went on the internet. There, I observed educated people holding forth confidently on some of the organising principles of society, and on the ruinous effects that some of our societal structures can have on people’s lives.

Often these people were feminists. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a feminist. I share with feminists the strong ethical conviction that the circumstances of peoples’ birth ought not to adversely affect their ability to make their own choices in life. I will go so far as to pre-emptively apologise to feminists for singling them out. Feminist thought is probably not exceptionally worthy of criticism in this regard. It only seems, from the point of view of someone who reads the blogs I happen to read and follows the people I happen to follow on Twitter, to contain some of the most visible popular examples of the sort of thing I’m about to complain about.

Some of the popular feminist theories, as explained in some detail on sites like Derailing for Dummies1, Geek Feminism Wiki and Finally Feminism 101 (for example this explanation of the concept of “patriarchy”, not to be confused with “lizardarchy”) are presented by their apologists as though they are objective facts. On closer analysis they frequently turn out to be unusually well-developed speculations that are as likely to be connected to empirical reality as Asimov’s laws of robotics are.


The logical tradition at work here is that of antipositivism, which is to say that the philosophical grounds that support such concepts are deliberately, resolutely and unapologetically subjective.2 The possibility of being able to support them with empirical research is explicitly excluded.

Antipositivism, in the form of “interpretive” sociology or “verstehen” was introduced to the social sciences by Max Weber in 1922 as an explicit reaction to positivism (the view that the world is underpinned by rational laws that can be deduced from logical analysis or empirical observation), and subsequently to rationalist thought3. Weber and his successors have regarded the objective understanding of different social groups as futile, impossible and potentially dangerous. Instead of attempting to model the world, they restricted themselves to subjectively evaluating its qualities.


This approach informs the whole of critical, post-modernist, and post-structuralist theory, including patriarchy theory, queer theory, feminist epistemology and intersectionality. Your Michel Foucault, your Nancy Hartsock, your Bell Hooks. But when subjectivity is an intentional and fundamental component of your philosophy, there can be no right or wrong answers. Therefore, one can simply take the complete works of Bell Hooks, say, and replace every sentence with its negation, and the resulting theory will have the same truth-value.

This very technique, as applied to the writing of the postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida, has been developed into a parlour game among underemployed academics, as described by Mark Lieberman.

My colleague would open one of Derrida’s works to a random page, pick a random sentence, write it down, and then (above or below it) write a variant in which positive and negative were interchanged, or a word or phrase was replaced with one of opposite meaning. He would then challenge the assembled Derrida partisans to guess which was the original and which was the variant. The point was that Derrida’s admirers are generally unable to distinguish his pronouncements from their opposites at better than chance level, suggesting that the content is a sophisticated form of white noise. On this view, as Wolfgang Pauli once said of someone else, Derrida is “not even wrong.”.

It’s instructive to compare this analysis to the memorable assessment of “bullshit” given by Harry Frankfurt.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter,however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

The use of the word “theory” a few paragraphs above could be dangerously misleading to anyone with the wrong sort of education. In science, a “theory” is an explanatory model which can be used to make specific, reliable and testable predictions. In the antipositivist humanities the term is really being used in its more demotic sense to mean a vague sort of conjecture. It’s reminiscent of the confusion that one can see in the creationist who claims that “evolution is only a theory”, except in reverse. Any equivocation with the scientific sense of the word “theory” is desirable for the antipositivist theorist, as it helps to blur the difference between fact and opinion.

As a person who is interested in truth, I consider the intentional representation of opinion as fact to be deceptive and unethical. But I am most frightened by how common it seems to be.

Note 1

At least Derailing for Dummies has a degree of self-awareness, as exemplified in a line near the bottom of this page, which should be enough to scare rationalist feminists away from it for good:

The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one very much rooted in preserving privilege.

It’s feminist theory’s answer to the Liar Paradox. Either the sentence above is a fact, in which case a website ostensibly designed to facilitate the promotion of the lived experience of marginalised people is instead engaged in a process rooted in preserving privilege. Or it’s an opinion, in which case the opposite opinion – “The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one not at all rooted in preserving privilege” – is equally valid.

Note 2

For an alternative view, see Wikipedia’s article on Strong Objectivity, which gives a sort of insight into exactly how alien the concept of “objectivity” must be to these people.

Note 3

Antipositivism is only one of a number of potential alternatives to positivism. Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism” provides another avenue. I haven’t read nearly enough Popper, but essentially he rejects traditional positivism without rejecting the notion that objective truth exists. Here’s an interesting post which attempts to analyse, or perhaps completely destroy, the theory of patriarchy based on Popper’s principles of rationality.


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Bertrand Russell on Party Politics

Wherever party politics exist, the appeal of a politician is primarily to a section, while his opponents appeal to an opposite section. His success depends on turning his section into a majority. A measure which appeals to all sections equally will presumably be common ground between the parties, and will therefore be useless to the party politician. Consequently he concentrates attention upon those measures which are disliked by the section which forms the nucleus of his opponents’ supporters. Moreover a measure, however admirable, is useless to the politician unless he can give reasons for it which will appear convincing to the average man when set forth in a platform speech. We have thus two conditions which must be fulfilled by the measures on which party politicians lay stress: (1) they must seem to favour a section of the nation; (2) the arguments for them must be of the utmost simplicity.

Bertrand Russell, presidential address to the Students’ Union of the London School of Economics and Political Science, October 10th, 1923.


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Can white people be victims of racism?

One of the unfortunate consequences of using social media these days is having to put up with a far broader range of other people’s views than most of us would have willingly exposed ourselves to in the past. This becomes exceptionally trying when we find ourselves confronted with the views of the worryingly large body of people who don’t think exactly as we do on every single issue. If we weren’t tolerant in the face of such deliberate provocativeness we would probably go mad. On a personal level, one of the things that has put me off any kind of blogging for so long is that it can seem like a waste of intellectual effort to set out in tiresome detail arguments that seem intuitively obvious to me personally. However when it’s clear that the opposite view is widely held on the internet and elsewhere, some effort in thinking through and then clearly stating one’s position is justified.

Before continuing: The following is a serious post about an issue that deserves to be treated with seriousness. It contains examples of challenging opinions which some people might find offensive.

In the case of the question at the head of this post, if I might be so vulgar as to invoke the unsleeping ghost of Godwin in my third paragraph, the answer is quite obviously yes unless none of the victims of the Holocaust were white. But let’s examine the question in slightly more detail.

Here’s aseasonedplateofmurder on Tumblr asserting that white people cannot be victims of racism (and making a category error about Hispanic ethnicity in the process):

“Would an african american/asian/hispanic person EVER beleive to be superior to whites? No. But whites think they’re superior and they can cause theyve ruled the world so many years.”

People will say anything on Tumblr, and sometimes they just don’t know any better than to be rampantly offensive. Here’s author and comedian Jo Brand expressing general agreement with that position:

A transcript of the above video:

Brand: My personal opinion is that you can’t be racist towards white people. You can be prejudiced about them but being prejudiced isn’t an illegal act whereas being racist can be.

Interviewer: Dont you think racism is just being derogatory about a race, regardless of the colour?

Brand: No I don’t. I think the definition of racism also encompasses political power. So you cant be racist towards a race that’s politically more powerful than a minority. That to me is the correct definition of racism. I think you can be prejudiced towards a group of people who are more powerful than you, but I don’t think you can be racist towards them.

Those who have expressed the opposite view include Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in the Independent.

“Our entire struggle, its moral and ethical foundation, stands to be discredited because we do not pay the attention we should to white victims of black and Asian hatred.”

For a frank (and again, probably rampantly offensive) exchange of views on the subject, Tumblr has a tag.

I don’t intend to consider the statistical question of whether anti-white racism is a significant problem. Such a question could properly be answered with empirical data, if and only if the semantic notion that white people can be victims of racism holds true. If it doesn’t, any such data would be a response to a nonsensical question and consequently could not be collected. Notwithstanding that from a scientific perspective the genetic differences between “races” are so small as to be virtually irrelevant, and therefore there isn’t really any such thing as “white people”, but race and racism are identifiable social phenomena and will continue to be for the forseeable future.

The OED definition of “racism” is racially neutral.

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

As is that of the Anti-Defamation League:

Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.

Conversely, the “power” definition of racism, as invoked by Brand, is attributed to Pat Bidol.

Power + Prejudice = Racism

Online this is sometimes referred to as the “preferred” or “sociological” definition, which merely means that it is preferred by some sociologists.

According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology:

When most people think about racism, they think about the concept of individual prejudice – in other words, negative thoughts or stereotypes about a particular racial group. However, racism can also be embedded in the institutions and structures of social life. This type of racism can be called structural or institutional racism (hereafter ‘‘institutional racism’’), and it is significant in creating and maintaining the disparate outcomes that characterize the landscape of racial inequality.

So sociologists are just as capable as anyone else of distinguishing racism on the individual level from that on the social level which is, of course, the level with which the sociologist is primarily concerned.

Critical race theorists have rejected the notion that racism is synonymous with maligned individual prejudice and have embraced a more structural and institutional understanding of racism.

Critical theorists have a flexible approach to the concept of "data".

Critical theorists have a flexible approach to the concept of “data”.


It’s not unusual for bloggers to take a prescriptivist approach to the use of the critical theory definition, and to not-so-subtly hint that the use of a broader definition of racism is in itself evidence of institutional or structual racism… :

“It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists.”

…which is how the broader definition got into dictionaries in the first place!

“Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.”

This would appear to display a small but crucial misunderstanding of the function of dictionaries, which are intended to give a descriptive summary of how words are actually used, as opposed to sociology textbooks which give prescriptive, normative definitions of key concepts as they ought to be used within the relevant academic field.

The Frankfurt School, yesterday.

The Frankfurt School, yesterday.


Still, even the critical theory definition of structural racism as given above does not actually exclude the possibility of racism either against white minority groups in white-dominated societies, or against white people in societies which are not predominantly or institutionally white. The position that racism against white people is actually logically impossible can only be arrived at with an exclusivist adoption of the critical-theory definition coupled with the conscious privileging of a Western-centric view of racism in which white people dominate even those societies where they are not culturally influential. This is in itself a severely imperialistic erasure of non-Western cultures which not only implicitly denies agency to 80% of the world’s population, but denies the structural and institutional racism that occurs in Western societies against white or predominantly white groups including Travellers, Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans and white Hispanic Americans.


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On “Tone Trolling”

Originially published at “A Tonne Of Feathers”, 8th August 2012

I’d heard this expression a few times on the internet, and I didn’t really know what it meant. At first I thought it was some online equivalent of some irritating person trying to put you off speaking by humming in monotone in such a way that you can only just hear it, because that would be really annoying and distracting. I’m definitely against that.

But that didn’t seem right in context. Very often it would be unreasonable person A making a point, and reasonable person B saying something reasonable, and A saying “you’re tone trolling,” and as a casual reader one might say to oneself “it is interesting that you should be the one to make such an allegation, because trolling is unreasonable behaviour, and therefore one naturally tends to associate it with unreasonable people.”

(In referring to reasonable and unreasonable people I’m conscious of the risk of running into an ad hominem fallacy, but I think it’s fair, or at least convenient, to describe someone who happens to be behaving reasonably as “reasonable” and someone who happens to be behaving unreasonably as “unreasonable.”)

Of course the error is with B, because winning an argument with someone who’s being unreasonable is impossible by definition. The only way an argument can conclude to anyone’s satisfaction is if there’s tacit agreement by both sides to the use of reason, as I have patiently explained to my wife on a number of occasions without ever persuading her to her satisfaction.

Anyway, I wanted to make sense of “tone troll”, so I googled it. The number one hit (which I decline to link to because it crashed my browser) was unhelpful, but there was a better one from Urban Dictionary:

A tone troll is an internet troll that will effectively disrupt an internet discussion, because they feel that some of the participants are being too harsh, condescending, or use foul language. They often complain loudly and target specific subjects, even though they may actually agree with their subjects’s [sic] point of view.

Which is probably annoying, but in no way does it amount to trolling. It’s hard to imagine how it’s possible to do anything “loudly” in the medium of text, unless it means they use ALLCAPS, and if “targeting specific subjects” in the course of debate is trolling then we should all turn out computers off and go out and get some daylight and exercise. And it’s irrelevant whether trolls agree with you or not. Because they are trolls.

The skill of rhetoric, after all, does not merely consist of identifying logical points in support of an argument. It also includes phrasing them in the most effective way possible in order to persuade. If one chooses a particular manner of phrasing for one’s point of view, that manner is on the table as a legitimate topic of argument. If someone uses thuggish rhetoric, and I criticise them for being thuggish, I’m not being a troll, I’m reacting to thuggery by expressing my distaste for it.

To pick an example at random, it’s not trolling to criticise Muslims Against Crusades for picketing remembrance ceremonies and burning poppies without addressing the validity of the argument that the memorialisation of dead soldiers has been co-opted by Western governments to boost public support for further military campaigns.

Would you say this is inappropriate? You’re a tone troll.

That said, criticism of your opponents manner is not usually an effective way to win an argument, and it’s true that it can distract from more serious issues. Angry people very often have good reasons to be angry. But it’s distressingly common to see people use rhetoric which contradicts their stated positions. (Stop being so bigoted, you retard!) and it’s easy to see how angry people could fall into errors that clearer heads would easily avoid. (I’m not fucking angry!)

The generally accepted (I think) definition of a troll is summed up pretty well by Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have heard of the epithet “tone troll”:

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

(I don’t entirely agree with this definition, by the way. “Slang” denotes an informal or non-standard expression or one used by a restricted group, and surely everyone must know what a “troll” is by now.)

Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, indicates a specific blog where “tone trolls often emerge in the comments section” (link above). A quick check confirms that that’s certainly where allegations of “tone trolling” seem to emerge. (COMMENTERS: If you accuse someone of “tone trolling” and they deny it, why not go double or quits and accuse them of “derailing“?) And by a curious coincidence, many of the links that turn up in Google searches for “tone troll” and “tone trolling” are connected to the very same blog, which makes me wonder if it’s really a thing at all, or just a hoax, perpetrated by a small number of authors and commenters, that has somehow caught on.


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Republicanism and Honours

(cross-posted from A Tonne Of Feathers, June 16 2012)

Today is the Queen’s official birthday, the day the nation joins in celebration as our Dear Leader reaches the ripe old age of nearly eighty-six and a third. The reason for a second birthday is not, as I had always somewhat ignorantly assumed, to celebrate the date of the coronation, but rather to increase the chances of fine weather for the celebrations.

As well as extensive coverage on the State propaganda outlet, BBC1, the traditional Queen’s birthday honours have been dished out. Kenneth Branagh has been awarded a knighthood, despite saddling his superhero movie with an Australian soap actor who was so poor that Joss Whedon was basically forced to have him stand in silence for the whole of The Avengers. A special award for working class people has also been introduced in order to prevent them from leaving muddy footprints around the Palace and frightening the corgis. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire once again shamefully ignored Keanu Reeves, being instead swelled by a number of other exemplars including Gary Barlow, Eddie Kidd and Armando Ianucci.

As a Canadian, Reeves would be entitled to call himself “Sir Keanu” if he was knighted, although both the award and his use of the title would likely be opposed by the Canadian government.

As usual, these awards have provoked some debate on the merits of the honours system. Some people (including, famously, Benjamin Zephaniah) believe the word “Empire” is intimately connected with colonialism and oppresion and ought to be opposed. Others consider that its awards do not always appear to be justified – there is a perception, which the evidence appears to support, that senior civil servants recieve honours as part of their progression up the career ladder. Similarly politicians and party donors appear to have an easier path to honours. As for the House of Lords, its life peers are merely legislators appointed by the Government and the title is not reflective of any merit or special achievement. (The idea that a country can claim to be a democracy when a large proportion of its legislators are appointed for life by the Government is too absurd to be worth the effort of criticising.)

The republican pressure group Republic issued a statement on the honours system in 2011. They say:

We take the view that the current honours system has been corrupted to the point of being worthless, and that clearly the system is used to award political allies and donors and to confer rank on establishment figures and the ‘great and good’. It is also used as a PR opportunity by governments wanting to promote their populist credentials by awarding honours to celebrities. It is an unscrupulous system of patronage and PR.

That is their view and they are entitled to take it. However it does speak of a certain cynicism of governments, populism and PR, a cynicism that is widespread but perhaps not wholly dominant in the UK (as evidenced by the fact that people do persist in voting for members of political parties at elections.) They later add:

While we accept that many people deserve public recognition through an honours system we believe the current practice of handing out thousands of gongs to undeserving recipients (often of a higher rank than the more deserving) cheapens any award.

Which is quite emphatically a matter of opinion, since they are explicitly setting their criteria of people who “deserve public recognition” against the recommendations of the various nominating bodies (“undeserving recipients”). They are entitled to their view. But someone evidently thinks the recipients are deserving, otherwise they wouldn’t be recipients.

I have known a number of people awarded the MBE for services to their communities in the past; all were immensely proud and grateful to have been recognised for their invariably selfless actions. None considered the honour worthless because they had to share it with celebrities, dignitaries or retired council leaders.

The British Empire no longer exists; without a monarch, the chivalric Order of the British Empire to which the majority of these gongs are attached could not exist by definition. This is the end-point of the British republican movement which campaigns for a democratic replacement for the monarchy. But no such movement can achieve its aims without broad political support. Most of the public support the monarchy at the moment. To change this it will be necessary to change the minds of the small-c conservatives who reflexively prefer stability to change.

Republic is, it says, not a political party. A political party must necessarily attack and alienate a large section of the electorate to gain a share of the vote from that section’s enemies; a single-issue campaign group cannot allow itself that luxury. It ought to be able to appeal to everybody, at least in theory. It is said that in a democracy, half of the population thinks the Government is extremely wicked; ironically, perhaps the biggest obstacle to an elected president is the fear that an elected head of state would have less public support than an unelected one.

Republicanism begins and ends with the establishment of republic. Of course there is room to define what form that republic might take (personally I especially approve of their proposals that the Head of State assume no military rank and exclude their extended family from the performance of their duties), but the idea that it necessarily excludes the handing out of decorations to “allies, donors and celebrities” is short-sighted. Silvio Berlusconi’s knighthood does not invalidate Italy’s republic any more than Jacques Cousteau’s Order of Merit damages that of France.

Prince Harry must find it confusing when he is criticised for wearing a Nazi uniform even though on ceremonial occasions every adult male in his family is expected to dress up as Colonel Gadaffi.

While Republic’s stance on the state of the honours system is derived from the best of motives and will be supported by many who are already allies, its divisive nature has the potential to alienate people from the possibility of change and detract from the objective of getting as many of the British public as possible to support the idea that a head of state could be chosen by and preside with the consent of the people.