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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Book Review: 'Adverbs'

Adverbs is the third book by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, under his own name. I haven't read the other two. I also haven't read A Series of Unfortunate Events, thinking it wiser to avoid a book that looked likely to rely on the misfortune of its main characters to get a laugh; I have never been able to enjoy books like that. Still, ever since I saw a book entitled Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorised Autobiography, I've known that Lemony Snicket had my kind of sense of humour. So when I saw Adverbs, I jumped at the chance to read a book by the same author, aimed at an adult audience.

It's a book about love: love immediately, obviously, arguably, particularly.... Each chapter is named for an adverb and reads like a self-contained short story. But as you read, you realise "Hang on, that's that other guy's ex-girlfriend, oh, and wait, that other character must be the boy we saw a few stories back, all grown up!" I'm still finding new character links when I re-read. The most moving adverb, for me, was often.

"[D]o you really love that husband?"
"[...] Often I do. Yes. Often I love him and he is always my husband."

She really does love him. You can tell. In the jumble of oddly-shaped loves in this book, to love your husband of several years often is to say that this is a pretty wonderful relationship, and a real one at that.

The story is quirky; paradoxically, this gives the writing an immediacy, a real sense of reality. It feels stranger than fiction! It isn't just the characters that recur; the recycling of images and themes in contexts that give them new meanings had all the eerieness of a good sestina. The word 'love' in this book is taken in all its complexity and contradiction without any attempt to clarify or define.

It works. It works beautifully.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Have I succumbed to relativism? Nope.

Over here, I asked "Have I succumbed to relativism?"

The answer is no. I did, however, succumb to laziness in wrapping up that post. If I had bothered to think some more, I'm sure I could have answered the question at the time.

For a start, I haven't succumbed to relativism because I do not think you should blur the line between something you've postulated for the sake of your mental health and something you believe because you have good evidence for it. I do, always, distinguish between the two and I'm willing to state categorically that, in general, people should make similar distinctions.

On the other hand, I think my statement that postulates for the sake of sanity or comfort should be kept to a minimum might be negotiable to some extent. Postulates for the sake of sanity or comfort are undesirable in that they can end up blurring your perception of the truth. One should not invent them indiscriminately. A reduction in such postulates is a good thing, provided you can survive afterwards. However, there are other good things in life besides the truth. I shall not ask that everyone rate truth as highly as I do. I shall simply ask that everyone rate truth reasonably highly. There is room for difference here. There is not room for an arbitrary amount of difference, that's all.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Crucial Minutiae, bad boys and nice guys

Wow! Crucial Minutiae is good. Right up there with 3QD. I especially like their weekly (feminist-friendly) column on masculinity: Punch-for-Punch by Ethan Todras-Whitehill (HT: Hugo Schwyzer).

There isn't nearly enough sensible talk about masculinity. As a woman, I have access to a large body of literature about the way cultural notions of femininity affect me. Men, however, have little recourse to anything besides pop culture and shoddy journalist generalisations.

A comment to this post raised an interesting analogy between the virgin/whore dichotomy for women and a nice-guy/bad-boy dichotomy in men. In particular, the idea is that women date (or marry) nice guys, but they'll have sex with bad boys. Fascinating and quite possibly true.

In some ways, I wonder if behaving like a "ho" or a "bad boy" is a way of signalling that you're looking for casual sex. So when men complain that women like bad boys, there is a real phenomenon there -- that a woman who doesn't actually want a relationship is more likely to have sex with someone who has a bad boy image because that's a situation where she can take it as given that it isn't necessary to behave like a "nice girl" who won't have sex unless she is in, or at least interested in, a relationship. Part of the whole 'bad boy' image is a very overt sexuality. If you want sex, it makes sense to go for a guy who looks as if he wants it.

Me? I like that moment when a (genuinely) nice guy lets a little real sexuality slip...

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Okay, I admit it, I lied.

I said I was a "truth fundamentalist, whatever the cost". It's not true. If I thought that believing something would damage my mental health to the point of reducing my ability to think rationally in the first place, I would have to question the advisability of believing it, even if I had good reason to think it true. Also, if I thought that believing something would result in my doing something seriously morally wrong, I might well decide to deceive myself. I play games with myself all the time: "I'm sure I can do it", "I'm a good person", "She's a good person". Is altering my beliefs for the purpose of motivating myself and others a dent in my objectivity? Probably. But I just can't help but think it morally justified.

Sometimes I worry about the grey area between this and believing in God because it helps to motivate you. The thing which stops me from endorsing religion for this reason is that religion goes so much farther than that, builds such huge structures beyond simple motivational search for meaning, that it can sometimes work in the opposite direction -- it can cause people to do wrong. But what if you don't take your religion that far? What if you value your own moral sense enough to trust it above your scripture? What if you don't have any particular scripture, you just think the world makes more sense if there is a god?

I dunno. Personally, I think it's better to curtail the postulates you make for motivational purposes. I don't think it's possible to remove everything that you believe for the sake of comfort. I do think it's best to keep such things to a minimum. But I place the truth so much higher than most people. When I look at the difference between my eldest younger sister and me -- she'd put love above truth more often than I would -- I can't help but think that there are some things about her that probably make her a better person than me.

So I find it hard to claim that my ground is the best ground. But you'll never push me off it. It's the person I am, and sometimes it's valuable.

Trouble is, "It's the person I am, and sometimes it's valuable" is true of a lot of religious positions. Have I succumbed to relativism?

Edit: No, I haven't.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

I am a truth fundamentalist.

Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, in the middle of a long and clearly reasoned post, has just coined a catch-cry! If "fundamentalism" is dogmatic adherence to a particular set of beliefs, well, "fundamentalist atheists" certainly do dogmatically adhere to what we believe to be true, when we think we have reasonable certainty. Of course, the catch-cry (like many) leaves out a crucial point - "fundamentalist atheists" think we can find truth by observing the world and by reasoning logically (few would disagree) and not much else (many would disagree but they wouldn't agree in their manner of disagreeing...).

That said, those who make accusations of "fundamentalist atheism" do usually make one criticism that strikes me as reasonable. Occasionally, those who speak in favour of atheism do end up giving a picture of theism as something which does only evil. This can give some credence to claims that (some) atheists misrepresent or even demonise religion.

It isn't misrepresentation or demonisation to claim that religion can dull a person's critical thinking skills as a result of stating that certain claims ought not be questioned. It isn't misrepresentation or demonisation to say that religion can dull a person's moral sense in exactly the same way. It certainly isn't misrepresentation or demonisation to categorically and uncompromisingly state one's reasoned belief that there is no God!

However, in making these arguments and giving evidence for them, atheists occasionally do one of two things. Atheists can end up giving a nasty picture of religion because in focusing on religion's evil consequences they do not mention that religion can sometimes inspire people to do good. They are not required to do so! There is no rule which states that, when arguing against something, you are required to point out all the good aspects of whatever it is you argue against as well as the bad ones.

Atheists may, perhaps, also end up making generalisations about the evil of religion which are not true. I'm not sure if they have done so, and I shall leave it to those arguing back to point out such statements, if they have been made.

In either case, those arguing for religion are perfectly entitled to argue that in some situations religion can have very good consequences. There may also be a reasonable argument that some atheists paint an unfairly nasty picture of religion. This is not reason to use the term "fundamentalist". "Fundamentalist" implies dogmatic adherence to a position, regardless of evidence. Atheists, on the other hand, usually adhere to what they perceive to the truth, given the evidence. So let me repeat Ebonmuse's phrase, with scorn for the accusation of fundamentalism and using a deliberate oxymoron: I am a truth fundamentalist.

I am a truth fundamentalist. Whatever the cost.