Monthly Archives: January 2015

Polygony: how isms shape our society

“I’m not racist, but…”

“It’s these immigrants, innit?”

“They’re not like us”

Most of us are mostly fine with diversity. Obviously, we’d be a little uncomfortable to be the only white family on the street, but we are generally happy living in a mixed community, rubbing shoulders with lots of different people, getting on with our lives and generally carrying on peacefully.

We are, aren’t we?

Well, how about we quantify exactly how uncomfortable we’d be. Say, we’d move to a different location if fewer than 25% of our neighbours were different from ourselves. How would that look?

Well, Nicky Case has a rather illuminating simulation of just such a situation. In The Parable of the Polygons, Nicky and Vi Hart have put together a little society that we can play with.

We begin with two classes of people: the triangles and the squares. Each shape is happiest when living in a diverse society, where their neighbours aren’t all like themselves. Each shape will be generally OK if all their neighbours are like them. Each shape will get unhappy if not enough of their neighbours are like them. It can get a bit lonely if you’re the only triangle in a sea of squares. Not unreasonable, really. When you start the game, an unhappy shape will move, at random, to an unoccupied space. The game stops when no shapes want to move.

Sounds simple. The results are astonishing.

Generally, the solution to making all the shapes not unhappy starts to look like ghettoisation. The amount of mixing within the society drops and drops until there is hardly any. The squares and the triangles end up in separate parts of the board, sometimes with gaps between them. You might call it a peace wall. On the other side of the gap, the people are different from us. We fear them, which leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering.

All because of a tiny tendency of each individual to feel nervous when isolated from their own kind.

All is not lost, however. If you add an equally tiny tendency for shapes to move when they are surrounded by too many of their own kind, the final state of the game board looks much more integrated.

The beauty of this is that it doesn’t take many people to move and it doesn’t take much of an inclination to move in order to balance the board quite nicely.

Of course, the polygon game is far simpler than our actual society, and is not influenced by propaganda and hate-mongering from UKIP, Britain First, the EDL and the BNP. Those scumbags seem intent on developing a worldview where white Britons (actually, it’s usually white people with working-class English accents they’re really talking about when they say that) are the only people who count. Everyone else is “other”, and we’re back on the fear-hate-suffering path of the Dark Side.

As long as we are able to maintain our ignorance of people with different cultural, chromatic and religious backgrounds, we can press forth with creating our own ghettos and forcing others into theirs. Learn about others and the ignorance falls away and everyone is happier living together. For the most part, we’re all just trying to make an honest living and care for ourselves and those whom we love.

We are all people.

Politics, murder, terrorism and the freedom to be a person

It always happens. Whenever there’s a big and nasty (and by big and nasty, I mean well-publicised and involving rich white people) terrorist thing, you can start a timer. When major politicians suggest taking away people’s freedom and increasing surveillance, you stop the timer.

With the recent Charlie Hebdo murders, the timer was not running for very long. In the week after the murders, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, stood in front of a packed House of Commons and put  both of his feet into his mouth at the same time. Now, politicians are quite good at speaking with a foot in the mouth – after all, they get a lot of practise – but it gets quite difficult when you’ve got both feet there. For starters, standing at the dispatch box is tricky, and the words start to become mangled and it sounds like the politician speaking is trying to legislate that black is white and that the incoming tide shouldn’t swamp the picnic.

In the House, Mr Cameron called the UK “a liberal democracy”. Fine. I happen to agree with him (mostly) on that point. He also said that “there should be no means of communication that we [the government] cannot read”. At Prime Minister’s Questions, he said

how important it is to stand together in favour of free speech, freedom of expression, the rule of law, democracy: the values that we hold dear… these values will not be defeated

Which is fine, until he said, just a few minutes later,

the decision I think we have to take is ‘are we prepared to allow,
in future, as technology develops, safe spaces for terrorists to
communicate. The principal I think we should adopt is ‘no we are not
content for that to happen and, as a result of that, we should look to
legislate accordingly.

which is less fine. Largely because what he has in his mind is the end of encrypted communications on the internet, and a further increase in surveillance. In the UK, we seem to be among the most watched populations on the planet, with CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere, and the rather ominous Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 giving local authorities the power to have families followed if someone thinks they their child is attending the wrong school, and also giving the government the power to demand that an encrypted communication be decrypted (or the keys provided).

When Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, asked Home Secretary Theresa May about what the PM seemed to be suggesting, she decided against answering his question, instead suggesting that he was in favour of terrorism because he had the audacity to ask if the suggested legislation might have wider consequences than the PM or Mrs May had considered.

Like banning internet banking overnight. Like banning online shopping overnight. Like preventing secure access to anything online.

The internet is rather like a crowded pub on a Friday night. It is full of people. Not all of them are there just to have a drink with their mates. Some are there to take things that do not belong to them. It is not hard for a person with the right skills to monitor someone’s communication. A simple traceroute will tell you just how many staging posts your internet messages stop at for new horses en route from where you are to where they are going. At each stop, a nefarious individual can take a copy of your data. This is a problem if the data is you logging into your bank’s website, or sending your credit card number to an online retailer. It would be rather like buying something from a guy in the pub by yelling your credit card number across the bar and hoping that nobody writes it down as you do. On the internet, the answer is encrypted communication, which is a bit like leaving the crowded pub and entering a small, locked side-room where you can have a quiet, private conversation with whomever you wish to speak. Your credit card number is safe, as are your bank log-in details. Crucially, so are your Twitter log-in details and your Facebook log-in details.

Just think, for a moment, what would happen if you could not securely log in to social media. This is the other facet of encryption: authentication. If something appears on my Facebook account, people assume that I put it there. In order for me to have any confidence in Facebook, I need to be sure that the only person who can claim to be me is me. If I have to shout my log-in across the crowded pub, that means that anyone can then log in and pretend to be me, and utterly destroy my reputation with my friends, my family, my employer, etc.

Returning to Mr Cameron’s first point, are there any messages that I do not want the government to be able to read? The quick answer is yes, there bloody well are messages that I don’t want the government to read. For the same reason that I have a door on my house and curtains on my windows. I have privacy. In fact, the UN declaration of Human Rights demands that I am given privacy to conduct my affairs. When someone tells you that they have nothing to hide, therefore they have no fear of surveillance, they haven’t stopped to think for very long. Here’s a hypothetical conversation:

“I have nothing to hide.”

“Did you have sex last night? Was it with your husband? Did you make a lot of noise? Did you use the handcuffs I saw in your bedside drawer last week?”


“Do you mind if I announce your orgasmic liaison on Twitter? How about I put it in a full-page advert in the Daily Mail?”


The problem with “I have nothing to hide” is that we all have things to hide. Having sex with one’s spouse is completely legal and morally defensible. It is not something that we like to have plastered all over the tabloids for everyone to gawk at. How about that moment when you were dancing in the bathroom, using the hairbrush as a microphone, rocking out to Bohemian Rhapsody? Or the conversation you had with your doctor about the suspicious lump you discovered last week?

You see, we behave very differently if we think that we are being watched. Our freedom of expression is severely limited. We are no longer ourselves.

We are no longer people.

Everything else is Other

I have spoken about tribalism on several occasions. It is how we formed in the crucible of civilisation: we banded together in small tribes for mutual support and protection. It was a hard world and people would frequently go out hunting or gathering and never come back. Division of labour helped the tribe and allow the hunters to concentrate on hunting without having to worry about the children or where their next loincloth was coming from. Things we didn’t recognise were enemy and were to be killed (and possibly eaten) for the good of the tribe.

We consider ourselves so very much more civilised in this modern age, so very inclusive and progressive and past all that. Except we’re not. On the extremes, there are the BNP, the EDL, Britain First, UKIP and the crazies like Islamic State and the people who shot up Charlie Ebdo magazine in Paris. These groups specialise in tribalism, dividing the world neatly into “us” and “them”.

The author of Robot Hugs has kindly shared their philosophy course final assignment with us. In it, they speak of how everything we do seems to have a category for “other”, in which people are invited to out themselves as not belonging neatly into the categories provided.

On the one hand, providing “other” is good in that it allows someone to produce a survey or similar with out having their results skewed by false reporting caused by “well, I don’t fit into any of these, but the website survey won’t give me the next page until I tick something, so I’ll click randomly just so I get the next page”.  On the other hand, it is bad because it is typically the same people who are “other” every single time there is a new survey or web form or something.

Othering (the process by which a member of a tribe decides that someone else is not from their tribe) happens all the time. To some extent, this is normal and to be expected and, happening infrequently, is largely harmless. It can easily become a problem. Take the example of a genderqueer person (someone not identifying clearly as “male” or “female”) trying to fill out one of those online registration things that we seem to need to do several times a week these days. Many of them insist on finding out our “gender”, and give only two options. Our genderqueer friend is going to feel othered every single time they fill out one of those forms (I was filling in a form to register my child for after school football, and it wanted to know my gender before it even started asking about my child. I boggle).

One who is othered, their otherness becomes the defining characteristic of their ongoing relationship within the group. This, in turn, diminishes the othered person’s other characteristics and prevents them from being a true, three-dimensional person, or at least, feeling like a true, three-dimensional person. If an aspect of your identity means that you are othered by many groups every day, you end up feeling completely ostracised from society, and never fully allowed to participate. Your unique gifts and talents are overlooked and you end up feeling undervalued by everything.

I guess, in this context, the absence of othering is privilege. If you are not other, you are in with the main tribe, and can be seen for who you are. You are an engineer, not a woman engineer; you are an athlete, not a wheelchair athlete; you are a nurse, not a male nurse; you are a ballet dancer, not a black ballet dancer. The list is endless.

It should be shorter.

Thursday bonus: more from John

In my regular post this week, I quoted John the Evangelist, specifically 1 Jn 4:8, “God is love”.

I’m a semi-regular listener of the Pray As You Go podcast.  It’s produced by the Jesuits in England (I love Jesuits) and takes one of the bible readings of the day (the Catholic church has a specific schedule of daily bible readings on a two-year cycle for weekdays and a three-year cycle for Sundays), some music and some words and packs them in a neat fifteen-minute meditation.

In a remarkable feat of synchonicity, Tuesday’s reading (which I hadn’t noticed at the time) is 1 Jn 4:7-10, which includes the line I quoted on Tuesday.  Today’s reading (8th Jan 2015) follows on from Tuesday’s (1 Jn 4:19-5:4) and contains the blistering line “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar”.

Of course, the very Christians I was talking about on Tuesday will state blithely that they do love whomever it is they are oppressing, and will often be heard to say “hate the sin, love the sinner” and “it is not loving to condone actions that are sinful”.

To refute these points, we turn to the excerpts from John’s first letter cited above.  God is love, states Tuesday’s reading, so it seems a bit extreme to use this as a justification for hating anything.  Also, while I’m here, any sentence beginning “God hates” is a lie.

For the second point, we look at 1 Jn 5:3: “This is love for God: to keep his commands, and his commands are not burdensome”.  Telling a transgender person that they are wrong, that the thing that they have known about themselves since early childhood is a lie is a burden.  It is not God’s command, it is a human imposition.  A burden so great that research cited by the LA Times concludes that 41% of transgender people in the US have attempted suicide.  Nine times the national average.

The Pray As You Go podcast for today says

We can act hatefully towards others without feeling we dislike them when we don’t respect them; when we ignore them or their views; when we make unrealistic demands on them or support rules that deny who they are or their human needs.

Did I mention that I love Jesuits?

God doesn’t make mistakes: transgender people are people, people

Over at Raising my Rainbow, during the Christmas break, Lori brought my attention to the fate of Leelah Alcorn (sorry that the story she links to is from the Daily Fail, but it’s not the worst article I’ve read in that ‘news’ paper).  Leelah’s death is a tragedy and is one of the motivations for my albeit-limited activism for trans-people.

In short, Leelah had known that she was transgender since she was four years old (which aligns nicely with most trans-people’s stories that I have read) but didn’t have a word for the way she felt until she was fourteen (again, this is not unusual).  According to her suicide note, posted online (and deleted at her parents’ request), she came out to her parents immediately she had the words to do so.  Her note also says that her parents reacted “extremely negatively” to the news.

Here’s where I get most upset.  Her parents used their Christian faith to justify their inability to accept Leelah for whom she was.  I have heard the line God doesn’t make mistakes many times when talking about gay and transgender people with other Christians, and they way they use it makes me fume.  It is one of the many weapons deployed by Christians who have decided that their faith in God relieves them of any responsibility to think, to ponder the great mystery of creation and to consider that God’s created universe might just be a little more complex and subtle than any individual human being can comprehend.

I’m generalising, of course, but I’ll push on.  In broad strokes, there is a significant fraction of the Christian population who believe that their understanding of the universe is complete.  They have read the bible, they go to church, they have listened to priest and pastor, lecture and sermon and have come to the sure and certain knowledge that their understanding of this revelation from God gives them a full understanding of the entirety of Creation.  There is no room in their mind for doubt or grey-areas.  They have neatly divided the observable universe into Things of God and Things of the Devil.  The things they understand as good are from God, the things they understand as evil are from the devil.  I guess that I agree with them on that level.  The point of divergence is what happens next.  The things they do not understand are from the devil too.  That is where they rush off in one direction, leaving me choking in their dust.  Many, many Christians, good people too, will categorise everything they don’t understand as “not from God”.  There is no mention of transgender in the bible, therefore it must be evil, a corruption of God’s divine order.  There is no mention of stable, long-term, loving same-sex relationships in the bible, therefore it too must be evil, etc.

God doesn’t make mistakes is trotted out once more, with the usual ignorance that it is a two-edged sword.  On one edge, of course, it implies that corruptions of the created order of things are not of God.  On the other edge, however, it also clearly implies that gay and transgender people (disabled people, people who developed with physical differences from the norm, etc. etc.), people created by God, are not mistakes.  God has clearly been creating gay and transgender people since at least the dawn of civilisation, which suggests to me that they are a valid part of the created order.

Science, society and Christianity had to adapt to the revelation that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe.  This fact was quite upsetting to people at the time of its discovery and proof. One thing about this particular revelation, however, is that the heliocentricity of the solar system has no direct impact on people’s lives.  Whether it’s the Earth that orbits the sun or the sun that orbits the Earth does not affect my ability to acquire food, have relationships or to live a happy life.  These facts are facts about the universe, not facts about me.

When it comes to transgender and/or gay people’s place in society, the facts that are in dispute are facts about them, as people.  If I tell you that I am a man, for example, but you have decided that I am a woman, that it is obvious that I am a woman, that God does not make mistakes, therefore I clearly am a woman and to claim otherwise is to oppose God’s order, then we have a problem.  My (hypothetical) view of myself is at odds with your (hypothetical) view of me.  Now, Christianity is a religion based upon the life and teachings of a particular person whose defining hallmark was that of God’s love.  St John the Evangelist even stated explicitly that God is love.  It constantly baffles me that adherents of this religion use their religion as a justification for hatred, and as a rock to strike down even their own children.

Rest in peace, Leelah, and may your parents, one day, come to understand who you were in life.


(for the avoidance of doubt, I am not transgendered, so I can speak only hypothetically about the experience that transgender people have in our world).