Plagued By Bad Associations

I've noticed over the years that there are a number of things I believe and know and so on, often things that are or were formative in my life, that I am reluctant to speak of, at least by name. This is quite odd for someone with little or no personal privacy boundaries. It's not, precisely, out of a sense of shame, it's that if I use certain words or phrases to describe myself, people think they know something about what I've said, but it doesn't apply to me, and so virtually every thought that enters their minds from then on will be wrong.

An example story for you. RA's mom (call her S) (who, banter between us and jokes about mothers in law aside, I like and respect) and I were in the pews at RA's church, where RA is in the choir. I go there whenever she asks me to, which is generally about 2 or 3 times a year. I like to see her sing, and I like to see her happy. The service hadn't started, so S and I were chatting, and somehow (I don't remember how) my being an atheist came up.

S: "You can't be an atheist.", said with conviction but not rudeness.

Me: (pause in shock for several seconds) "Now, I now you, S. I know you can't mean to be telling me what I think and feel, which is certainly what that sounded like. So what did you actually mean?"

S: "Well, if you were an atheist, you wouldn't be here."

Me: "Why not? I'm here to support RA."

S: "If you were an atheist, you wouldn't be willing to support RA by going to church."

Me: "Ahhhhh, I see. You've confused "atheist" with "asshole". A common mistake."

S: (stunned silence)

The conversation went on for a bit, and it was very clear that she thought that all atheists are compelled to shout down anyone who expresses deistic beliefs in their presence.

And the thing is, I can't blame her for believing that. I, in fact, have similar beliefs. It certainly seems that many of my atheist friends do that. I will sometimes do it in my head, true, bu no-one's going to change their minds because someone else tries to shut them down. We're not arguing politics around the campfire on the ancestral savannah, but the urge to act like we are is built in to our brains. It's somewhat difficult to resist, but not that difficult, at least for me. Just take a deep breath, acknowledge that if this person is going to change, it won't be because you cut them off to explain how wrong they are, and move on.

There's a special exception for factually incorrect things said in front of others; if Alice is holding forth that, say, the lack dust on the moon proves that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and Bob appears to be buying it, I might step in.

There's absolutely nothing about being an atheist (or anything else on this list) that requires that one be a pushy prick about it. So why is it so incredibly common? My guess is that it's a combination of a few things. One is that only the strident, rude people make a habit of speaking up loudly enough to be noticed. Another is that people are a lot more likely to remember offensive opinions than polite ones. Last but not least is the resulting affective death spiral: the loud people are self-reinforcing and tend to band together in groups that the less strident people do not feel welcome in, and then the loudest of them form a subgroup, and so on, until there result cadres of the very rudest, most opinionated people. This happens in basically every subculture formed around one key idea.

And so those of us that do not feel the need to shove our opinions down every throat we encounter are left out in the cold: we get neither the satisfaction of belonging to a cadre of people totally certain of their own awesomeness (the loud ones), nor the simple satisfaction that sometimes comes from shouting others down, nor the satisfaction of being respected for our restraint.

When religion comes up in polite conversation, and is discussed for a while with me listening politely (or helping; I have thing for comparative religious studies), and someone asks me about myself and I say I'm an atheist, you'd think they'd remember the whole rest of the conversation and think "Oh, he's been quite polite so far. I imagine that took a lot of restraint. Good for him; it must be important to him to be polite and kind". What actually happens is that the discussion about religion comes to a screeching halt as people frantically wrack their brains for an excuse to change the topic without making it obvious that they're trying to conversationally escape the crazy atheist. That last bit is perhaps the most annoying part: by this time I've already noticed. Indeed, most 8 year olds could detect such a level of social discomfort. The additional implication that I haven't noticed everyone else's discomfort, and hence must be a total social moron, does not please me.

As far as I can tell, people act in this way because they apparently believe that now that they know I'm an atheist, it is suddenly very likely (indeed, near certain) that I will start foaming at the mouth and screaming at all the deists for their stupidity. It doesn't seem to occur to them that the person they've been talking to this whole time was always an atheist, and was polite before regardless.

It is very, very frustrating to me when being honest, and giving people more information, causes their models of me to become less accurate, often drastically so.

It is possible to argue that anyone who does not shout down those who disagree doesn't really have the courage of their convictions. You know what, though? My beliefs are exactly that: mine. I didn't sign a promise to be a missionary when I became an atheist (and, by the way, I find missionaries to be a disgusting pile of culture destroying bastards). I don't secretly believe in a higher power every time I'm not yelling about it. Having thought through my beliefs extremely carefully, I am secure in them. I can listen quietly to any amount of religious discussion, from any religious context, with basically no chance of my beliefs being significantly changed. Nothing bad happens if I don't browbeat people.

On the flip side, nothing good happens when I do browbeat people. The percentage of people who are able to update their beliefs, no matter how core those beliefs are, because of other people's arguments, is incredibly small. I've met, that I know of, perhaps 2 or 3 (and they were all atheists; heh). For everyone else, which is basically everybody, the only thing that shouting at them will do is cement their beliefs. It is opposite-of-helpful to whatever differing beliefs you might hold.

On those rare occasions that someone might actually learn something from your beliefs, they will politely enquire about them and listen respectfully. Unless that happens, there's really no point in disagreeing (other than informationally and politely, i.e. "I disagree; I think X instead") with people's deeply held beliefs: all you get is frustration and a person who disagrees more that they did before. Your beliefs will not be served or helped.

Therefore, I assert that I'm actually a better atheist, in terms of effectively spreading my beliefs, than those who take every possible conversational opportunity to bludgeon others with such beliefs.

As a side comment, I'm ignoring the human psychology loophole were you can convince anybody of just about anything if they're depressed enough (AKA "love bombing"), simply because that shit is evil.

I've not found a good way to handle these issues except to refuse to provide people with terms they have lots of built-in associations with. In other words, I use unusual terns to try to make them think about what I'm saying.

In the following sections I'll talk about various such situations I've encountered and how I try to deflect them.

You Seem To Have Confused "Atheist" With "Asshole"

Since atheism was my example for early sections of this post, I don't have too much left to say about it. A few things still seem worth mentioning, though.

The specific issue that people seem to be scared of is me preaching at them. Like, just because I'm obviously right, I have to say so. :-) In fact, I avoid even obvious openings; I've always been offended by evangelists, and don't see that I should get a get-out-of-jail free card just because my views can be more easily externally justified: evangelists still suck, even if they're atheists. I always warn people if they've said something to which trying to convert them is an appropriate response. They usually aren't interested, and there it ends.

My deflection strategy for atheism is to say that I'm a physicalist, which I then have to define, which largely sidesteps the whole issue. It has the further advantage of being quite a bit more accurate: I don't care about any invisible dragons, not just the one labelled "God".

It doesn't even seem to occur to people that I'm saying I'm an atheist, even though that obviously follows. I find this amusing.

The only time I ever get the urge to correct what appears to be a matter of fact with respect to purely religious issues is when some tells me that their imaginary dragon loves me; it seems to me that certain events in my life provide ample evidence to the contrary, let alone the lives of, say, children that starve to death. I know deists don't see it that way, though, so I usually don't bother. Well, I'll also correct people who misquote the bible, but that's hardly offensive by itself.

You Seem To Have Confused "Libertarian" With "Asshole"

This one, at least, is a little more understandable: there are some deeply annoying Libertarians out there. What's worse, they tend to be even less restrained in their preaching than the average atheist. On top of that, polite company tends to avoid religion, but these days not so much politics, so there's much more opportunity.

To give you an idea of just how crazy Libertarians can get, on the California Libertarian ballot there is often this guy who my household calls the ferret guy, because his basic thesis (bear in mind this is in the ballot literature, where one is presumably pulling out all the persuasive stops) seems to be "it's illegal to have a ferret as a pet in California; it is clearly retarded that the government even cares about this issue; therefore our government is way too big and you should vote Libertarian". Which, umm, while technically true, putting it as your central argument in the document that is your absolute final chance to convince voters is just... really crackpot-ish.

And if you think that's bad, try mentioning Ayn Rand. Her followers are almost always cultists of the worst sort. I have a close friend who used to sometimes describe herself as a follower of the teachings of Ayn Rand, meaning that she liked and respected Rand's books, but the reactions she got were so bad that she's pretty much stopped mentioning Rand entirely.

So, yeah. Between that and the fact that I don't actually think that all government is bad, I've just stopped identifying that way at all. There's also the fact that I'm just not very concerned with politics, since it won't much matter soon.

Sometimes I use the term "minarchist", because people have to think about that. Mostly, though, when I even bother, I just say that we seem to have too much government and that I'd like to see less government. That doesn't seem to bother people, although it does sometimes lead people to assume I'm Republican leaning, which is wholly inaccurate. Once again, I give accurate data and people's understanding of me gets worse. sigh.

You Seem To Have Confused "NLP Practitioner" With "Asshole"

Even more than with "libertarian", this one I understand and try to coddle. With "atheist" I'll sometimes try to convince people they're overreacting and not all of us are assholes and so on. With "libertarian" I rarely bother because the crazy/cultist quotient is so high that it's hard to legitimately argue against people's assumption of finding same. With "NLP", I'm so scared to be associated with the term that I very rarely use it.

Those of you who know me well will know that I tend to be strongly opinionated, and hence may be wondering what is so bad about NLP that I'd have that reaction. So, let me explain NLP first.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a set of psychotherapeutic techniques based on, basically, cracking human consciousness. Much of it is hypnotic techniques, and this is what I studied as a child (I had an odd childhood), and much of the rest of it is extremely fast ways of producing hypnosis-like effects. NLP is basically as repository of learning about the major holes in the human psyche and how to exploit them to cause psychological change. As an example, NLP's phobia cure technique takes about 10 minutes, doesn't even require that the recipient be paying much attention, works in maybe three quarters of cases, and if reinforced once a week two or three times, will last forever. Yes, really.

As another example, there's an NLP induction technique that requires only that the recipient "agree" to shake your hand (this is an automatic response to sticking your hand out for most North Americans, so "agree" doesn't really apply). A skilled practitioner can make it work at least half the time. The one time I made it work (I don't have the level of skill or finesse required) I did a complete hypnotic session, including post-hypnotic amnesia (the target remembered nothing) in a couple of minutes. Note the lovely combination of no requirement of consent and (extremely easy, with this induction) amnesia: you can implant suggestions in people who didn't agree and won't remember.

The handshake induction is, at least, very obvious to surrounding observers. Ericksonian hypnosis, by contrast, might as well be The Voice; it can be done in a crowded room, and the only hint observers will have is that the hypnotist seems to be monologuing about nonsense and the recipient looks kind of glazed. Thankfully, it's not a one-size-fits-all hole like much of NLP: Ericksonian hypnosis requires an extremely high level of both skill and talent to perform effectively.

The ethics here gets extremely murky, because many of these techniques can be used in normal conversation, if you're skilled. On the on hand, this is pretty manipulative. On the other hand, it is just talking, and in a lot of ways no different from any other form of persuasion. People will routinely use really dirty emotional tricks (the dead fetus picture used by the anti-choice crowd being a famous example); it can certainly be argued that simply choosing your words extremely carefully, which is all most NLP is, is no worse, and maybe much better. For myself, I find using NLP techniques in normal conversation a bit creepy.

Almost immediately, the potential for abuse of NLP techniques was obvious which, I gather, made it somewhat dicey to discuss them in serious psychology circles. This is pretty fair, I think, but the resulting affective death spiral amongst NLP practitioners lead to them mostly sounding like cultists, which made it even worse to discuss them in the context of real psychology, leading to more cultishness and so on. Totally unfairly, in my opinion, serious psychologists also decided that NLP techniques were "cheating" and that a person cured with such techniques wasn't "really" cured, which is a load of horseshit. NLP techniques, being hypnotic in nature in most senses, will often require refreshing about once a week three or so times. This takes seconds or minutes, and is a well understood phenomenon (as psychology goes, anyways). Other than that, NLP cures are just as "real" as spending a year in therapy, even if they take 5 minutes.

This was all unfortunate, as a large pool of extremely useful techniques were almost entirely lost to formal psychology, and mostly lost to psychotherapy (the two disciplines, in a fit of truly profound human stupidity, are almost entirely separate in practice).

For an earnest (sometimes-) student of these techniques such as myself, it was annoying to have people with real skill in helping people treat your own work and techniques as crazy cult stuff, especially when it can be so helpful; the kneejerk rejection gets really frustrating.

For purposes of this post, though, since the vast majority pf people had never heard of the stuff, it wasn't a big deal.

Then the speed seduction people got ahold of NLP.

This would be people (OK, men) in the "it's just talking" crowd of NLP ethics who decided to streamline techniques solely for the purpose of seducing people (OK, women). I don't know if love is on the list as well as sex or not.

And then the published it. And made websites about their books. And publicized.

If you're going to go around seducing people anyways, I can sort of see that using techniques to streamline the process (and, more importantly, to let the person go on their way without pain, which I like to imagine is part of the speed seduction process) might make the whole thing easier on everybody involved. Maybe. Sort of.

Really, though, it's just hella creepy.

And suddenly, everybody had heard of NLP, at least in the sex-positive community, and thought that if you mentioned it you were in the speed seduction crowd.

It is really, really shitty when a bunch of assholes spoils something for the nice people, but I try to pick battles I can win, and this one is already lost: to many people, "NLP" means "speed seduction", and the only thing I'll accomplish by trying to convince them otherwise is convincing them that I'm so deluded that I don't even know I'm causing harm.

Thanks, but no thanks. I've got plenty of other battles to fight. I just don't mention NLP at all anymore except around close friends.

You Seem To Have Confused "Sysadmin" With "Asshole"

I'm a systems administrator for a living. This is, obviously, very deep in geek culture. A particularly nasty aspect of geek culture is the belief that stupidity is evil.

It is, in fact, the job of most sysadmins to deal with end users, and to turn user problems into solutions.

Despite that, a large subset of the sysadmin community has decided that any question that shows any less understanding of computers than their own is stupidity, and hence evil. They don't actually use the term "evil", but they certainly act that way.

This has lead to a culture that glorifies "letting off steam", which is their term for getting together (usually virtually) and mercilessly attacking all the horribly stupidity of their "lusers" (the "l" is silent). These would be the reason sysadmins exist: if everyone had a sysadminly level of computer understanding, no-one would pay sysadmins for anything (and we are usually very well paid). Talk about biting the hand that feeds! These people viscously attack their own reason for existence, or at least for a good salary, and call that fun.

I'd find this icky all by itself, but there's a whole genre of Bastard Operator From Hell literature that includes the main character killing his users as just punishment for their lack of computer skills.


I can enjoy absurdist violence humour as much as the next guy; I love Happy Tree Friends, for example. But that stuff just creeps me out.

So given all that, it's not surprising that when people find out I'm a sysadmin, there's a significant chunk that start looking for a way to exit the conversation, under the assumption that I'm about to go all super-arrogant on them.

This one I do not cover and I do not avoid or let slide: most sysadmins really are decent, kind people, and I won't let a few loose cannons make us all look bad. Even the a.s.r./BOFH crowd are usually kind and helpful to their users. As always, though, it takes very few assholes to give a bad impression. So, when this comes up, I just try yo be as kind and helpful as possible and hope to change people's minds.

You Seem To Have Confused "Singularitarian" With "Asshole"

I have some strong opinions about the future, selected carefully through long thought and effort and research. I've come to a point of view that is sometimes called "Singularitarian". Basically, it means I'm expecting our future robots overlords to save us all from ourselves, probably before the year 2030. That an extremely simplified summary of a hugely complex set of issues, of course.

Some people have noticed the superficial and misleading similarity between hopes for a beneficial singularity and religious millenarianism, and dubbed the singularity as "the rapture of the nerds". As a physicalist/atheist who spent hundreds of hours researching these issues from a serious science-and-technology-based perspective, I find this extremely insulting.

Beyond that, though, who even cares if I believe such things? I'm just off in my corner spending time and money on saving the world. I'm not evangelizing, and very very few Singularitarians do. I don't even mention it unless there's a really reasonable conversational segue (i.e. people talking about what things will be like in 50 years).

And yet, people will sometimes act as though there's no difference between me and an actual religious evangelist.

Spending time and money to solve the world's problems makes me a creepy cultist? Really?

Come on.

My standard way of dealing with this is to say, should it come up, that I am eagerly awaiting the coming of our future robot overlords. If people laugh this off, I let it go. If people ask for an explanation, I explain, and I try to keep it short and simple so I don't seem like a cultist.

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