Coming Out

Contains confessions that some people might find confusing, insulting, or misconstrue as a joke, as well as the implication of a strong swear word.

I Want To Break Free"I want to break free" exclaimed Freddie Mercury in 1984, as his band mates nervously play along with his cross-dressing music video extravaganza. Don't we all, dear Freddie! And it feels like it might indeed be time for me to break free and come out... but come out as what? Christian, Discordian, drug-user, autistic, trans, bisexual, straight - so many options! Let's consider my choices.

It always felt like a big deal for me to come out as a drug-user - it was one of the reasons I was most nervous about publishing Chaos Ethics. Friends told me I was worrying unduly, I suppose because from their perspective this was no biggie. After all, a huge volume of entertainment media originating from the United States glorifies and revels in drug-taking, and has done for decades. Not to mention that the US exports vast quantities of mind-altering drugs like methylphenidate/Ritalin and fluoxetine/Prozac that have been conveniently labelled 'medicinal', and therefore legitimate for taxation. Still, of all the things I've already come out about, this one was the hardest for me, the one that most felt like 'coming out' in the way that gay people coming out in the late twentieth century meant the term - as confessing something intimate about myself that others would judge, or even persecute me for. Of all the things I've come out about over the years, this one was by far the most difficult for me, and in part because of my Christian childhood.

I suppose that's another option - come out as Christian - but there's not much point in this any more, since it's quite well-known that I identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian, and of those five religions that I practice (often badly) coming out as Christian is the only thing that would have any impact, and I've been that all my life. Indeed, I already had to come out as a Christian when I was in my early teens, one of only three children in my rural Middle School in the backwaters of Great Britain to identify openly as Christian, to sing hymns in assembly loudly and proudly while the entirety of the rest of the school children flatly refused and giggled into their hands about me, singing alone...

Perhaps it is hard for folks in the United States to appreciate how difficult it was for me to stand up and be counted for what was in my heart while in middle school and high school, because they are so used to the relationship between Christian and atheist being the reverse of what it was for me in a provincial school in England in the early 1980s. After all, my future wife's high school experiences in Tennessee were the inverse of mine, taking flak from her classmates for not being Christian enough, as if that sentence were not in itself utterly self-contradictory! But nobody these days thinks Christians rational, which is ironic since our entire concept of what it means to be rational is grounded in Christian thought.

Or I could come out as the Acting Omnibenevolent Polyfather of the Virginity in Gold, and thus the worldwide head of the Discordian Society. But I already came out as this during my years living in London, a time when I rejected my Christianity as foolish nonsense and so embraced a religion that was foolish nonsense by design. But honestly, nobody cares about this, and they'd care even less about my Zen Buddhism that bridged the gap between the two, my Hindu theology that finally resolved all my problems with Christian theology, or my acceptance of the Sufi teachings as to the underlying unity of all authentic religious practice. And if no-one is shocked or (equivalently) proud of me for coming out as Discordian, if I can't inspire somebody else to have the courage to stand up as a Discordian, is there really any point in doing so...?

I suppose I could come out over some mental health issue. But I'm pretty sure I've already discussed my cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder) here on this blog, and that's the only diagnosis I have, and you can't come out on mental health if you don't have a diagnosis, such is the power of doctors in the eyes of my contemporaries. What I really ought to do if I was going to come out over mental health issues is to come out as autistic, since clearly the state of that diagnostic category is now sufficiently broad to accept me. Yet I don't have a diagnosis for any such condition and, worse, I actively resist attaining that diagnosis - and not because I'm ashamed of the obvious fact that I could indeed be placed on the autistic spectrum. On the contrary, I have such love and respect for the autistic people in my life I could never possibly feel any shame for being like them. It's just that I cannot truly understand or appreciate this situation where a doctor is a requirement for admitting or discovering who you are. It's why I did not pursue the process of diagnosis any further, even though the doctor who diagnosed my cyclothymia wanted me to do so. I don't want to give doctors anything like that power over my life.

Which brings me to coming out as trans. Like autistic, I could do this... I feel my feminine side extremely strongly, I'm very comfortable wearing a dress (I did so at my Discordian wedding at Alderly Edge in 2000, amongst other times), and I have great love and respect for my trans friends. But the trans identity as it is currently being practised depends upon a gender metaphysics (i.e. a set of non-testable beliefs) that I don't entirely share. Furthermore, since I am comfortable with both my masculinity and my femininity, and consider the fact of my having a penis to be one of the more incidental aspects of who I am, it doesn't feel like I should come out as trans. Indeed, I feel that it would be disrespectful to those in the trans community who struggle over gender identity issues for me to do so.

Funny, really, because I also feel like that particular political community is constantly trying to 'out' me as trans by insisting that if I am not going to do so I must come out as 'cis'. But cis has been defined as a position in which a doctor I never truly met had power over me by virtue of assigning me my gender or my sex, according to which set of gender metaphysics you've chosen to wield. For the very same reason I cannot in good conscience 'come out as autistic' I can't 'come out as cis', nor even really think that the concept of 'cis' is advancing the cause of trans liberty in the way it was intended to. I rather fear it has set it back, and precipitated the uncivil war between lesbian feminists and trans activists by bringing two rival concepts of gender metaphysics into vicious conflict.

At the very least, ought I not to state what my pronouns are, to show solidarity with the trans community? Well, on this I suppose I really could come out, as the most coherent statement I can make about 'my pronouns' would be "make your best guess, I won't be offended", which I feel confident some trans supporters would find deeply offensive. But I'm not going to come out as something just to offend people - that really would be a betrayal of who I am. And I seriously don't care if you call me he, she, che, or beep boop beep as long as you respect me and my ideas. If you feel its meaningful to share your pronouns, knock yourself out, but please don't force me into identifying as something that really doesn't describe me very well, whether its trans or cis, or anything else. I can respect your meaningful categories of existence without having to live in them.

There again, I could come out as bisexual in that I am capable of having sexual feelings for people irrespective of whether they possess a vagina while I quite evidently have a penis. Indeed, all my earliest stumbling steps towards sexuality were obviously gay, for all that the great love affairs of my life have been with women (and mostly unrequited at that, my wonderful wife notwithstanding). But bisexual is another of those terms that just doesn't quite ring true to who I am, and at best it has been a term of convenience to use while hanging out with the LGBT crowd at University of Manchester in the early 90s. And even then, I never really pushed any aspect of that as part of my identity. I wasn't hanging out with those wonderful people to find a lover, it was just that I adored performing karaoke with a community that sings with almost as much passion as black Christians.

I suppose I could come out as straight (are we allowed to do this yet...?), but again, since I have and can have sexual feelings for non-female people that feels like the wrong label. And now we have 'pansexual' as an option, but it's hard for me to read that word and not think it means "I'll f___ anything", which simply isn't true about me in any sense. I always strived to have sex with few people, not many, and my proudest sexual achievement was choosing not to have sex with a woman who wanted me but whom I did not respect, even though as a horny undergraduate I really wanted to get laid. Basically, I don't quite understand the concept of sexual 'conquest', since what I was seeking while I was dating was solace rather than gratification, a kindred spirit rather than a throwaway sexual partner. I love sex, but not enough to engage in it indiscriminately. Honestly, if there's a word in circulation that describes my sexuality other than 'human' I don't know what it would be.

Maybe I could come out with my trigger warnings. But I think I only have one, and its people talking about trigger warnings as if their prior trauma was a weapon to beat others over the head with, and not something to be approached with sensitivity. And I worry greatly about this shift from respect being something that exists between us as our natural state of being, as the Enlightenment philosophers once saw the matter, to becoming an excuse to turn to the law of nations towards enforcing behavioural norms that then inevitably become anything but respectful. I will be as respectful of your prior traumas as I can be, and I hope you can afford the same courtesy to me... but please don't try to order me about and claim it's a question of respect. There is enough of a shortage of respect these days without undermining it yet further.

So I guess there's only one thing left that I can come out about, something that I'm embarrassed by, something that others might identify with but would also never consider coming out as, because none of us have ever come out as this before, and there's a tangible shame attached to being this way. Something that I have been derided for, and that I might take further derision from coming out about. But it's the only thing left in my bucket of identities that I can hope to come out about, and it feels about time to break free and come out as something...

I am a person who pronounces 'melee' as 'muh-lee', not 'may-lay'.

What the hell, you may be thinking, you cannot possibly be serious! But I am. Thanks in part to Nintendo's Smash Brothers franchise, almost nobody today is mistaken about how 'melee' is supposed to be pronounced, yet I still say 'muh-lee', and I do so because I learned 99% of my vocabulary from reading books, and when I read Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons in 1981 my French was too rudimentary to recognise the expected pronunciation of the word. So I said 'muh-lee', and still do. And this is embarrassing, of course, because it's not the done thing, it's not what everyone else does. But it is also who I am. I am a person who says 'muh-lee'.

And saying this, bringing this out into the open, I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I hope that I live to see that others have the courage to come out as a person who says 'muh-lee'. I hope and pray that some day the lexicographers who maintain the Oxford English Dictionary (a colossal two volume 'Shorter' version of which has pride of place on one of my bookshelves) will include this pronunciation as an accepted alternative, and recognise the thousands of us tabletop role-players who say 'muh-lee'... But it probably won't happen, since we are an endangered species now that reading books has been replaced with watching videos, and tables have been replaced with mandatory screens. This vital aspect of who I am is perhaps already incomprehensible to a great many people.

Although I write these words in jest, I do so in utter seriousness - as a Discordian, I understand that jokes can be serious, that serious things can be funny, and that humanity has a giant stick up its butt that we not only cannot remove we don't want to. And that's hilarious, and tragic, and wonderful, and terrible, and much more besides. Because to be human is not to be just one kind of thing, and any attempt to reduce the immense diversity of human experience to preconceived boxes to check or uncheck is either vile or naïve, and every set of prescribed labels we make is ultimately just a means of excluding yet another way of being human, indeed, all those other ways of being we have not even begun to think about.

I deeply and wholly desire we could just respect one another as fellow equal beings and not as some preset political identity above and beyond 'human', not because political identities aren't important - they surely are! - but because replacing our diversity of experience with preset political identities is damaging to the human experience. Perhaps worse is exporting those preset identities around the world as gospel truth, and even asking those in other countries to pay for the privilege of being exposed to our narrow view of how things must be via entertainment media. This is a terrible way of building political communities that can negotiate between the conflicting conceptions of a good life that inevitably collide when we assert our own truths as necessary categories that others must adopt in their thinking.

The truth is, I am many things, probably many more than the things I have chosen to talk about in this piece. And you are too. Yes, you may need to come out, especially if you have found some truth about yourself that is painful to admit, but even more painful to deny. That, after all, is why in the late twentieth century those who knew that homosexuality was an essential part of who they were had to come out, they had to do it in order to be true to themselves, and to encourage others to do the same, so that they could show solidarity with one another. But please don't come out just to draw attention to yourself, and try not to come out in a way that fails to respect the diversity of those around you. Come out because you must, not because you don't know what else you can do to get noticed.

I remember being utterly disgusted in 1991 by the fuss that was being made about Freddie Mercury when he came out in his dying weeks as gay... I think it annoyed me at the time (it does not now), because he was hailed as heroic even though the stakes were so low at that point in his life it seemed to dilute any viable concept of heroism to do so. But more than that, I came to realise he didn't in fact come out as gay at all. Indeed, he never adopted any such identity in his lifetime. He came out as having HIV and of dying of AIDS, and the press drew their own conclusions, especially since he was in a long-term relationship with a man. They had to fit him into a box. But they could have instead put him in the box marked 'Parsi' or 'Zoroastrian' (another persecuted minority, and one with far less political power than the gay community), or the box marked 'South Asian' or 'Non-White' (he was born on the island of Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara) and no doubt much more beside. But the press, or the public, should never be the ones to try to assign someone their identity. The process of establishing who we are is personal to ourselves, and always must be.

Be who you must be. Testify as to who you are if you need to - and especially if you know there are others who need the inspiration of your courage so that they too can be who they must be. But please, stop wielding identities as weapons to beat your neighbours with, and please try to curtail the extent that national law intrudes upon what has always been - what always must be - a deeply personal matter. I am a person who says 'muh-lee'. But that is not all of who I am or could be. Respect me, first and foremost, the way I respect you: as a fellow human being. If we can do that, perhaps we might yet find a way of living together.

Are you a person who says 'muh-lee'? Consider coming out! At time of writing, there is only one person in the world to whom this identity applies to.

Write To Me

May contain ideas some people might find offensive or distressing.

Quill and parchmentAs I head into my annual Autumnal Social Media Break, I've already resolved to once again use December for blog letters as I did back in 2017. The last two years I was so heavily into the A Hundred Cyborgs project I didn't manage it - but it's a great way to spend the run up to the Winter Festivals. I will gladly reply to anyone, on any topic they choose to discuss with me, without reservation or restriction. Some subjects are harder than others to talk about - some, as this year has shown, can be rendered impossible to talk about. So it is vital that there are a few souls who are willing and able to talk freely on even the difficult subjects. But you don't have to write to me about something weighty and ponderous - I will quite happily talk to you all about anything.

I'm kicking off this year's Social Media Break two weeks early... this is largely because my attempts to patiently unravel a difficult research topic have been met with a near constant stream of derision and abuse on Twitter, bringing on my worst bout of insomnia for several years. I'm not blaming anyone - I should know better than to think philosophy of science would be welcome in a time of international panic, and especially in the grotesque arena of knee-jerk hatred that is Twitter! Still, I can only be myself, and I've never been good at staying quiet when I see people being hurt by the petty evils of bureaucracy, nor when good scientific practices are being ignored or, worse, suppressed.

After about 120 hours of reading papers and listening to those in the relevant medical discourses, I appear to have all the answers that are going to be possible at this time. I set out with the suggestion that if we were going to deploy medical interventions with potential risks, we were obligated to do the research to verify that these measures actually help as expected and do not also cause unanticipated harms. In return, I have been told the most astonishing and bizarre things - that we should do the research later, that there is no need for further research, that "science has spoken!" and how dare I oppose it, or just that I should stop complaining. It is strange indeed to demand "the stakes are so high, we must not investigate further!"

No-one can claim to be a friend of the sciences while they tacitly suppress the disagreements that all research fields depend upon to refine their understandings. No matter how preposterous the arguments you've heard on these issues might be, it won't change the fact that I'm not arguing those things. My story in this regard is quite simple. I witnessed the discourse in the medical community in the UK collapse at a time when good scientific practice was needed more than ever. I have vainly tried to repair that rift by studying the disputed topics and continuing to ask that we conduct the further research required. I have become horrified that the necessary research is not happening, and even more so when good people try to argue in all sincerity "where's your evidence more evidence is required...?"

Here in the UK, the argument for the measures deployed in this country was made on weak evidence by the very admission of those who asked for it. To not then conduct further research to verify the impact of these unprecedented courses of action would be criminally negligent. In the medical sciences, we expect strong evidence (e,g. randomised trials) for all medical interventions, so when we don't have that evidence we are obligated to pursue it. This is a view many clear-sighted medical folks in the UK share with me, and it is summarised with great clarity by Dr Margaret McCartney in her piece for the BMJ, We Need Better Evidence About Non-Drug Interventions against COVID-19. People in the UK - almost all of them poor and many now at the brink of destitution - are being fined for their non-compliance with medical interventions that the government has refused to check to see if they are working as hoped. That is a civil rights failure as well as a scientific failure.

I apologise without reservation for any distress I have inadvertently caused in my pursuit of this issue. I never write with the intent of hurting other people, and mental health issues are extremely important to me. But you cannot ask me to be complicit in unreasonable, unethical, unscientific inaction because you are either too furious or too terrified to think clearly. I'm asking for further research on matters where lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. How can you in good conscience oppose this request? There is no point trying to shout me down, demanding that I stop, because I cannot possibly put this aside until the circumstances that allowed scientific practices to become politicised, circumvented, and even censored have been addressed. And I rather doubt this will happen in my lifetime.

Speaking of my lifetime... I'm getting rather long in the tooth. I'm turning 49 on January 1st, and my lifestyle choices in my 20s have probably taken a decade or two off my life expectancy. I'm not afraid of my own death (it's one of the reasons I had to make a pact with myself never to commit suicide, no matter how depressed I might become), but there are things I would like to do in my remaining years. In particular, I should like to give talks in some of the places that I have friends but that I have either never visited (like New York state), have so far visited solely for business (like Poland), or have already said I'd be glad to visit when I can (like Rio). I know most of you view in-person events as unthinkable right now... but by Spring 2021, I have hope that we'll be starting to look at everything quite differently for various reasons not worth elucidating here. So if you have the courage or recklessness or chutzpah to begin planning a currently hypothetical in-person speaking event, anywhere in the world, with me as a part of it - please do get in touch! There's a contact link at if you don't already have my email address.

In the meantime, please try to be good to one another. Whatever the outcome of the US election, our situation will not improve without the efforts of everyone to move beyond the disastrous political impasse we reached in the last decade, but which has been building for far, far longer. Listen to pre-Disney Master Yoda's advice about fear, anger, and hatred; it's very wise, and just as relevant now as it was forty years ago. And if you're capable of writing a letter, and willing to share letters publicly - then please write a blog-letter to me! I am looking for correspondents from the Republic of Bloggers (i.e. anyone) whom I can write to this December, and as always I will talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Virtuous discourse matters and I need your help to encourage it.

With unlimited love,

Dr Chris Bateman
PhD, MSc, BSc, OΦM.

Only a Game will resume in December.

Confessions of an H-List Celebrity

HOn my better days, I like to flatter myself with my celebrity status. But at the same time, I’m acutely aware that I have about the lowest grade of celebrity that could be imagined. A good friend and I used to joke that we didn’t want to be rich and famous, we just wanted to be well-off and well-known. In many respects, I feel I have achieved this, although I am quite certain that my family and friends, and the communities around me, are more important than either money or recognition, both of which distort our understanding of what truly matters.

For some time now, I’ve assessed fame with a quantitative measure known as the Lupe, after Lupe Vélez – the silent film star who rather unfortunately is now most famous for having drowned in a toilet. The fame of any person is calculated by estimating the number of people who recognise them as a celebrity, and then taking its base ten logarithm (i.e. counting the number of zeros in the resulting number). So, for instance, if someone was known by everyone on the planet, their fame would be 9.8 Lupes (log 10 of 7 billion). A-list celebrities are known by more than a billion people and thus have fame scores of 9 Lupes or more. Then I rank the other lists at 1 Lupe apart. B-listers known by hundreds of millions of people, C-listers by tens of millions, D’s at a million, E’s at a hundred thousand, F’s at ten thousand, G’s at a thousand. Then come the H’s at a hundred.

Somewhere between five hundred and a hundred is my best estimate of the number of people who think of me as a celebrity, so I have a fame score of about 2.5. This is about as low as you can go and still defend a tenuous claim to celebrity. Of course, I’ve worked on million selling games – but no-one thinks of me as a celebrity for these, or even thinks about my involvement with them at all, so they don’t contribute to my score. My celebrity status, such as it is – clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder of fame – is based entirely upon fans of Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, both of which were critical successes and commercial failures, my how-to books like Game Writing, and my work in game studies and philosophy. While I have built a great rep as a speaker over the years, there’s really very little I can do at this point to raise my fame score. This is about as famous as I’m likely to get.

The trouble with thinking, even for a second, that one is a celebrity is that it goes to your head. And the more pathetic your claim to fame, the more ridiculous this pomposity is, for celebrities are wildly unimportant people except for their celebrity, and so when you think of yourself this way it becomes vital to be celebrated. So you come to depend upon things like national radio spots and keynote addresses to justify your self-worth because you become deluded into thinking that your value lies in your celebrity and not in your personality, which is an insanity so prevalent it could even be called normal.

Keynotes are my Achilles heel. I’ve been getting gigs like this for over a decade now – but with such a miniscule fanbase, there are only so many opportunities. Each event is only going to invite you to keynote once, since that’s the way this concept works, so you’re dealing with a certain degree of diminishing returns. But when you have a year where you get two keynotes, getting none the following year makes you feel washed up – even though you can hardly be ‘washed up’ when your notoriety consists of hanging precariously at the bottom of the ladder of fame. You end up in a psychological oubliette – you can’t get by without the reassuring strokes that remind you that you did some things that people once thought were worthwhile.

Fame, it has been said, is a trap. To be really famous – to be at least halfway up the ladder – is to give up your privacy in return for both money and recognition, and at a certain point your privacy is permanently compromised and can never be restored to you. Later, as interest in you wanes, you trade some of the respect that people have for you into money by endorsing commercial products, a kind of contemporary Faustian bargain that diminishes one’s soul through mortgaging your self-respect to make ends meet. No-one who had understood fame could truly want to have it, although certainly there are those who crave the power that comes with fame. Politics in the United States has become infested with such people, and they can never be good politicians because they cannot possibly relate to their electorate as equals.

Every now and then a guilty reverie whisks me away and I imagine that perhaps my work in philosophy will be famous after my death – after all, what philosopher achieved fame in their own lifetime? But I know this is not the way of things today, and that anyway, the work I am doing is of the wrong kind to have a long-term impact. Let’s be frank: no-one would sanely pursue philosophy for fame, it would be a colossal non-starter. And anyway, the reason I practice philosophy isn’t to gain celebrity – that would be counter-productive. I just do it because it’s what I feel compelled to do; it’s a rare use of my talents that doesn’t feel wasted.

So here I am, an H-list celebrity, grateful that I did not achieve any serious measure of fame – since it would have driven me even more insane than I already am – but still pathetically longing for the recognition of my skills and achievements in an endless ongoing cavalcade of vanity. I can laugh about it. But it still sets off my depression from time to time, which is silly, really, because if I had never possessed any degree of celebrity there would have been nothing to miss; no reason to question inadequacies arising solely from a perception of status that philosophically can only be undeserved.

But let me let you in on a secret… I like it here on the bottom rung. I like being asked to come and give talks and keynotes, I like occasionally getting to talk on the radio, I like that I once got to see an interview with me up on a huge screen in a games industry conference in London. In short, I like having tasted the amuse-bouche of fame, even if the entrée and desert is forever off the menu. I like the fact that I can pretend to be famous without giving up any of my privacy. I like being an H-list celebrity. I just can’t help thinking that I shouldn’t.

Open Minded?

Open Minded Neon SignI’m starting to doubt the logic of the phrase ‘open minded’. Who is it supposed to apply to?

Some folks out in the bustle of the internet tell me that being open minded is being willing to revise your beliefs in the light of new evidence. But whomever this sense of ‘open minded’ applies to has already declared the conceptual territory they are willing to be open to, and presumably the acceptable methods for determining what counts as evidence too. That doesn’t sound one jot like being open minded to me – it sounds more like being a cheerleader for the sciences. What’s more, it seems that most scientists do not easily adjust their beliefs in the light of new evidence, but rather expressly doubt evidence that does not accord with their beliefs – which not coincidentally aligns with what psychologists say about humans in general.

On the other hand, there are the strange and wonderful folks you can meet at various New Age bazaars to whom being open minded seems to mean uncritically accepting every wild practice anyone is pursuing earnestly. Except of course such people are only open minded towards those particular kinds of practices, and are generally dismissive of scientific evidence dismissing the efficacy of all such methods. (I might note, such ‘discreditings’ are usually in comparison to placebo – which would be another way of saying that they all work as well as each other, and just as well as a fair chunk of medical practices too.)

Then there is that liberal open mindedness that tolerates other cultures. As Isabelle Stengers warns, this tolerance is a curse, one that immediately prevents any understanding from taking place between us. Indeed, as I have accused in Chaos Ethics, liberal open mindedness largely means forcing everyone to accept a previously prescribed catalogue of acceptable identities, and acting punitively towards those who do not. Alain Badiou observes that this kind of ‘open mindedness’ is characterised by being instantly horrified by African tribal rituals, Chinese politics, and pretty much everything else even remotely different from the allegedly open minded person. Once again, the proclamation of ‘open mindedness’ is a cover for a demand, a requirement, outside of which everything else is to be denounced.

Perhaps ‘open minded’ simply means ‘I will not openly denounce what I can merely politely dismiss’, at least if we ignore the firebrands and malcontents. If so, it is not so much about being open to difference as it is a mode of politeness, of tolerance. But again, I stand with Stengers here: tolerance is a curse that prevents understanding. Everyone who declares themselves open minded is presupposing what it is we should be open to – whether it be the positivistic methods attributed to the sciences, the transformative potential of peculiar rituals, or the political identities that are opposed to conservatism.

If being open minded is genuinely a virtue, we seem to have lost sight of what it is supposed to be about. Ask a liberal to be open minded about gun ownership, or an atheist to be open minded about God, or a faith healer to be open minded about pharmaceuticals. We are all calling ‘open minded’ just those people who are open to our own ways of thinking. That’s no kind of open mindedness at all.

The Frightening Moment of Approach to One's Latest Love

BJA ImageMy hands are clammy, my head is dizzy… I feel like I could swoon from the excitement, and I would just die if they so no. No, I haven’t time travelled back to my lovelorn teenage years, I have just this second clicked ‘submit’ on an online form to upload my second submission to the British Journal of Aesthetics.

I had previously sent them a paper entitled “Am I Afraid of Daleks?”, which they rejected, but with the most wonderful peer review I have ever received – and the promptest. Whomever it was who reviewed my paper actually read and understood it, and was able to make judgements that showed a full understanding of my argument. That is incredibly rare! And I immediately vowed to myself to make a second attempt.

The new paper, entitled “Can a Rollercoaster Be Art?”, has the following abstract:

Given the permissive quality of institutional theories of art, is it possible to prevent rollercoasters from qualifying as artworks? By considering the aesthetics of both games and art as diverse (as hinted at by Wittgenstein) yet inevitably possessing a unity emerging from our own nature (as observed by Midgley), a sketch is given of the strong and weak conditions by which something can be asserted an artwork. This in turn allows for institutional theories to be supportively contrasted to Badiou's concept of the event in the context of art as a rupture in the conditions of practice, and Rancière's taking up of a similar thread that Foucault had left unwound. The result has bearing not only for which conventional artforms qualify as art in any strong sense, but for whether games (digital or otherwise) should be considered candidates for being judged artworks – not to mention the rollercoaster itself.

Will they take it? I don’t know. I feel faint at the possibility of rejection, and impossibly excited at even the remotest chance of being accepted. It is as if I were young once more. I shall have to treasure the uncertainty before future events trammel my besotted heart into submission once more.

The Petty Evil of Timetabling

Galaxies CollideWe live at a time when there is not, despite how it may occasionally seem, a common moral paradigm we can draw against. Rather, as I discuss at length in Chaos Ethics, there are many different ethical methods colliding with each other. Some, facing the cacophony, feel a powerful need to justify one moral system as necessarily superior to others – but this, I’m afraid, is largely a waste of effort. What is needed is not ‘one ethic to rule them all’, but a sensitivity to the moral tensions that emerge from the unavoidable conflicts between different approaches.

I’d like to give an example from my life that illustrates this point. Every year since I began teaching, the timetabling has been horrific. In previous years, it has been horrific because resolving my restrictions (on account of being a parent) with the available teaching spaces and the logistics of the student intake has required tremendous time and effort – and considerable loss of hair! The person responsible for timetabling for the last two years quit his job rather than face it again. This year, someone new took over timetabling, and opted to ‘black box’ the process, meeting only with the line manager involved and not with the staff. I suspect this was a successful strategy for most staff, who are used to receiving the timetable as a circumstance delivered to them. For me, it was hell.

The problem stems from a mismatch of expectations. In my lived practice as a teacher, participating in timetabling was what I had learned, and what I expected. Doing so also allowed me some influence over how my teaching would proceed, which at an emotional level I need for my own sanity. (This is something I have in common with those marvelous folks on the autistic spectrum). Quite understandably, I proceeded with timetabling on the basis that I always had, without really taking on board the consequences of the change of circumstances, since pragmatically that change was invisible to me until it was too late.

The two people who were handling timetabling established new prudential values for the timetable process that were (when I eventually discovered them) perfectly sensible. Their decision to pursue these values was in itself a moral decision: it was the ethical choice to value outcomes over alternative moral approaches, such as virtues. But their pursuit of these values unleashed terrible stresses into my life, because I simply could not understand why my requests (motivated in part by my personal teaching values) were being ignored, when I could see that it was perfectly possible to implement the arrangements I was requesting.

Inevitably, it all came to a dramatic head and, with a little fury, and quite a bit of crying, I eventually came to understand the power relations that had been established and the reasons for their coming into existence. I could completely appreciate the prudential values that had been chosen, once they were made clear to me, and although I did not really agree that the outcome we were getting was better than my circumstances in previous years, I could at least make sense of the upsetting events of the previous few weeks once this perspective was revealed to me. It comes with considerable costs… I had to abandon my conceptual image for one of my classes – a very successful class – and I will have to develop a new image for it that, at the moment, is hard to see as better. But I have no doubt that I will do this.

In my particular case, I was lucky because the line manager involved was sufficiently sensitive to the situation to resolve it through ‘soft power’ rather than through playing the King. But we can see in this example a classic case of how contemporary bureaucracy becomes the enemy of the good through petty evil. Everyone involved in the timetabling process that affected me had laudable ethical values that motivated their actions – yet the tensions that were unleashed could not easily have been avoided, because there was no reason for anyone to suspect that the chosen approach could cause such unintended emotional damage. Furthermore, while some degree of consultation might have resolved my issue, it would have made the practical progression of this particular bureaucratic task untenable.

This is an example of the kind of problems we are all facing in our bureaucratically-arranged organisations at this time in history. At root is the conflict between our outcome-focussed ethics, all of which revolve around prudential values, and agent-focussed ethics, such as virtues, that are embedded in individuals and communities. We have somehow learned that we should let prudential considerations trump all others (an ethical approach that is usually termed Consequentialism), and many hold moral values that inform them this is what they should do, not just what happens. Personally, however, I cannot accept this situation as anything other than a colossal moral error.

The problem with using solely outcome-focussed ethics to judge situations is that we do not ever know all the outcomes when we make decisions, an objection originally raised by Nietzsche. We imagine what the outcomes will be, and these imagined consequences come to be what govern our decision process. If we choose imagined futures over the lived moral practices of the people around us, we will act in ways that are guaranteed to generate moral and emotional tensions. It will cause what I have called petty evil, the damage wrought by large organisations in their inability to understand the deleterious effects they cause through disempowering those affected by their centralised decision making.

Saying that solving this problem in the worlds we live in will not be easy is an understatement. The ideals that got us through the Enlightenment – of freedom, and what we have chosen to call democracy – are no longer capable of bearing the load placed upon them, in part because the prudential values of the marketplace (primarily that of efficiently generating money) supplant deeper moral practices, such as virtue, in ways that are impossible to oppose as long as ‘choice’ is seen as paradigmatic of freedom, rather than a shallow substitution for authentic autonomy. We need to see these problems with better eyes, but it is unclear that we have the will to do so.

The opening image is Galaxies Collide by Robert McNiel, which I found here on his Instagram page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Man of Straw

Print_2.tifThe most frequent ad hoc rebuttal levelled against me, both on my blogs and in blind peer review, is that the argument that I have advanced is a ‘straw man’. What the respondent means is that I am not arguing against actual people, but that I have created a more generalised, abstracted opponent. This is certainly the case! I do this often as part of my arguments. But this is not a straw man argument.

A straw man argument is when you respond to someone’s claims by making an assertion that dodges their argument entirely by substituting a different argument. Now this cannot be the case when you are abstracting a general argument (as I frequently do) because – quite clearly! – if I am arguing against a generalised position, I am not arguing against a specific opponent. You are certainly entitled when I make such abstract arguments to insist I identify examples of that generalised position, and I can pretty much always do this. But complaining that I’ve made a straw man argument just isn’t going to work, in part because that’s not what I’ve done.

This year, I have argued in numerous places against the kind of digital exceptionalism that treats ‘videogames’ (whatever they might be) as a medium that cannot be dealt with by methods suitable for other media. The nature of my objection is that ‘videogame’ isn’t a category that is going to hang together upon close inspection, and that therefore arguing for new methods for studying ‘videogames’ is a problematic line of attack. Numerous academics take this stance – Jesper Juul has done so very cleverly and eloquently in various places, and others like Graeme Kirkpatrick who align with him make even stronger assertions of the same kind. Kirkpatrick’s brilliant book Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game, for instance, states: “The book sides with ludology in asserting the novelty of the video game as an object of study and the importance of this newness to understanding its distinctive place within contemporary culture.” That’s what I call digital exceptionalism right there.

My claim of digital exceptionalism is one you will find laid out in several places, such as this year’s Player Practices serial, or my DiGRA 2015 talk The Gaiety or Meditations on Arcade Player Practices. It is, ironically, a straw man argument to claim that my accusation of digital exceptionalism is a straw man argument (as more than one blind peer reviewer has done this year!). That’s because when you accuse me of making a straw man argument when I am arguing in the general, you have not engaged with my argument but replaced it with a different argument – the (fallacious) argument that I am making a straw man argument. I think there is a saying about rubber and glue that applies here…

So please, be more careful when you apply the term ‘straw man’. When you abstract a position to argue against it, you are not advancing a straw man argument. You are, in fact, just making an argument. And you are entitled to have people consider that argument on its own merits, no matter how generalised the position being argued against. Dismissing it with a straw man argument that claims it is a straw man argument is really the last straw.

Worldview Denial

WorldviewIn the wake of the terrible events in Chapel Hill, North Carolina this week, I hear once again the cries of disgruntled atheists declaring that “atheism isn’t a worldview,” as if this was a way of shrugging off some important criticism. The basis of this objection is that all atheists believe wildly different things on many different matters. They do – just as is the case with Christians. Worldview denial is also a way of distancing atheists from the atheist murderer in Chapel Hill on the basis that his actions should not reflect upon the majority of atheists. They don’t – just as is the case in equivalent situations with Muslims. The reluctance to accept the term ‘worldview’ is also a means of creating distance between atheists and religion – just as when Hindus say they don’t have a religion, just a way of life.

One of my motives for creating this blog was to offer a space of encounter between atheists and Christians, not to mention any and all other religious and nonreligious traditions. Personally, I dislike the term ‘worldview’ – it creates false impressions, like the presumed need to deny that such-and-such is a worldview. I prefer to talk about religions and nonreligions. Atheism is a collection of nonreligions, just as Christianity is a collection of religions. Yet neither religion nor nonreligion warrants strong causal arguments from the highly abstract terms ‘atheist’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Marxist’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Baha'i’ to extreme events such as murder. But any such terms mark certain risks, especially of misunderstandings, and these risks cut both ways in all cases.

Comments are welcome, but please try to present your position in the best possible light by being polite and not posting in anger.

The Strange Case of Doctor Bateman

The Mad Doctor 1941 Last week I had the viva for my PhD by Publication. Although I spent some time preparing for cross-examination, it was not something I'd been particularly worried about, mostly since I'd been utterly slammed with teaching prep, timetable juggling, and even some ill-timed consultation work. This was perhaps for the best, since it kept me adequately distracted in the run up to the main event.

I'd heard from other PhD candidates that the viva was gruelling, but I was unprepared for just how drained it was going to leave me. They challenged me primarily on the areas of my previous work that I knew were weak, sometimes painstakingly driving home the point in a manner that seemed to border on excess. I think, perhaps, this is the role the examiner is supposed to adopt. Still, I was disappointed that the exchanges were not more productive - there were even places where complaints were raised so generally as to leave me uncertain if I was being indicted on a substantive issue or merely chastised for straying into academic domains outside of my core expertise. It is no exaggeration to say that Imaginary Games saved my bacon by being in itself of a standard appropriate to a doctorate.

After a short recess to lick my wounds I was called back to face my examiners. They declared that I had passed with 'non-major corrections', and before we departed pointed out that I was now entitled to call myself 'Doctor Bateman'. This should have been a victory, yet it felt so much more like defeat. After all, I'm still not done with the work since a new version of the thesis that binds together my publications needs to be submitted. I found it hard to see this as anything but another step towards the conclusion, and took little comfort in my technical claim to being now a 'real fake doctor' (in so much as the term 'doctor' is generally understood in the medical sense).

For a week since passing the viva, I've felt flat. Like so many aspects of my life, my doctorate leaves me conflicted and unable to accept it on its own terms. I have read too much Ivan Illich to uncritically accept a professional rank accredited by other professionals forming a closed circle. I do not like the implication that 'we' (I can no longer say 'they') have greater knowledge or more right to be heard. Yet of course the reason I originally looked at getting a PhD by Publication was precisely to secure my platform and thus improve the appeal of my books. It is no comfort here for me to say that I willed this because I wished to be heard, not in the expectation of making money (no-one gets rich writing philosophy!). I am acutely aware that any advantage I have earned is bought at the cost of the continual risk of marginalization facing those voices outside of a rather insular global academic institution.

I am happiest about the viva when I see it in anthropological terms. Like an adolescent proving himself to his tribe by enduring hours of ritualized pain - hung, perhaps, upon hooks by my nipples - the intellectual ordeal of the viva is my rite of passage into the tribe called 'Doctor'. And after all, no harm was really done to me beyond a bruise to my ego. Yet it is strange: I know nothing more now than I knew before, save for the phenomenal experience of the viva itself. How can this ritual confer upon me anything but formalities?

I do not fool myself into thinking I can change the academic machine, although I cannot help but strive to do so. I am particularly critical of the extolling of blind peer review in all disciplines as a beneficial practice - a ritual oddly close to the viva in some respects, although one even less likely to lead to productive discourse. This word 'discourse' was much in evidence within the viva, yet the odd thing about the academic fraternity is that it's procedures and rituals are far more likely to suppress dialogue than encourage it, if only because behind the mask of Examiner - and even more so behind the mask of Peer Reviewer - the power relations encourage neither communication nor honest inquiry.

The broadly positivistic belief that out of the furnace of peer review the cold facts emerge is not a claim sufficiently substantiated in the literature. It is assumed rather than proven. It functions as a ratchet that locks down the status quo very well, but does so by excluding new ideas with brutal efficiency. It is possible to view this as beneficial, provided one's faith in objectivity is strong, but I have somehow managed to lose this without falling into Nietzche's abyss of nihilism. The truth isn't 'out there', but that does not mean nothing is true.

So I am a doctor, yet I am also disappointed with myself for becoming thus. My achievement, such as it is, sharpens my uncertainties about what I should be striving for. I can only hope that the unseen and unknown consequences of this event will lead me to something that will instil some greater sense of worth in this situation, something more than the bragging rights of becoming a doctor just 18 months after becoming an academic. I want this to be more than a badge, another stamp in my collection. But of course, it is up to me to make that happen.

The Piano and the Armchair

Mahogany PianoWe relate to our things more than we recognise. As a result of a pact I made with my wife, we now have a piano (pictured left) in our lounge. It’s a lovely old mahogany piece, rescued from a skip by one of those strange and wonderful artisans who does for musical instruments what pet shelters do for animals.

My interest in the piano here is in what it reveals about the living arrangements in my house, since its arrival displaced an armchair. The chair in question was arranged, as so many are these days, to afford a viewing position on the television – the centrepiece of most contemporary lounges – although also so that the fireplace could also be focal in the winter. Because of the piano, the armchair can no longer be positioned where the TV is in full view, or indeed visible at all. Although initially a cause of consternation, I rapidly realised that this was no bad thing.

A person sat in the armchair is now insulated from the TV, and thus free from the hypnotic power this box possesses. I confess, in the pub I always try and sit away from the televisions because I want to talk to the people I am drinking with – yet the flickering sporting matches draw my attention like moths to candles, whether I wish it or not! The armchair not only creates a space liberated from the TV, it offers a more convivial arrangement for the room as a whole. A guest sat upon it can converse with those on the sofa comfortably, and if my wife decides to play the piano (currently hopelessly out of tune!) the new position is equally amenable.

Although I use a television for media consumption on a regular basis, I always aim to ensure it is only part of my experiential diet. Moving the armchair makes that easier. But were it not for the piano, I would not have been confronted with this aspect of my relationships with the things around me. How quickly we become accustomed to that which would seem strange to those who went before us…