Monthly Archives: August 2011

General

Want to make your life as a campus group leader a whole lot easier? Read this.

You have a great event idea– you have the funds needed, picked the perfect date and have started writing a press release. Everything is just freaking awesome! Until your university finds out.

Suddenly you have miles beyond miles of red tape to work through. Those assholes! How dare they make your life infinitely more difficult with all their silly rules and regulations?!

We’ve all been there. While we all get that paperwork and the likes are in place for a reason, dealing with university authorities can be a hassle, to say the least. However, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with these people, no matter how stupid you think the hoops they make you jump through are.

It is inevitable that at some point during your school year, as a group leader, you will have to interact with these people, be it in person or over email. Below are a few tips to keep in mind while doing so, to make your life easier and to make the people who grant you permission, happier.

1. Know how your university works. For example, at my school, you need several forms filled out and signed by officers for fundraising, to spend money, to hold an event, to travel somewhere, or to breath (practically). While it can get annoying, I’ve made myself knowledgeable about each and every form so whenever I need to do something, I know where to start.

2. They’re busy too. While it can be incredibly annoying to have to run around getting a bazillion different forms signed in between classes and a job, keep in mind that whatever university officials you’re dealing with manage this process everyday- with hundreds of students orgs. It’s stressful for EVERYONE.

3. Kiss up. Hello! Being the teachers pet works. Each university handles things differently– maybe you’re lucky enough to only need a single signature, or maybe your every move is monitored. Either way, try to kiss a little you-know-what. Do they need to find a certain phone number, or get a form faxed over to your speaker? Offer to do it for them. By going above and beyond during the legwork of your event, or even just being willing to do so, your group will be remembered as incredibly helpful, which will benefit you at some point- I guarantee it.

4. Give everyone enough time. As soon as you know details, fill out whatever paperwork you need to. Don’t wait! Give any university office plenty of time to process things. Not only will this cut down on stress levels for everyone, but they’ll be grateful, meaning next time, when you DO wait until the last minute (on accident, of course) they’ll be more willing to cut you some slack.

Every school is different, which means only you know what works best for your group during the beginning processes of an event, but by being responsible and doing things the right way no matter what those things are, you’re likely to build bridges, and not burn them.

Activism Ethics Lifestyle Opinion

Why I’m a Male Feminist (And Why Our Movement Needs More of Us)

“Feminist” is a polarizing word.  You’ll generally see it used in one of two ways: as self-identification by people who consider themselves feminists, and as a pejorative by people who do not.

It’s a word with an ugly connotation in many people’s minds, not unlike the word “atheist”; people hear the “-ist” suffix and infer an ideology that seeks feminine supremacy rather than gender equality, just as many see atheism as a rebellious denial of God rather than an affirmative acceptance of a godless universe.

To be sure, there are differing opinions among those who consider themselves feminists regarding what it means to be a feminist. There are disagreements about its implications regarding sexuality, marriage, reproductive rights, and parenting. There are disputes about what reforms are needed in modernized Western societies compared to developing nations.  There are debates about who gets to call themselves feminists, particularly about whether this label can apply to men.

Can men be feminists?

I call myself a feminist because I agree with the movement’s most basic tenet: women are people. I feel that throughout human history and in the status quo today, women have been and are either (a) regarded as lesser beings than men, or (b) propped up on a pedestal from which they are not permitted to descend, and often paradoxically both at the same time. I see this as wrong and would like to do my part to correct it.

As such, supporting fair treatment across gender lines means proactively questioning and reforming the way we (both men and women) think about women. For this reason I will use the word “feminist” and not try to make up some new, gender-neutral term for supporting gender equality.

Hoping that I don't sound like this.

I know that there are hardcore feminists out there who object to men calling themselves feminists. I understand their reasons for feeling that way (for example, men presumptuously thinking they can speak on behalf of feminism, men dominating discussions on feminism, and then there’s this guy).

I still feel that I should use the label, as it helps to make feminism less taboo, less scary to people who claim they oppose feminism without understanding what it means. An increase in the number of visible male feminists (or “pro-feminists” or “allies” if you prefer) will increase dialogue among men about their treatment of women, and increase the number of men who stop to think “Y’know, maybe I am being sexist without realizing it. I should reexamine my attitudes about gender roles.”

Being visible among skeptics, or Wearing it proudly

At the SSA conference last month, I chose to wear my bright green “THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” t-shirt, bought years ago from a fundraiser for a battered women’s shelter.

I don't always wear t-shirts with slogans on them, but when I do I support equal treatment of women.

I’ll admit that I knew I wasn’t going out on a limb with this: I knew that there were many feminists among the population of young atheists and agnostics. It got positive reactions from feminist atheist bloggers Jen McCreight and Greta Christina, and it turned out there were even a few other male feminists there as well.

In proclaiming myself as a feminist, just as happened when I proclaimed myself an atheist, I am bound to make both friends (not all of whom I’d like to call “friend”) and enemies (some of whom I have no quarrel with) based solely on the label.

Case in point: one of the Marxist activists present at the conference seemed to assume I’d be sympathetic to her group’s ideology based on my self-identification as a feminist. I was not.

I’m not aware of any animosity toward me regarding the shirt (I’ve experienced such from male acquaintances in the past), but I have to wonder if it frightened anyone away. I would certainly hope not.

The bottom line

I will echo the sentiments of atheists who have found the AAFHSS community to have a detectable sexism problem, if based solely on what I’ve read in the blogosphere (I personally heard no such comments at the SSA conference).  I do suspect, however, that many groups and social movements have the same problem, if not a more deeply embedded one; the difference is that there are outspoken feminists in the secular movement who recognize sexism when it rears its ugly head and call people out on it.

I also will ask that any men who feel threatened by feminism take a serious second look at their attitudes toward women.  Are you afraid of becoming a second class citizen, or are you afraid of losing special privileges you’ve become accustomed to?  Are you afraid that values associated with your gender will someday no longer be the default?

I won’t tell other skeptics and freethinkers that they should get behind a particular ideology, but I will ask them to consider what they do believe about sex and gender and examine the evidence on which they base their views (even feminists should do this – any idea worth believing is worth scrutinizing).  You may find that you hold biases you weren’t aware of.

News Opinion

The problem faced by Conspiracy Theory

As there are different types of philosophies so too are there different types of Conspiracy Theory. These range from simple one off events such as the assassination of JFK and 911 to historically entrenched conspiracy theories that encompass esoteric ideals with real world implications. The latter tend to be associated with secret societies or Meta intergalactic conspiracy theories involving alien control.

Today the biggest problem facing Conspiracies Theory is its lack of articulation and analysis of systematic processes. However, simply dismissing conspiracy theories as being illogical, wildly imaginative or staggeringly absurd will no longer work as an analytical benchmark. In terms of pure logic and reasoning some conspiracy theories are more plausible than others. For instance take the assassination of JFK. It is plausible that a network of men other than Lee Harvey Oswald had him assassinated. This is more plausible than the premise that the world’s political and financial systems were deigned to be as they are in order to serve the purpose of a smoke screen designed by a secret society in the ancient world that envisioned world domination – whatever that is.

Apart from the art of linguistics, Conspiracy Theory fails to address the phenomena it seeks to explicate in a concise or sophisticated manner. As a further hindrance to the cause, the semantics encompassing Conspiracy Theory have reached bursting point – a concept ablaze with theoretical amalgamation producing ideological saturation. As a consequence both the descriptive and conceptual terms of Conspiracy Theory have become meaningless. Take the conspiracy theory of JFK as a single point conspiracy. By this I mean a preplanned arrangement between two or more individuals at a single point in time. These individuals would have conspired collectively to corrupt the political process when disposing of Kennedy.

It is precisely here where the misdiagnosis of conspiracy theories emerge, they must therefore reframe their theoretical ideas of the process they seek to analyze. Single point conspiracy theories can be equally analyzed as single point corruption, both occurring at designated points in time within social, economic and political systems. Immediately this sense of analyses and the semantic use of single points of corruption bring credence to the attempted argument. Political Scientists and Sociologists study corruption, particularly at discrete points in time regarding illegal operations and processes in a system. However not too many study Conspiracy Theory as a serious framework for consideration or as a viable ontological alternative. Predominantly when studied in a serious format, it is the the work of psychologists attempting to discredit conspiracy theories by merely labeling them under the banner of erratic belief systems.

In order to provide analytical and insightful robustness to a theory, conspiracy theorists must first stipulate what phenomena they are trying to explain and what type of conspiracy they are advocating. If proponents of conspiracy theories want to build a persuasive argument they must first elucidate what they mean by a type of conspiracy in a particular context. To explain something like JFK they must illustrate how single point conspiracy theories are equivocal to single points of corruption – one off events in political systems and not the byproduct of an overarching conspiracy with a superior teleological goal enacted by the New World Order. This is because pre planned Meta conspiracy theories of secret world rule in which every observable phenomenon is linked to a larger Meta Conspiracy Theory is rendered inept by Social Chaos Theory because no room is allocated for randomness and error.

By positioning the argument in the Social Science domain of single point conspiracy or corruption lends itself to readily defensible claims. Systematic corruption and single point conspiracies are rife in the world and this is why rules and regulations are formulated to prevent the abuse of power. What cannot be logically argued is the convergence and transition from the micro to the macro that results in Meta Conspiracy Theory. For example that corruption in small parts of a social system is somehow related to a pre planned conspiracy on a larger scale such as the global financial crisis, 911 and the Iraq war. For this reason when seeking to explicate a corrupt occurrence; the conceptual and contextual use of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory is of the most importance when analyzing social and political phenomena.

__________

Tony Sobrado is a Social Scientist and Research Analyst based in London. He writes for www.atthegrapevine.com and is a member of Project Reason and JREF.  He is currently working on Who rules the world? An analysis of Conspiracy Theory which addresses the phenomena of Conspiracy Theory from the perspective of the social sciences. He holds a BSc in Political Science from The London School of Economics and a Masters degree in Social and Political Theory.

You can find him on twitter @TonySobrado.

Science

Remember: Not All Primates Are Monkeys!

Every year my research group take a trip together, and this year we decided to travel to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I hadn’t visited this zoo since I was a teenager, so I was really looking forward to it.

The Cleveland Zoo has been in its current location for over 100 years, and boasts one of the most diverse collections of primates in North America. Fortunately, I work in Kent State’s Anthropology Department, and many of the people I was traveling with are primate experts. This meant, of course, that the primate exhibits ranked #1 on our list of things to see.

It was strikingly apparent, however, that despite the enthusiasm of the other visitors, most of them had real trouble identifying even the most basic differences among primates.

For example, I saw one child watching an animal climb a tree and heard him ask if it was a squirrel. This was a forgivable mistake, since he was around 4 years old, and the animal in question was about the size of a large squirrel. However, what really struck me was his mother’s reply. “No, it’s just a monkey,” she said dismissively, despite the fact that display was clearly labeled Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz).

Not a squirrel! A Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz) at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

I understand that the average person is not an expert in primate taxonomy. But this mother would have never told her child that a that a lion was a cheetah, or even a tiger. Despite their superficial similarities, it is obvious that these animals are fundamentally distinct. Parents know that even young children are capable of telling them apart. People don’t use their names interchangeably simply because they are both big cats. So why is it acceptable to use the name “monkey” for all primates?

Lets take a look at when these examples actually diverged from each other. Lions, cheetahs, and tigers all belong to the family Felidae, which first arose about 25 million years ago. According to the Time Tree of Life, a website that gives approximate divergence times for various groups of organisms, lions (Panthera leo) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) diverged about 9.4 million years ago. Lions and tigers (Panthera tigris) are actually two species in the same genus, and only diverged about 3.7 million years ago. In fact, lions and tigers are so closely related that they can even form hybrids, know as a liger (if the male is a lion) or tigon (if the male is a tiger). Yet these two species of cat are almost never confused.

Lemurs, on the other hand, are drastically different from other primates. They are classified as a suborder of primates called strepsirrhini, which forms its own branch of the primate family tree. Lemurs diverged from other primates around 77.4 million years ago, and began evolving separately when they became geographically isolated on the island of Madagascar. The other major lineage of primates is the haplorhines, which includes platyrrhines (New World Monkeys) and catarrhines (Old World Monkeys and Apes).

As you can see in the figure above, the word “monkey” doesn’t refer to a single group of animals. All monkeys share a common ancestor, but that ancestor gave rise to more than just monkeys. Evolutionary biologists describe this type of pattern as being “paraphyletic.”

A Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) reflects on life at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

Later that day, I was taking this photograph of a flanged adult male orangutan when I overheard a child ask if these were the chimpanzees. “No,” her dad replied, “chimps are monkeys.”

Now, I know that lemurs are not the most well-known primates. In fact, the only famous lemur I can think of is King Julien XIII, the ring-tailed lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Dreamworks movie Madagascar. But that excuse goes right out the window when you begin talking about apes. Apes are by far the most well-known primate group – you literally see them every day!

I’m not the only one that feels this way. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth recently recounted some of her negative experiences attempting to educate zoo visitors on the differences between apes and monkeys:

Apes are gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and people. We apes don’t have tails and we have big brains and advanced cognitive skills among other traits. Monkeys have tails (even ones that look tailless have little stubs) and most have much smaller brains (an exception being the capuchin).

Apes and monkeys are separate categories of animals. This is why calling an ape a monkey sounds absolutely crazy and that is why some people just can’t help themselves and morph into prickish pedants around ignorant zoo visitors.

So the next time you visit a zoo, please remember: not all primates are monkeys!

Opinion Religion

On the vilification of secular humanists

First, an introduction. I’m Matt Foss, a new contributor here at Skeptic Freethought. I’m an atheist, secular humanist, and skeptic, just starting to get involved in the secular movement.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a handful of items appearing on my Google Alerts for “secular humanism” from Christian news sites and right-wing blogs. They all had a common theme: that secular humanism is the modern world’s greatest threat to the American Christian way of life. Take a look at these two articles in particular:

Secular Humanism is the Established State Religion” – an assertion that humanist values should be kept out of public schools per the Establishment Clause.

The Worldview War” – an absurd rant about how Muslims and secular humanists are working together to bring America to ruin.

You’ll notice that the second article references one Dr. David Noebel as a source of knowledge on the concept of “worldviews”. A quick Google search identifies him as the retiring president of Summit Ministries, an organization focused on apologetics for a world it believes has gotten over Christianity.

Paranoia over secular humanism is nothing new, of course; Christian fundamentalists have been trying for decades to block its “teachings” from public schools on the grounds that promoting skepticism, science, and human rights somehow amounts to religious indoctrination. The Religious Right has been getting more and more vocal as of late, however, and I’m concerned that this sort of anti-humanist diatribe will become a trend.

Why the fuss about humanists?

It might come as a shock to some that Christians would be so alarmed by a group of people who advocate respect and tolerance; wouldn’t they be more afraid of vitriolic, firebrand, capital-‘A’-Atheists than of someone who simply claims to be “good without God”? Aren’t so-called humanist doctrines really just the same ethical standards at the core of every free society?

Note: I in no way intend to take sides on the “tone wars” here, nor imply that “atheist” implies “firebrand” or that “humanist” implies “diplomat”. I’m referring to the connotation that the two words tend to have based on my personal experience in discussing them with religious believers.

After reading and thinking on this a while, I’ve realized why they are so afraid of humanists. It’s precisely because of the benign-sounding messages such as “Be good for goodness’ sake!” and “Millions are good without God.” It’s because, framed within a worldview in which a sly Devil seeks to trick gullible humans into abandoning faith for worldly concerns, a friendly and inviting godless philosophy is far more dangerous than an aggressive militant adversary.

As I understand it, these fundamentalists want atheism to be an empty, miserable state of mind for which they represent the ultimate cure. The idea of a worldview that emotionally, intellectually, and socially fulfills people without belief in their God negates the very purpose of their religion’s existence. In this respect, I don’t blame them for feeling threatened by humanism, and I won’t be so surprised in the future when fundamentalists react negatively to non-threatening billboards like the (vandalized) one pictured above.

Opinion

Who can help me be succesful? Utilizing your resources is crucial!

Managing a campus group can be hard- especially if you’re new to the whole process. Tips and tricks are helpful, but sometimes not enough. If you’re just starting out and feeling clueless, or if you just need some fresh insight, it’s important to remember to use ALL your resources. Below are some things to keep in mind if you need an extra hand.

1) Professional organizations WANT to help you! You’ve heard it a million times, but it can be intimidating to approach such a big group. Just remember that orgs like the Secular Student Alliance and CFI are just as stoked on what you’re doing as you are, and are incredibly helpful, especially with legal matters. They both offer a number of services from professional advice, to tabling supplies, to project grants- don’t be afraid to reach out!

2) Local ‘adult’ groups. It’s likely that there is an already established group of people in your community that would love to help out a few students with similar vision. They’re are both likely to be well established and probably able to help your ground financially, if you ask nicely.

3) THE INTERNET! Obviously you already know about the wonders of the interwebz, but don’t forget to check out helpful YouTube channels, local meeting place sites and new and upcoming social media resources.

4) Don’t forget about the opportunity to co-sponsor an event with another campus group! Team up with your school’s LBGTQ group to bring in a big name speaker, or the republican group to hold a heated debate. Things like this are likely to increase your attendance to an event AND hold the opportunity to split costs for groups that are still finding their footing.

The bottom line is it’s important to remember that everyone wants to see you, and your group, do well. Reach out to people that are willing to help you, and don’t ever be afraid to ask! Do you have questions or problems with managing your campus group? I want to hear them! Email me at jessicaswider35@gmail.com

Opinion

Keeping your group from fading away with the summer sun

We’ve passed the halfway point of summer. Class schedules are arranged, textbooks are ordered, summer internships are wrapping up and students ware savoring the last weeks of vacation. The end is near. While this news may be good or bad, now is a crucial time to establish some building blocks for your campus group to work off of come fall. Below are a few important tips to keep in mind as you start packing your backpack:

1) Gonna be busy this fall? So is everyone else. Now is the perfect time to start pre-planning some events. Maybe you have a routine social event at the start of every school year, or you know you want to bring in a big speaker this semester. No matter your situation, book a room, start brainstorming fundraiser ideas and work on making community contacts NOW. Why wait?

2) What happened to your social media presence? I get it, updating your group’s Facebook page isn’t the first priority on your summer bucket list. It’s time to remind your fans and followers that you exist! Ease into your normal updating schedule by previewing a fun event or asking for community input. Don’t forget to engage your audience. Don’t just inform them, interact with them! Make a social media contest- once you reach a certain number of fans, 1 will be picked at random to win a t-shirt, or have followers guess who your big speaker will be by posting clues on Twitter- winner gets a copy of the speaker’s most popular book! These sorts of fun activities are easy to implement, and create a loyal following.

3) Start building your binders early. One of the best pieces of advice I hear at CFI’s Leadership Conference this summer was to create binders with all the group information, contact info, passwords and documents you could possibly ever need to make passing the torch easy as pie. Start making yours now! You’re starting to plan events, so include who you need to get approval from and what needs to be done in a step by step guide. Got a great fundraiser idea? Write it in the binder! The more information you include in these, the easier it will be for new officers and executive boards to continue your group’s great work for years to come.

These are just some basic things to keep in mind as cool weather approaches. Got problems, or questions, about managing your campus group? I wanna hear about them! Email me at jessicaswider35@gmail.com.