The dumbification of social justice

This is an essay about cultural appropriation, except that it’s not really an essay about cultural appropriation.

This is actually about the way genuine, complex problems in complex societies get reduced to nattering virtue-signaling nonsense that become used as blunt instruments to ensure conformity and serve as tribalistic us-vs-them markers, in a process of ensuckitude that substitutes sloganeering for genuine thought, bleating of approved bumper-sticker platitudes for engagement, and tribalism for solutions.

Buckle up, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.

Let’s look at cultural appropriation

Odds are probably pretty good you’ve heard of cultural appropriation. Odds are also pretty good you have strong feelings about it, and that your strong feelings map closely to whether you self-identify as liberal or conservative, but can you actually offer a cogent description of what it is?

Cultural appropriation is a great proxy for the general dumbification of social justice and the generalized ensuckitude of real social discourse, because, oh my God, the prevailing culture-wars conversation around it is So. Fucking. Dumb.

This is how social justice dumbification in general works:

Step 1: Distort and water down the meaning of “cultural appropriation” until you use it for nothing more than “wearing vaguely ‘ethnic’ clothing” or “styling your hair in an unconventional way.” (To be fair, those who understand cultural appropriation is a real thing sometimes do this step for you.)

Step 2: Ignore and/or disregard actual instances of genuine cultural appropriation.

Step 3: Pretend your diluted, absurdist definition of “cultural appropriation” is the only definition there is; refuse to discuss, or even acknowledge, any other meaning.

Look, I get it. There are folks who make me roll my eyes so hard I can see my own brain stem when they talk about “cultural appropriation.”

Probably the greatest example of an absurd self-own was the Internet goon squad that accused a woman of “cultural appropriation” for wearing Japanese clothing when she was Japanese.

All the cringe. ALLLLLL the cringe.

So yeah, I get it. Stupid gonna stupid, man.

And it ain’t just cultural appropriation. Remember when James Cameron’s movie Avatar 2 came out? Some Native people complained that the movie peddled Native tropes for entertainment without actually recognizing Native history of defending biodiversity.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of white urban liberals jumped onto Twitter (yes, I’m totally deadnaming the name of Elongated Muskrat’s social media platform) to crow about how they were boycotting the movie and dish on people who saw it.

Some folks I know personally, folks I once used to respect and even admire, did this. And you know what was especially pathetic about it? They had no intention of seeing the movie in the first place, oh no. They took to social media to crow about how righteous they were for not watching a movie they never intended to watch, because it made them better people than the ones who did watch it…

…and yet, did they actually materially improve the lives of even one single Native person anywhere? Even one? Even a little bit?

Nope.

See, I might respect someone who went onto social media to say “hey, this movie might be problematic, and here’s why, so I took the $30 I was gonna spend on tickets and popcorn and a gigantic tub of Coke, and I donated it instead to this charity that helps Native populations, and here’s the URL where you can donate too,” but did they?

Nah, bruh, because it was never about the Native people.

It was virtue signaling and bullying. It was “Look at me! Look at me! I’m better than you! Hey, everyone, look at me!” It helped nobody, because it wasn’t intended to. It was about preening and primping, about vanity disguised as social justice.

In love with my own virtue. Image: olly

I didn’t watch Avatar 2, but I didn’t crow about it on social media either, because I never intended to see it in the first place.

Not watching a movie you never intended to watch is not a virtue, and that’s really what this is all about.

But I digress. Let’s get back to cultural appropriation.

“Cultural appropriation” in the academic sense does not mean “woman who kinda looks maybe white on Twitter wearing a yukata that self-righteous white craft-beer liberal dumbfucks think is a kimono.”

Cultural appropriation is when a white businessman sees a Navajo pattern, thinks it’s pretty, and commissions a sweatshop in China to make millions of knockoffs that he gets rich from without, you know, contributing to the people who created it, or even bothering to learn anything about it at all.

And that’s not nonsense. It’s a real thing that happens, just like turning other people’s brutal oppression under colonialism into entertainment whilst you eat overpriced popcorn is a thing that really happens.

But bullying a Japanese woman on social media because she looks “too white” to be wearing the clothes you don’t think she should wear doesn’t actually strike a blow against cultural appropriation, does it?

The difference between social justice and bombastic bullying

Liberals tend to whine about conservatives who mock and deride “social justice warriors,” but if I’m to be perfectly honest, a lot of that is our own fault. We liberals are easy targets, because we have a habit of taking our own values and reducing them to bumper sticker platitudes that we use to bully others without, you know, actually doing anything to solve the problems we claim to care about so much.

I would like to propose a test to help separate genuine concern with social justice from the general enshittification of morality into empty tribalism and bullying. Don’t worry, it’s a simple test, one that can be applied in less time than it takes to drink a single soy-milk latte. Just ask yourself these questions:

  1. At the end of your social justice venture, can you point to any person whose life or situation is now a bit better for your actions, in any way, however small?
  2. Was your social justice venture invited by the people you, a rich white person, claim to be speaking on behalf of?
  3. Is your social media venture targeted at the people who are responsible for the injustice you see, rather than bullying people for not doing what you want them to do?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all three of those questions, maybe you aren’t as virtuous as you like to pretend you are.

Newtonian and Relativistic Morality

So let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is famous for basically three things: creating an entire cottage industry of weird foaming-at-the-mouth Evangelical cries of satanic doom that will sweep over the land, covering it in darkness forever and ever; giving socially awkward high school students of a certain era something to do and a way to make friends; and, of course, the D&D alignment system, which divided all of morality into a tidy grid with nine different possibilities.

What Evangelicals think D&D looks like

What D&D actually looks like, but with more dice and books (image: No Revisions)

The Dungeons & Dragons alignment system divided morality into Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic on one axis, and Good, Neutral, and Evil along the other. It’s become a cultural touchstone (or a cliché, if you’re less charitable) that has spawned a zillion parodies:

But here’s the thing:

The problem with D&D morality is that it assumes there’s some fixed definition of “good” and “evil.”

You know how relativity tells us all motion is relative? If two people go whizzing past each other in space, each one is at rest in his own reference frame and sees the other one moving.

Real morality is kind of like that. Most people truly, honestly believe they are good. That’s their local inertial frame. For example: Most people agree that violence in defense of your life or the life of another is morally good. The guy who plants a pipe bomb in an abortion clinic? That’s what he thinks he’s doing: defending the lives of babies being murdered. In his eyes, blowing the limbs off clinic workers is morally good.

That’s his inertial reference frame. He would consider himself neutral good; D&D would call him neutral evil, or possibly chaotic evil.

D&D morality, like Newton, assumes the existence of a fixed reference frame from which to evaluate all morality.

In real morality, various people have defined various reference frames. Some folks use “society” as a reference frame, which is all well and good until you encounter cases like “if a society says slavery is moral, then for that society, slavery is moral.”

Utilitarianism is kind of the equivalent of using the cosmic microwave background radiation as your reference frame. If you see a dipole in the CMB, you’re moving, and more specifically, your vector of motion is oriented toward the blueshift in the CMB.

It’s not a perfect analogy; motion is a single vector and D&D has two axes (good <-> evil and lawful <-> chaotic). But it gets the point across.

If we set the CMB to our D&D framework, then probably, yes. Most people are probably neutral, though they think of themselves as good. That’s the entire difficulty: almost all people think of themselves as good. The activist campaigning to legalize gay marriage and the fire-n-brimstone Fundamentalist preacher shaking his fist at the gays both believe they are good.

In Newtonian ethics, this clearly cannot be.

There’s also the issue that for most of us in our day to day lives, using the CMB as a reference frame just isn’t very useful. Right now, as I type this, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room. The couch, the chair next to me, the fish tank to my left, and my tea to my right all seem at rest. The fact that we’re on the surface of a planet spinning and whipping around the sun which is making its slow orbit about the center of mass of the Milky Way which is itself on a collision course with Andromeda at ludicrous speed isn’t relevant to me.

I’m not going to get out of a speeding ticket by saying “but officer, motion is relative, and if you measure our speeds by the CMB dipole they’re indistinguishable!”

Human beings are hard-wired to think differently about our in-group and our out-group. This is built into the structure of our brains. We also have a limit on how big that in-group can be. It’s about 150 people. This is called Dunbar’s number, and it sets a limit on the number of meaningful emotional connections we can make.

The in-group—the people in our Dunbar sphere—-is the ethical equivalent of my living room. When I get up to make more tea, the only inertial frame that’s relevant to me is the frame in which my living room is at rest. Trying to use the CMB as my reference frame isn’t useful.

Most people’s day to day inertial reference frame for their moral evaluations is their Dunbar sphere—the people in their immediate social group. That’s their inertial living room. In that living room, they can think of themselves as “good” even if their ethical actions with respect to utilitarianism is extraordinarily evil—that is, the CMB dipole is very large.

The people who built this place believed, from within their reference frame, they were good. (Image: Frederick Wallace)

Because they don’t think about any reference frame outside their Dunbar sphere, they do things that appear to be morally contradictory—like taking in a friend who has lost his job and his home, while at the same time saying “fuck those Syrian refugees. I don’t care if an 8-year-old girl dies in agony. Fuck her.”

They think of themselves as “lawful good” because they took in their homeless friend. They continue to think of themselves as “lawful good” when they casually condemn thousands of women and children to gruesome deaths. The walls of my living room are relevant to me; the cosmic microwave background of utilitarianism is not.

I would argue that in D&D terms, it’s quite possible that the majority of people are, if anything, neutral evil, if we use utilitarianism as our CMB. Most people believe slavery is evil. Most people would not support slavery making a comeback. Most people are totally 100% okay with buying a diamond engagement ring mined by slave labor, as long as the slavery happens somewhere out of sight to people outside their Dunbar sphere.

I suggest that in most cases, seen from the reference frame of utilitarianism, the majority of human beings, including those who see themselves as lawful good, are in fact neutral evil.

Truth as a Philosophical Strange Attractor

[This essay is an expansion of a thought I originally wrote as an answer on Quora]

There is a notion, a myth enshrined in a great deal of Western philosophy, that as time goes on, societies move ever further from superstition and ignorance, and ever closer to Truth.

It is, like many social myths, complete nonsense.

In fact, societies swing to and fro, sometimes moving closer to the truth, sometimes further away.

The way I model this in my head is that truth is a strange attractor, and societies loop and whirl around it in complex ways that are extremely hard to predict and vary depending on how the society formed.

Pretty much exactly like this:

These are strange attractors—mathematical functions that loop and swirl around a point, sometimes moving closer, sometimes farther away, twisting and curling as though drawn to it without ever entirely reaching it. They never repeat, they never settle down into a stable orbit.

This is, I think what human societies do. Every society has its collection of myths and legends, things it wants to believe about itself whatever the reality might be, and its own unique monomyth. These things influence the trajectory a society takes through social space, tugging it this way and that, whatever empirical fact or philosophical truth might be.

This means you could, for example, take snapshots of a society’s history, like paragraphs out of the society’s history books, and treat the pile of snapshots like a Poincaré map of that society’s eccentric orbit around the truth. And what you’d find would be something like a Philosophical Strange Attractor, a chaotic churning orbit about the truth, full of twists and turns, always tugged in the direction of truth but never settling there.

People like to talk about history as a swinging pendulum, but I don’t think that’s a good model. A pendulum retraces the same arc over and over. Societies may progress or regress, may seek to explore new ideas or retreat into history and tradition, but they never really repeat the same path twice. Even when those who long for some imagined idyllic past gain power, they never really quite reach it. Societies, like people, never set foot in the same river twice.

Image: Rodrigo Curi

Every society has its mythologies. Mythologies are necessary for social identity, they’re always going to be there. Mythologies weld disparate people into something like a more or less cohesive whole, forming an overarching sense of identity that (ideally) takes the place of family or tribal identity. Without that overarching identity, you don’t have Rome, you have a bunch of squabbling families and tribes who don’t much like each other. (Even with a foundational mythology, you still have that, of course, but the overarching mythology helps create glue that aggregates all those disparate elements.)

A foundational myth creates identity—the way people see themselves. And identity distorts and shapes the way we see the world.

But the thing about that myth is it is, in any objective, empirical sense, not true. And subtle variations in a society’s founding myth, like subtle differences in the start condition of a chaotic system, have huge effects on that society’s chaotic path around the attractor of Truth.

So no. No, the moral arc of society doesn’t always bend int he direction of truth, or justice, or any of those other wonderful philosophical ideas. It may follow a chaotic orbit around these things, but it is not inevitable that if you wait long enough a society will necessarily arrive at Truth, or Justice, or Enlightenment. If you want to get there, it’s your job, and will always be your job, to work to make it happen.

Some thoughts on dumbing down language

I like language. I hate what the alt-right does to language.

I’ve always liked language. Majored in linguistics for a brief time in my misspent university years, and today I make my living as a writer, so I suppose it’s not too surprising, really.

But man, watching the violence perpetrated on language by the American right is painful. It’s a travesty, what those people do.

Take the word “cuck,” for instance. It’s a favorite insult amongst the knuckle-draggers of the alt-right, most of whom likely have no idea what it actually means, just like they have no idea what “socialism” means.

It’s been fascinating to me to watch how the word “cuckold” has become politicized by the sex-negative contingent on the alt right; in only a few short years, the meaning of the word has been distorted, in a weird sex-hating Orwellian newspeak kind of way, almost beyond recognition.

Image: Markus Spiske

The latest idiocy? Calling men who watch porn “cucks,” because—get this—you’re watching another man have sex with the woman you fancy.

In the strictest definition, a “cuckold” is a married man whose wife has a child by another man, without his knowledge, which he believes to be his.

The word comes from the behavior of the cuckoo bird, which lays its eggs in nests belonging to other birds. The other birds don’t know the egg was left by an intruder; when it hatches, they feed and care for the chick, believing it to be their own.

In the fetish sense a cuckold is a man whose partner has sex with other men, specifically for the purpose of dominance and submission or erotic humiliation play, with his knowledge and often in front of him. (A woman whose partner has sex with other women specifically for the purpose of erotic humiliation is a cuckquean.)

Cuckolding as a fetish is not just any form of non-monogamy. Swinging is not cuckolding. Polyamory is not (necessarily) cuckolding. Cuckolding is a specific form of non-monogamy, in a D/s context, for the purpose of humiliation play.

What’s weird is how the alt right has co-opted the word in some frankly rather bizarre ways.

Parts of the alt right, especially the weird sex-negative “fapping is bad, homosexuality is bad, but we fuck each other and it like totally isn’t gay” Proud Boys, have done some deeply weird reinterpretation of “cuckolding” to make it mean:

  • If your girlfriend wasn’t a virgin when you started dating, you’re a cuckold, because she slept with other men before you met.
  • If your girlfriend has sex with other people after you break up, you’re a cuckold, because…well, I’m not exactly sure why. Because you own her vagina and another man is using your property, I, um, guess? Or something.
  • If you wank to porn, you’re a cuckold, because you’re playing Willy Wonka’s Whacky Adventure while another man is putting the salami in the woman who gets you hot.
  • If you allow your woman to have male friends, you’re a cuckold, because reasons.
  • If you allow your woman to gain the upper hand in a relationship, or do what your female partner tells you to do, you’re a cuck, because even more vague reasons.

So we go from a very specific sexual fetish to any situation where any woman has sex with any man except you to a situation where a woman has any social power whatsoever even if it has nothing to do with sex…

…which, I mean, not to get too Freudian, but if that doesn’t lay bare the insecurities and fears of the men saying this, I don’t know what does.

tl;dr: You cannot by definition be cuckolded by a woman who is not your partner.

The connection between the alt-right, and the way sex negativity plays into alt-right ideology, is fascinating. The NoFap movement, for example, has become a doorway to alt-right and neo-Fascist ideology…but that’s a blog post (or maybe a podcast) for another time.

Big things coming up!

We’re now a month and a half into 2024. I’m sitting on my sofa absolutely miserable—cough, runny nose, fever, body aches, stuffy head, but two tests have insisted I don’t have COVID even though I feel rather like I have COVID.

Anyway, I’ve a ton of interesting projects in the air and a lot of really cool stuff happening this year.

FiErst off, Eunice and I are just putting the finishing touches on Unyielding Devotion, the fourth Passionate Pantheon novel!

The Passionate Pantheon books are far-future, post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica, plus philosophy. We use a tick-tock cycle for these novels: odd-numbered books are upbeat Utopian stories, even-numbered books are dark erotic horror, our explorations of how post-scarcity societies can go wrong.

We were pleased to be fortunate enough to get well-known artist Matt Haley for the cover art for the fourth novel, which calls back to the Golden Age of sci-fi book cover design.

Eunice will be at WorldCon Glasgow on August 8-12 in Scotland with this and our other novels, so if you get a chance, be sure to say hi!

And speaking of covers: Black Iron. I’ve won back the rights to the book and the entire universe it’s set in, so I’m preparing to re-release a newly edited second edition of the novel, which will be available next month in paperback and eBook, significantly polished from the first edition and with a brand-new cover.

We also have another novel due out later this year, in a completely new and unrelated series. It’s a contemporary urban fantasy set in London in 2016. Here’s the basic gist:

Imagine Harry Potter meets The Matrix by way of Jason Bourne…with sex. When May, a London 20something infosec tech at a Shoreditch webhosting firm, escapes an abduction attempt, she finds herself in a centuries-long underground war between an ancient guild of spellcasting sex workers and a powerful society of Tory rage mages. Now she must learn the ways of magic if she is to survive this new reality.

Springfield bound! I have quite a number of books in the pipe this year, including a literary novel called Spin, currently about 80,000 words into what will likely be somewhere around 140,000.

It’s a post-Collapse magical realism novel set in the Dominionate, a theocracy that has taken over the midwestern United States thousands of years from now. My Talespinner and I have been working on this book for some time, and we’ve reached a point where the timing of events in the novel has become quite hairy and tricky to work out, so…we’re taking a journey, following the protagonist’s path through present-day Missouri, along the roads that will, thousand of years hence, still be in use in much the way ancient Roman roads are still used in Europe today.

I think it will be fun, taking some days to follow the path of our fictional character through the fictional Dominionate, on the run from the Church toward something she can’t even imagine. (We are hard on our protagonists in this novel.)

I should, with a bit of luck, have the Xenomorph Facehugger Gag v3.0 prototype done by the time I leave, so we can test it out (tests of the v2.0 prototype went swimmingly).

The third (and, with luck, final) variant should be lighter and more suited to…err, longer-term wear.

Donating Cycles, Making the World Better

One of the things I generally try to do is leave the world in a slightly better state than I found it. Of course, I’m not always perfect at that, but on the whole I think it’s a good goal to shoot for.

To that end, I recently started participating in BOINC again.

If you haven’t heard of it, BOINC is a system where nonprofit science research teams can solve computationally complex problems without having to build or buy time on horrifically expensive supercomputers, by using all the spare idle computation time of ordinary people who leave their computers on even when they aren’t using them. BOINC detects when your computer is idle, and donates CPU cycles to researchers, basically making your computer part of an enormous ad-hoc supercomputer. You can choose what research projects you want to participate in.

Back when I lived in Canada, I joined BOINC and allowed them to use my laptop to look for new treatments for diseases by studying protein folding.

I dropped out of BOINC when I came back to the US from Canada, but I’ve just re-joined again.

This is my old 2012 laptop, which now does nothing but BOINC. I’ve joined two research projects, Rosetta@Home (which does research on protein folding to look for new drugs and disease treatments) and World Community Grid (which looks for genetic markers for cancer and searches for cures for diseases that are too uncommon or appear in parts of the world too impoverished to be worthwhile for conventional for-profit pharmaceutical companies).

I have a computer that is essentially a backup Time Machine server and Web server, and I may run BOINC on that as well.

I would encourage anyone out there who wants to help solve real problems by donating idle computer time to join.

Basically, you just install the BOINC software, choose a research project from a list, and that’s it.

BOINC stops running whenever you use your computer, so it won’t slow you down, but it means your computer time isn’t being wasted whenever your computer is turned on but you aren’t sitting in front of it.

Can you consent to giving up your right to revoke consent?

Image by author

[Content note: Kinky sex, consent play, consensual non-consent]

I am, as regular readers know, a big fan of various types of “consent play” in sex. A lot of people who hear “consent play” think “rape role-play” or “consensual non-consent” or “resistance play,” and don’t get me wrong, all of those things are fun, and a regular part of my sex life.

But what I really enjoy, the siren song that really calls to me, is a little different: it’s the consent play that comes from navigating that space where I give my lover consent to do something to me, then deliberately and intentionally remove my own ability to withdraw consent. Once the activity begins, I’m in it for the ride—there’s no taking it back.

Before we get going, let me say up front a lot of folks consider some of the play my lovers and I explore “edge play,” and there are a lot of people, including veteran BDSM enthusiasts, who flat-out won’t even consider some of the things I do. And that’s okay. I freely admit these tastes are unusual even in the kink scene, and with good reason. They require an iron-clad, unparalleled trust, a deep foundation in trusting both your partner to know and understand how far to take things and, just as importantly, trust in your own resilience in the event you have an unpleasant experience. (People talk quite a lot in the kink scene about the first kind of trust, but not so much about the second. I might write more about that in the future.)

And I get that high resiliency is a privilege. I also get that I haven’t grown up in an environment that tells me I’m supposed to have sex I don’t want, that I’m expected to have sex I don’t want, is a form of privilege, too. I’ve had sex I didn’t want to have, but always by my choice; it was never forced on me. So, yes, I completely understand the emotions I’m describing aren’t necessarily available to everyone.

That inability to withdraw consent, the knowledge that when I start, I’m saying ‘yes’ to my lover knowing that she’s going to do whatever it is and once it starts I will be unable to say no, is absolutely delicious to me.

What does that look like?

Image: https://unsplash.com/@klugzy

Part of it is somnophilia—the taste for sex with a sleeping partner. I don’t wake easily, so when I give a lover permission to use my body whilst I’m asleep, I do it knowing there’s a good chance that I won’t wake up quiiite enough to be able to communicate a ‘no’ even if I decide I object to what’s going on. That’s part of what makes it hot.

That inability to say ‘no,’ that idea that the yes, once I’ve uttered it, can’t be recalled, is intoxicating to me.

The Passionate Pantheon novels Eunice and I write, our far-future, post-scarcity philosophical erotica, explore this theme of consenting to things you can’t take back a lot—it’s a theme we keep returning to.

I wrote a scene into the fourth Passionate Pantheon novel Eunice and I co-authored, Unyielding Devotion (due out later this year), that plays on that idea:

“What’s happening?” Kaytin asked Chasoi, who stared at Lanissae and Royat with bright, hungry eyes.

“They’ll each take two Blessings,” Chasoi said. “The first one ensures their bodies will remain physically aroused no matter what happens to them. And the second, well, that’s the magic.”

“The magic? What does that mean?”

“One of them,” Jakalva said, “will become desperately horny beyond all reason. Are you familiar with the Blessing of Fire?”

“Yes,” Kaytin said.

“It’s like that, but more violent. It removes inhibition and obliterates self-control. The other does just the opposite, causing intense aversion, repulsion even, to the idea of sex. The cage makes sure neither of them can escape.”

“Oh.” Kaytin blinked. “So whoever gets the first vial will…”

“Yes. But that’s only half of it.”

“Half of it how?”

“That’s the beauty,” Chasoi breathed. “The moment either of them has an orgasm, they switch. Whoever was needy becomes averse. Whoever was averse becomes wild beyond control. They stay in the cage until they collapse from exhaustion.” Her eyes glittered.

This scene has been in heavy rotation in my internal fantasy library for years. If I were to live in the City, I might very well volunteer to be in the cage with Lanissae, at least once.

Why?

We included a scene that explains why I find it so attractive:

“Okay, let me try to explain,” Lanissae said. “It’s…” She paused, regarding Kaytin through hooded eyes. “I like…I like the tiny spaces. I like that little moment of clarity that happens when you switch, you see? There’s that one second when you know what’s going to happen. You see it in their eyes. You know that when that second is over, they will want you so badly that nothing you can do will stop them.” She shivered, eyes half-closed, and slipped one hand inside the plunging neckline of her shimmering, lacy dress. “Mmm. To be seen with such desire, to know that when the moment passes you will not want it and would do anything to make it stop, to know that it will happen anyway…there’s a delicious inevitability to it.” She cupped her breast. Her eyelids fluttered. “It’s such an exquisite surrender. You exist only to be ravished.” She exhaled in a soft moan. “You can’t get away. You lose yourself in how much you don’t want it, but it doesn’t matter. You stand on the brink and for one instant, you see it all so clearly, and you know what’s about to happen, and you also know that you chose to be here. You walked into the cage yourself, of your own free will…oh!” She leaned back on the couch and caressed her nipple beneath her thin dress.

Kaytin stared at her with desire and revulsion roiling within her. “And then,” Lanissae went on, “the violation is over, and the change happens, and you have that moment of clarity again. You feel the heat in your body. For that one delicious second, you know. When the heat reaches your head, the need will take you, and nothing in the world will matter except the person you are about to ravish. Everything stops. You balance on that edge. You recognize each other. You see the humanity there. In that instant, you share a connection that’s absolutely magical. For that one brief second, you see each other, really see each other—not as predator and prey, but as two people sharing an experience. You know that when the moment passes, you will not be able to stop yourself any more than you could stop what was coming when you were the object. You can feel your mind going…mmm.” She caressed her neck with her fingertips. “You embrace that moment of humanity, before it all slips away. It’s…uh! It’s so magnificent to stand on that cliff and feel yourself about to fall.” Lanissae arched languidly, running both hands down her arms. “When I’m in the cage, I live for those moments of connection between the moments of madness.”

I totally, 100% get that most people would take one look at that scenario and say “oh hell no.” And I get why, and that’s okay.

We don’t actually have the technology to do that, of course, but I’ve experimented with things that get as close to that feeling as I can.

For example, I learned when I burned my foot that cannabis edibles work really well for pain management on me—better, in fact, than the oxycodone the burn clinic prescribed.

I also learned that I get extremely suggestible when I’m high. and I’ve incorporated that in my sex life with some of my partners. I know that once I take that edible, my ability to withdraw consent will become impaired. That’s the point. That’s part of what makes it hot—that inevitability, that sense that once I’ve taken it, I will not be able to do anything about it. The drug takes about half an hour to start working, and that’s half an hour to really savor the knowledge that I have already passed a point of no return: that my ability to withdraw consent will soon fade and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

Image: Nicholas Sampson

In principle, yes, consent to sex exists only in the moment and cannot be withdrawn.

In practice, the idea I like to explore is, can I give consent that is irrevocable? Can I deliberately create a situation where once i have given my lover consent to do something to me, I have also given away my right (or my ability!) to change my mind?

Is it ethical to do this? I think it is. We do it all the time in areas that aren’t connected to sex. Contracts, for example, don’t usually have an “oops, I changed my mind” clause—once signed, that’s it, no taksies-backsies.

Can we do the same with sex?

I think the answer is yes. I also think that’s super-hot. Other people might not agree. The thing about autonomy, though, is that people who value consent and agency must also respect that I have the right to say “yes, you can do this to me, and I explicitly give you permission to continue doing it to me even if I change my mind.”

Is this everybody’s cup of tea? No.

Should it be permissible in the context of sexual ethics? I think the answer is yes. I do believe that basic autonomy, the notion of “my body, my rules,” extends to me choosing, if I want, to give someone else consent with the explicit understanding it can’t be revoked.

In fact, I’ll even go one step further. Ready?

What we find sexy often varies with our mood. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already learned that there are things that sound sexy when you’re aroused, but as soon as you’re sexually spent, suddenly seem a whole lot less interesting.

I’ve had a lover where one of our dynamics is we would negotiate new things to try whilst in the middle of having sex, when we were both ramped up and horny…things I would give this sort of irrevocable consent to. Then she would get me off, or I’d get myself off, over and over again until I was completely d-o-n-e done and not interested in sex anymore…

…at which point, then she’d do the thing.

And that is quite a potent head trip, let me say.

Now: Do I believe that it’s ethical to do this? Yes. Do I believe it’s ethical to give irrevokable consent and then change your mental state, for example with drugs or change in mood or arousal? With fully informed consenting adults who understand exactly what they’re getting into, yes.

Do I believe it’s ethical to do this for an indeterminate amount of time, as in “now and forever you can do whatever you like to me even if I say no”? That’s…a different thing. I think healthy relationships are always voluntary, and you cannot reasonably make promises of access to you or your body that continue past a relationship’s end. Not gonna tell you you’re a bad person if that’s your jam, but I am aware of ways that could easily become problematic.

And yes, I can see where even limited irrevocable consent might become problematic. Like I said, edge play.

But here’s the thing:

Playing in this way is beautifully, powerfully, intoxicatingly intimate.

Image: https://unsplash.com/@klugzy

Intimacy is about letting someone in, about letting them touch you, about allowing access to your deepest and truest self.

Part of the bewitching beauty of irrevocable consent for me is, as the character Lanissae says in our book, the connection. I am granting someone access to me in a literal, visceral way, allowing them to touch me, and giving up my ability to throw them out, to shut the door.

It’s an exquisite kind of intimacy, an intimacy that says “here, in this space, with you, right now, I promise not to take this back.” It’s an embrace of intensely deep trust.

How can it be anything but connective?

Hot take: When “woke” really is harmful

[Note: this essay started out as an answer on Quora.]

I’m about to say something a lot of my fellow liberals might find upsetting:

Some people who complain about “woke ideology” are actually kinda sorta right, though for entirely the wrong reasons.

Before you pick up the torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

No, the conservatives who whine and cry and have their little meltdowns about “woke Disney” for making movies with characters who aren’t straight white Christians are completely wrong, obviously. But some complaints about “woke,” while they’re farcical—even laughable—on their face, have, if you gig down deep enough, a teeny tiny kernel of truth, or at least truth-adjacent material, buried under the layers of racism and sexism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and white supremacy and all that other bullshit that spews from the lower orifice of the conservative snowflakes.

Liberals can get so attached to the underdog that we actually forget that even people who have been on the receiving end of systemic oppression are human, and like all humans, are capable of occasional shitty behavior.

Image: Marco Bianchetti

The problem is one of nuance.

Well, okay, cognitive effort and nuance, really.

Human beings are really bad at both. I mean really bad. Liberals like to go after conservatives for following the herd and doing as they’re told, yet liberals do the same thing—it simply expresses differently.

Conservatives who moan and cry about “woke ideology” are, often as not, just mouthing the words and feeling the emotions they’re instructed to by the people above them. Ask any of the conservatives what “woke” actually means and you’ll get crickets as an answer. They legit don’t know. They have no idea what “woke” means, any more than that know what “socialism” is. They’re simply told that the enemy tribe is bad because they’re woke, and they accept it because that’s what they do.

Ask a liberal what “woke” means, or ask a conservative attorney under oath what “woke” means, and you’ll get an answer like “aware of institutionalized, systemic injustice, and motivated by the need to address them.”

Which is true.

But…

The place we liberals go off the rails is that we are just as intellectually lazy as conservatives, it’s just that our laziness manifests differently.

Make no mistake about it, we liberals are every bit as intellectually lazy as we accuse conservatives of being. (Image: Wavebreaker Media.)

At the end of the day, it’s about cognitive effort. People don’t like cognitive effort. It’s work, just like physical effort. We look for labor-saving shortcuts whenever we can.

Conservatives tend toward vertical hierarchy. The labor-saving shortcut they use is submission to recognized authority. They think and believe what they’re told by the people they recognize as leaders to think and believe.

Liberals tend toward horizontal social structure. The labor-saving shortcuts we use are “oppressed people right and good, oppressors wrong and bad.” We think and believe whatever fits that narrative.

The key component of being “woke” is recognizing that yes, systemic, structural, institutional oppression exists. It’s sometimes overt, it’s more often subtle, but it’s there and it’s quite real. It’s hard for those of us who benefit from it to see, because it’s part of the environment we exist in; almost by definition, institutional systems of oppression are designed to be invisible to the privileged class. It takes active effort just to see them, at least when you’re the beneficiary.

When you do that, you start seeing the same patterns replay over and over and over again. And that makes you lazy.

It’s the same laziness, ironically, of the police officer who engages in racial profiling. You turn off your brain. You see patterns, you’re like “yeah, that fits,” you don’t dig any deeper. Gradually, the people you see as on the receiving end of systemic oppression become Always Right. The people you see who benefit from systemic oppression become Always Wrong. You stop seeing individuals and start seeing narratives.

Which is exactly the mindset that leads to those structures in the first place.

And I mean, I’ve done this. I’m not claiming any special insight or immunity here. Basically, when we hear a story, we do exactly what we accuse conservatives of doing:

  • We don’t fact-check
  • We engage in thought-terminating cliches
  • We lead with our feelings
  • We let narratives blind us to nuance and detail

Basically, we side with the perceived underdog, always and completely. We commit the gravest of sins that we critique in conservatives: we allow stereotypes and preconceptions to determine who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.

And yes, the critiques of ‘woke’ leveled by conservatives tend to be incoherent, a confused, unintelligible mishmash of name-calling and unintelligible “everything I don’t like is woke!”

This meme is legit how a lot of critiques of “woke” end up landing:

So we congratulate ourselves that that means our philosophy is unassailable by reasoned critique. Which is most definitely is not.

Why We Judge: Laziness, Tribalism, and…fanfic?

Thinking is difficult, therefore let the herd pronounce judgment!
—Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition – Volume 10

Recently, a user on Quora asked a question about why people are so prone to judging others, even those they don’t know.

And the truth is, there isn’t one reason. There are lots of them, including Carl Jung’s…and one that I’ve been chewing on lately but I’ve never seen anyone talk about before.

This question has been on my mind quite a bit over the last five years. It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, people will dogpile complete strangers, even when they know nothing about them except what other people say. And it happens fast. Like overnight.

Image by Andrii Yalanskyi

When people outside your tribe do it, it’s called “cancel culture.” When people who are part of your tribe do it, they like to imagine that it’s “accountability,” though to whom and for what isn’t always perhaps quite as clear as the folks who call it that think it is.

That’s a big part of what it is—tribalism.

There’s also an element of virtue-signaling to it. Part of the way people police the border between in-group and out-group, Us and Them, is virtue signaling. Liberals accuse conservatives of virtue-signaling and conservatives accuse liberals of virtue-signaling, but in reality it’s a human trait, a way of loudly proclaiming that you’re part of the group, you beling, you’re one of the in-group, see? Look at how you champion the values of the group!

Groups, especially small subcultures, also turn viciously on their own for alleged or perceived wrongdoing because it’s a social safety valve. When you’re a member of an oppressed or persecuted minority, it’s normal to be angry, but you don’t dare express that anger against the larger, more powerful group that oppresses you, so instead you direct that anger inward, against your own, because it’s safer. That’s why small resistance groups tend to fragment, as was parodied so brilliantly in Life of Brian: because the only safe place to direct your rage is against your own community.

We’re the People’s Front of Judea, not the Judean People’s Front!

It’s kind of like an ablative heat shield that protects a spacecraft by burning up; each fragment that burns away carries heat with it, protecting the space capsule from that heat. By burning away its own members, turning on them with incredible viciousness, the community finds a way to dissipate its anger without calling down the wrath of the larger, more powerful group oppressing it.

And all those things are part of it. There’s no one reason people judge others.

But lately, as I’ve been trying to understand what motivates people to do this, I think there’s another reason that doesn’t get discussed, but that’s at least as important as tribalism and virtue-signaling and in-group/out-group gatekeeping and self-directed rage:

It’s fanfic.

It’s storytelling using real people as characters.

We are a storytelling species. We understand the world through narrative. You see this all the time in politics. Information by itself almost never changes attitudes, because we accept information that fits our narrative and reject information that doesn’t.

It’s always been that way. We always explain the world through stories. Religion is basically, at its core, made-up stories that explain the world, of course. Foundational myths are stories that tell people who they are and where they come from.

Image: Market Photo Design

But it goes a lot deeper than that. If you say the words “abusive relationship,” the overwhelming majority of people will picture a heterosexual relationship in which a man abuses a woman, because that’s the prevailing narrative of what ‘abuse’ looks like. And so everything you’re told about a specific abusive relationship will tend to get filtered through that narrative.

Okay, so.

We understand the world through narrative in a metaphorical sense, but we also understand the world through narrative in a much more literal sense. People make up stories constantly and then fit other people into the roles in those stories, as if they were real-life characters.

See, here’s the thing: To the vast majority of the world’s eight billion people, you are not real. You’re a vague blur, a background character. An NPC. You don’t exist except perhaps as a set of impressions.

We are limited in the number of real connections we can form. This limit is called Dunbar’s number, and it’s generally assumed to be about 150 people or so—in other words, about the maximum size of a tribe of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those are the numbers of direct personal connections you can hold in your head—friends, enemies, family, everyone. Above that number, people blur and fade into the background. They become less real.

People who aren’t real, are easy fodder for simple morality stories. These stories are abstractions, we make up in order to understand the world we live in and to signal our moral values to others. There’s no room for nuance or complexity. We cast NPCs in the roles of hero or villain or victim or tyrant or whatever, because those people aren’t fully fleshed-out human beings, they’re characters. The stories we write are basically “reality fanfic.”

The thing that’s appealing about fanfic is you can do whatever you want with it.

Image: Maria Menshikova

Think about all the people who make Elon Musk out to be a cartoon hero or a mustache-twirling supervillain. The thing about the weird veneration of Elon Musk is that a lot of the things his legions of drooling fanbois say about him are kinda true. The thing about the weird demonization of Elon Musk is that a lot of what his many haters say about him is also kinda true.

But fanfic doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity. Most people aren’t very good storytellers, so the stories they tell about the real-life NPCs around them aren’t very nuanced.

The Fall from Grace is arguably the human story, the narrative that is so deeply embedded it reaches all the way back to tales of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The story of Faust, the story of Anakin Skywalker…it’s no coincidence that real-world fanfic tends to echo these themes. We love demonizing people we used to hold up as heroes. We get off on it. Very little feels better than tearing down today the person we venerated yesterday.

Image: Osman Goni

And it makes us feel good about ourselves. When you write fanfic about real-life people. You can slot people into your narratives and then pat yourself on the back about how good you are, how much you care, how moral you are, because when you share those stories, you’re showing your tribe how much you value your tribe’s values. This real-life fanfic feeds into virtue signaling and tribalism and all those other things.

Plus thee’s an element of self-empowerment. We long for connection, especially to people we look up to. Part of tearing down the people we look up to is, I think an expression of that desire for connection.

When we judge people we don’t know, often we hope to make them do something. Go through some process, resign from some position…we want a response from them. This can be part of a redemption narrative, of course—the fallen hero who is redeemed by some act is also a narrative as old as time—but more directly, more immediately, we judge others when we want them to acknowledge us, to interact with us, to do as we say.

That’s incredibly empowering. It validates us. It tells us that we can have an effect on that remote, inaccessible person we don’t know, and of course we can have an effect on the world. We’re powerful. It validates our virtues and our values. It makes us feel strong.

All of this, every bit of it, is easier to do with people we don’t know than with people we do. When we actually know someone, we see the nuance, we’re confronted with complexity. But with someone we don’t know, someone who’s a vague abstract blur? It’s easier to ignore the humanity. It’s easier to make them a character in our fanfic of life. It’s easier to see them as an archetype, a cartoon.

Of course we judge people we don’t know! Judging people we don’t know validates us, signals our virtue, lets us scrawl our own design on reality. Who can resist that temptation?

fly.io, SMS spam, and malware

[Edit 11-Jan-2023] I’ve received a reply from Fly.io; see end of this entry

Ah, a new year has come. Out with the old, in with the new…strategies for phish and malware sites, that is.

And what would phish and malware sites be without complicit webhosts and web service providers?

So today I’m going to dive into an enormous quantity of SMS text message spam I’ve been flooded with over the past couple of months, who’s behind it, and what it’s doing.

It started in mid-November of last ear (2023), with a text message saying “The USPS package arrived at the warehouse but could not be delivered” and a link to a site that was just a random collection of letters and numbers. No biggie, I get these all the time. Standard run of the mill phish attempt. If you visit the link, you’re taken to a site that looks like the Post Office, but it’s a fake, of course. They ask you to type a bunch of personal information, which the people responsible will use to steal your identity, get loans in oyur name, whatever.

Then I got another. And another. And another. And another. And then dozens more, coming in one, two, three, four, sometimes five or more a day.

And they haven’t stopped.

Text message after text message after text message. “You’ve been infected with viruses.” “Your cloud service has been terminated.” “We couldn’t deliver your package.”

All of them with URLs that looked like random strings of letters and numbers.

So my spidey sense was activated, and I looked up all those URLs.

Surprise, surprise, every single one is hosted on the same web service provider, an outfit called fly.io.

And there are a lot of them.

*** CAUTION *** CAUTION *** CAUTION ***
THESE LINKS ARE LIVE AS OF THE TIME OF WRITING THIS. Many of these links will bring you to malware or phish sites. DO NOT visit these links if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I started collecting the URLs from the text messages:

  • http://eonmpxm.com/OR73bg5L
    FakeAV malware site
  • http://wkcetku.com/G1LO5X38
    Fake “government subsidy” site
  • http://nztkspy.com/MK2RVeJg
    FakeAV malware site
  • http://lkxsxef.com/KJeQ09Vp
    FakeAV malware
  • http://klxnitq.com/oxp18G47
    Equifax phish
  • http://epgguli.com/0M37VmkO
    McAfee phish
  • http://yonxutn.com/1MZbOrZv
    FedEx phish
  • http://zveeyou.com/7Xy1E8G8
    FakeAV malware
  • http://mirumbf.com/KJeQ09Vp
    FakeAV malware
  • http://mirumbf.com/KJeQ09Vp
    FakeAV malware
  • http://qjkwmww.com/yng4eExR
    Fake USPS phish
  • http://wnddwet.com/KJe40qm5
    FakeAV malware
  • http://pdxftwt.com/ER39R0rR
    XFinity phish
  • http://plefaas.com/rNzdEAEW
    FakeAV malware
  • http://oitbaon.com/A3B6vBOe
    FakeAV malware
  • http://napiyib.com/nQ0mJKoZ
    FakeAV malware
  • http://kozqtlp.com/vGeO0XmX
    Xfinity phish
  • http://ugokulc.com/KJM89Mem
    USPS phish
  • http://iqbyojt.com/KJeQ09Vp
    FakeAV malware
  • http://sobagiw.com/nQVA0bVp
    Xfinity phish
  • http://oosjrjt.com/GRG8ML9n
    FakeAV malware
  • http://xqzfnuh.com/ZjgL4GbE
    Xfinity phish
  • http://tecvxzo.com/5aannZO7
    Google phish

I notified fly.io’s abuse team about the problem. And notified them. And notified them. And notified them. Each time, I received an identical reply, from a guy calling himself “Matt Braun,” saying only “I have let our customer know. Thanks!”

Matt Braun doesn’t appear to have grasped that their customer is the phisher. And lately, I haven’t even received these replies; they haven’t acknowledged recent abuse reports in days. Meanwhile (of course) all the links remain active because (of course)…their customer is the phisher.


Okay, so how does the scheme work?

I’ve spent some time mapping out the network. The quick overview:

  1. A text message is mass broadcast, advertising a URL on fly.io.
  2. Marks who click on the link in the message are redirected to a site called “track.palersaid.com,” hosted on Amazon AWS. Track.palersaid.com looks at the incoming fly.io URL, the type of computer or smartphone you’re using, and probably other stuff, then sends you on to another site.
  3. This site, track.hangzdark.com, is another tracking and redirection site also hosted on Amazon AWS.
  4. From there, marks are redirected to the actual target site, which might be a fake FedEx page, a fake UPS page, a fake “virus scan” page, or more. There are a lot of these destinations: read.messagealert.com, kolakonages.com, aca.trustedplanfinder.com, and more. Some of these destination sites are, no surprise here, hosted on Namecheap, which is in my opinion one of the scuzziest of malware and spam sewer hosts.

Example destination page

How the network works

This bears a strong resemblance to some of the malware and spam networks I’ve mapped out in the past, though the delivery network (SMS text messages) and the web service provider (fly.io) are different.

If you get these text messages, do not follow the links. If you are also seeing these messages, please let me know in a comment! I would love to know how big this network is. Fly.io seems reluctant to shut down these phishers, which leads me to wonder if they aren’t making quite a bit of money from them.


[Edit 11-Jan-2023] I’ve received a reply from Fly.io’s Abuse team:

Thank you for your patience with us over the holiday, and some follow up details.

Usually, when we have reports of spammer or abuser on our platform, our internal systems have a host of signals that we can look to to verify the report and take the appropriate action. In the vast majority of cases the signals are clear and unequivocal. However, in this instance, the signals were entirely the opposite: all signs pointed to a seemingly-legitimate user.

Our systems are set up for “either you are a customer or you are not”, and banning a customer would mean immediate and irrevocable loss of that’s customers data. That’s is not a risk we take lightly so we were not going to flip the switch and risk blowing away someone’s information without a smoking gun. I expect you and I have both seen dozens of those posts on Hacker News or elsewhere where an innocent user writes “Company has deleted my entire account without warning and I’ve lost years of data”. We don’t want to do that to someone.

So where does that leave us? The apparent reason for the behavior/signal disconnect is that it was our customer’s customer doing the abuse. Our customer has committed to evicting their customer today which should put an end to the redirection through our systems (though, unfortunately, I don’t expect that’ll have any impact on the SMS spam). If it doesn’t resolve things, let us know. We’re back online after the holiday and more in a position to chase things things down.

Additionally, there were two other concerns we need to address internally:
1) We don’t have the ability to suspend users. This is something that I’m going to pursue as we need something more nuanced than our all-or-nothing approach so that we’re able to move on complaints sooner without risk of harming someone innocently caught in the middle of things.
2) We did not follow up with the customer as often as we should have after their initial acknowledgement of the problem and indication that they would address it. That’s a coordination process breakdown exacerbated by people taking time off during the holidays and not having the usual “obviously-abuse” signals. Additionally, we need to come up with an approach to our abuse ticketing system that allows for long-lived cases.

You can email me, personally, if you feel you aren’t getting attention on this (email redacted) and I’m sincerely sorry for the delay in letting you know where things stood or getting things sorted with the customer.

It seems Fly.io is one of the good guys.

The spam stopped for a few days, though it has resumed again. This time, the SMS spam domains are hosted on Alibaba rather than Fly.io.