A Trip to the Dominionate

I’m typing this in Springfield, Missouri, where I’ve just returned from visiting several places that do not yet exist, and won’t exist for nearly two thousand years.

Lemme back up a bit.

My Talespinner and I are writing a novel. Specifically, we’re writing a rather chonky (~160,000 word) far-future, post-Collapse magical realism literary novel called Spin, set in the Dominionate, a sort of quasi-Catholic/Calvinist theocracy that extends through much of the center of what is now the United States.

We are, as I write this, about 90,000 words in, and we were having difficulty nailing down a crucial bit of timing, when our protagonist is forced by an encounter with the Inquisition to head off-road through what is now rural Missouri, trying to reach the city of Kanzit, the capital of the Dominionate and home to a character she hopes can save her.

We’ve looked at maps and Google Earth, measured distances, made calculations, and finally my Talespinner was like “You know what? Fuggit. Ima follow her path and see how long it would take.”

About this time, I received a letter from Oregon Revenue, informing me I’d made an error in my 2022 state income tax (cue heart attack)…and that I’d overpaid by $208 (whew!). So I found a plane ticket for $206, and said “You know what, Ima go with you.”

We started following the footsteps of our protagonist from modern-day Stockton State Park, a park on a small peninsula jutting into Stockton Lake.

In two thousand years, after the Great Collapse, sea level rise, and two smaller collapses, this will become the small village of Half-Circle Cothold, where our protagonist Aiyah Spinner was born and raised.

On this spot, right here, will be a church and Mother’s Cloister two millennia from now. From this very spot, Aiyah will begin her journey toward Kanzit, built on what was once Kansas City, a journey that will absolutely not go as she expects.

From here, her plan will be to cross the bridge into Bridgegate, heading toward Brightchurch and from there, Kanzit itself, following the ancient roads still maintained and used after all these years.

Ah, Brightchurch.

If Kanzit is the head of the Dominionate, Brightchurch is its heart, a walled city that hosts Brightchurch Cathedral, the Temple of a Thousand Lights, one of the wonders of the future world, destination of an endless river of pilgrims. Brightchurch Cathedral, its windows shining like God’s grace itself every moment of every day and night, thanks to thousands of oil lamps fed from a cunning engineering marvel that distributes oil through a vast system of tubes and pipes, driven by pumps powered by human and animal muscle, tended by an army of novices, awe-inspiring beyond imagination. (The idea for Brightchurch Cathedral came from a pen and paper role-playing game I ran for a time a few years back, expanded and incorporated into the world of the Dominionate.)

Brightchurch Cathedral will one day stand on this spot, right here, in present-day Nevada, Missouri.

(Honestly, I would never for a moment want to live in the Dominionate, but I nevertheless wish I could see Brightchurch Cathedral. It’s truly a magnificent, incomprehensibly beautiful place.)

Aiyah, for various reasons, never reaches Brightchurch, but instead is forced to flee overland, through what is now farmland but will be, in the age of the Dominionate, forest. We followed her path, and I’m so glad we did, because we found all kinds of treasures along the way.

Like this tiny graveyard, which isn’t on any map or on Google Maps, but lies directly in her path and some remnant of which may still exist in the time the novel is set.

As for Kanzit, while it’s much reduced and sees countless changes, some of its buildings still exist, lovingly maintained over countless years.

The administrative center of the Church and, by extension of all the Dominionate lives in what is now the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, suited by both design and location to be repurposed to the head of the theocratic government. All the various aspects of the Church except the Inquisition are administered from here.

So let’s talk about the Dominionate.

When this novel publishes, I think people will compare it to The Handmaid’s Tale. The two stories have some superficial resemblances: social collapse, a theocracy carved out of what was once the United States, falling fertility that leads to sexual subjugation of women.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Margaret Atwood has said she explicitly modeled the government and culture of Gilead on the Islamic Revolution, a cautionary tale about what might happen in a society where reactionary religious zealotry comes to power.

But when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I came away from the story with a sense that Gilead is fundamentally unstable. On a very deep level, the society doesn’t really work for anyone. Everyone is miserable—even the people on the top of the hierarchy. Offred, certainly, and all the other Handmaids…but even the Commander comes across as fundamentally unhappy. You really can’t point to anyone in Atwood’s story and say “yeah, those folks have a pretty good life, they seem happy and self-actualized.”

Which is, I think, part of the point she’s making.

The thing that makes Spin so horrifying, so deeply disturbing, is that the Dominionate works. The society of the Dominionate has long-term stability, peace, and prosperity. Many people—most people, really—are happy. Or if not happy, at least content. There’s little violence or crime. That sets Spin in sharp contrast to The Handmaid’s Tale (well, that and the fact Spin incorporates elements of magic, and a vastly different story).

Technology in the Dominionate is limited—the thing about the modern world is that we’ve largely stripped the earth of natural resources available to anyone without a post-industrial level of technology (there are no more surface deposits of iron, copper, tin, or coal, no oil available without modern drilling techniques, and without vast and available fuel, you might be able to “mine” landfills or junkyards for metals but you will have a very difficult time indeed smelting modern steels into things you can use)—but our knowledge remains. Even without modern levels of technology, most people still have a reasonably high standard of living.

But all of it—their standard of living, their society, their peace and prosperity—rests on a foundation of subjugation of (some) women. There’s no escaping it. They hide it away, in Mother’s Cloisters administered by the Church, and it’s been normalized for so long that everyone, even the people most oppressed, accept it as natural and necessary.

That is, I believe, way more horrifying than the society of Gilead, a society that does not have peace and prosperity, a society that seems unlikely to endure for two hundred years, or honestly even for twenty.

And more horrifying still, you can make a strong argument that the oppression and subjugation of the Dominionate is necessary. Without it, humanity will likely cease to be. Squaring that circle—trying to reconcile the idea that humanity has value with the horrific bedrock strata of sexual slavery on which not just this particular society but humanity’s future rests—is the core of the novel.

Spin is by far the most challenging, most ambitious writing project I’ve ever been part of. My Talespinner and I didn’t set out to write it this way. We’d originally imagined an 80,000-word young adult novel, something far more lighthearted. About 25,000 words in, we realized that story didn’t actually worked, tore it up, sat down, re-thought the story we wanted to tell, and came up with a detailed 27-page outline for something much, much different…and much, much darker.

I am absolutely thrilled my Talespinner and I took the opportunity to make this trip, following a character’s journey two thousand years from now. Everything we saw along the way will inform the novel. We have quite a lot of rewriting to do, particularly in the first third of the book, which will be far richer and more vibrant because we did this crazy thing.

I’m also profoundly grateful that one of my Talespinner’s other lovers was able to accompany us. His presence made the trip better, but even more, as we took copious notes—I still haven’t transcribed them into the outline yet—he offered ideas and suggestions that will make the novel so much better.

Some Thoughts on Bad Sex

Last weekend, while I was working with Joreth and Eunice on an upcoming episode of the Skeptical Pervert podcast, the conversation veered off in a direction I’ve been chewing on ever since: male expectations around sex.

Image: charlesdeluvio

Men and women have, by and large, grossly unequal experiences of sex: socially (men who have lots of lovers are “studs,” women with many lovers are “sluts”), physically (women bear a disproportionate amount of physical risk from sex: pregnancy, sexual violence, and so on), and even in their expectation of outcome (men are more likely to report a random encounter as physically satisfying, and often have an easier time reaching orgasm).

A lot of this imbalance is rooted in sexism, and we often talk about how sexism disproportionately harms women, but I think sexist ideas about getting it on hurt men, too. One of the ways that can happen is social pressure around sex: men are supposed to want it, supposed to take advantage of any opportunities to have it, and, I think, supposed to enjoy it even if it’s bad sex. Men are supposed to be opportunistic about sex.

In fact, I’ve often heard men say “there’s no such thing as bad sex.” I have literally never heard a single woman say this, but men? Oh yeah. All the damn time.

There is bad sex. Even for men. (As an old friend of mine was fond of saying, “if you think there’s no such thing as bad sex, you probably are bad sex.”)

The thing that got me to thinking along these lines was an event that happened in my sex life many years ago, back when I still lived in Florida, and had only recently started dating my ex-wife.

I came home from work one night to find all the lights low. Curious, I wandered into the bedroom, to find her in bed in a negligee, snuggled in with a female friend of hers. I was barely through the door before my wife dragged me down into the bed and started pulling off my clothes. Yadda yadda yadda, we had an unexpected threesome, me, my wife, and her friend.

Sounds like a Penthouse Letters, right? (Is Penthouse Letters even still a thing? I legit have no idea.)

But here’s the thing:

Her friend wasn’t someone I would have chosen as a lover. I tend, by and large, to decline offers of casual sex because casual sex doesn’t really work for me. And it was quite clear from the beginning that’s all this was: casual sex, no kissing, nothing beyond the grunt-n-thrust of two more or less emotionally uninvolved bodies.

It wasn’t good sex. I mean, yeah, I had an orgasm, she had an orgasm…but the thing that’s lingered, the overall psychic impression it left in me, was that it just…wasn’t fun.

I didn’t feel, back then, like I had any call to say no. And it wasn’t just because this woman I was dating had clearly gone through a lot of effort to set this up. No, it was more than that:

What kind of man turns down sex with a willing partner? What kind of man says no to a threesome?

Answer: Me, now. I’m way more likely to say no than I was when I was 22, and way more likely to decide that sex with someone I don’t feel connected to just isn’t worth it. But back then? It happened fast, I was in for the ride the instant I walked through the door, nobody at any point asked me if I was on board with this or not, and I genuinely didn’t feel I should—or could—say no.

And here’s another thing:

When I tell this story to other men, invariably, in-fucking-variably, the response I get is “What do you mean it wasn’t good sex? Are you mental? Your girlfriend arranged for you to have a threesome with another woman and you’re complaining about it? What’s wrong with you??!” (That is, when they don’t simply accuse me of making it up out of whole cloth—I get that a lot too, even about things I consider fairly mundane.)

Which leads me to think that for a lot of men, “good sex” is somehow…I don’t know if “performative” is the right word exactly, but good sex is in the context, not in how enjoyable it was or how you felt about it after.

Was she hot? Then it was good sex. Was it kinky? Then it was good sex. Did you get off? Then it was good sex. A threesome? Dude, that’s the brass ring, the sine qua non of awesome sex. You had a threesome with your girlfriend and another woman, arranged by her? You can’t get any better sex than that!

Whether it was satisfying, whether it met the needs of the people involved, whether it gave you what you want…irrelevant. Your girlfriend set you up with another woman! How jaded do you have to be not to think that’s good sex? Do you know how many men would kill for that experience?

The social construction of male sex is that men want sex, men should be grateful to have sex, and certain forms of sex—including the Holy Grail, sex with two women at once—is the pinnacle of the male sexual expression. The experience of that sex isn’t particularly important, or indeed even particularly relevant.

And I think that’s unfortunate. It means there are likely a lot of men out there having sex that…really isn’t that great, but that they’ve been told to believe is great, because what makes sex great is the display, the spectacle of it, not the experience of it.

But I rarely hear people talk about that, and that’s a damn shame.

I’m way more selective about sex now, and decline opportunities more often than I accept them (something else that often causes people to roll their eyes and say “yeah, sure, whatever, you’re clearly lying,” or in the case of one bloke I encountered on Quora who declared with absolute conviction, “no man anywhere would ever turn down sex”).

I wonder, sometimes, what the world might look like if we lived in a society that recognized men aren’t all cast from the same mold, and encouraged everyone to learn what works for them, and then have, you know, that kind of sex.

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.

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.


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?

There will be a last day

When I arrived in Florida a few weeks ago to help care for my mom, who was in the last stages of terminal cancer, Facebook showed me an ad for a pin. I ordered it on the spot. It arrived yesterday, on what would have been my mom’s birthday.

For anyone who doesn’t recognize it, it’s from a poem called Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas, whose first stanza reads:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I’ve talked a lot about my mom’s wisdom. It was a quiet, understated thing; she had a knack for comprehending the world in ways subtle and deep. When I was growing up, she used to tell me, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.” She understood that we are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures, prone to making decisions for emotional or tribal reasons and then pressing our rational selves into service to justify our choices.

Other things she told me countless times:

“Education is not the solution if ignorance is not the problem.”

“We are predisposed to believe what we wish were true or what we’re afraid is true.”

“Never ask a question whose answer you don’t want to know.”

Even more than her sometimes pointed wisdom, though, I remember she was always, always there for me, without fail. If there was one thing I could count on absolutely, without question, as surely as the rising sun at the end of night, it was that she’d be there without fail. I never for even a millisecond, at any time in my life, doubted her love. Not once.

My mom and my dad on a date, six years before I was born.

I remember one night many years ago, when I was 18 or 19, driving to Ft. Lauderdale in my notoriously unreliable ’69 VW Beetle to visit friends. The car broke down at about 2AM four hours from home, so I called my mom from a pay phone. Without the slightest hesitation, without lectures or rancor, she got up, dragged her ass the four hours to come rescue me, then the next day took me to a repair shop for the part I needed to fix it and drove me right back down again.

She was always that way. That sort of cast-iron knowledge that someone always has your back is probably the single greatest gift you can ever give someone growing up.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in November 2022, thirteen months almost to the day as I type this. She tolerated chemo poorly, though she was not one to go gentle into that good night, and stuck with it no matter how miserable it made her.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

I came down to Florida a few weeks ago to help my dad care for her. At the end, she needed round-the-clock care, so my dad and I alternated in twelve-hour shifts.

In the tiny hours of the night last week, she started having difficulty breathing. I called 911. She’d been in and out of the hospital several times, so I didn’t know this would be the last time she’d ever be home.

The hospital confirmed the cancer had spread to her lungs and brain. A few days later, the doctors took her off life support.

She died at 9:36 in the morning on December 15, 2023, four days before her birthday. We (my dad, my sister, and I) were in the car on the way to the hospital to see her when she passed.

That night, when I called 911, I don’t think any of us knew it was the end. We knew the end was near, of course, but she’d had other crises, other storms she’d weathered.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, as I go through a million little things I never imagined having to deal with—arranging for the home hospice care people to come and pick up the hospital bed, resetting her iCloud passwords, all the various ways we close the threads of a life. (The truck is titled in my mom’s name but my dad isn’t on the title, something my sister is dealing with.)

You never know.

Someday, there will be a last time you see the moon through the trees. Someday, there will be a last time you hug the people close to you. Someday, there will be a last time you hear a bird sing, a last time you have your favorite dessert, a last time you feel the sun on your face.

You might not know when that is. It might have already happened.

You are an anomaly. Yes, you. The odds of your existence are incomprehensibly small. You trace your lineage directly across the billions of years to a primitive, single-celled organism, and any tiny disruption of that slender thread would erase your existence. Had your parents gone to the movies that night, you would not be here.

You have these brief moments under the sun, and that is a gift beyond price—beyond imagining. Somehow, you beat odds so great your brain literally cannot comprehend them, and of the trillions of potential beings that might exist, here you are.

These few moments are all you will ever have. Cherish them, because there will be a last time for everything.

Loving Life Amidst Loss

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

Right now, as I type this, I’m in Florida helping care for my mom. My dad and I have been doing 12-hour shifts with her, because she needs round-the-clock care. Between that and all the thousand things around the house that need tending to that my dad isn’t able to, I haven’t been sleeping much.

Last night at about 5am my mom started having trouble breathing, so I called 911. We just heard from the hospital 10 minutes ago. The cancer has spread to her lungs and brain. She really wanted to make it to her birthday in 6 days. The doctors don’t think she’ll make it.

So I’m not maybe the best person to talk about loving life right now.

And yet…

A few days ago, my wife and I spent a couple of hours at the Festival of Lights in Cape Coral. They had hot cocoa and a campfire with marshmallows.

When I stumbled out of bed this morning (well, technically this afternoon), the first thing that happened was my mom’s cat sat at my feet, meowed at me, and headbutted me to say hi.

Right at this very moment, I’m looking out the window onto my parents’ patio, where three squirrels are chasing each other across the screen roof, and it’s delightful.

I was born just barely early enough to see humanity walk on the moon—-some of my earliest childhood memories are sitting in front of a B&W TV watching the Apollo launches. Odds are good I will see humanity walk on Mars. Isn’t that amazing?

I am surrounded by love. I’m spending Christmas with my Talespinner. My life is filled with creativity and joy—I write books with some of my lovers, my wife and I created the Borg Queen xenomorph parasite cosplay from an idea she had three years ago, I’m teaching myself CNC machining and laser engraving.

I live in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in human history. We can fly through the air. Every day, we learn more about the universe.

This photo:

was taken by a probe that landed on a comet. We have the capacity to launch a probe that can travel for years and then arrive precisely on a small rock traveling at 84,000 miles per hour, which is about like a person in Boston shooting a rifle and hitting a golf ball in midair in Moscow. (Bizarre how many people think science is “just another belief system,” eh?)

And, I mean, I get it. The world isn’t all roses. Right now, far too many people in my country are too uneducated in history to recognize when they’re being lied to by yet another populist grifter selling them the same old tired lie that all their failures are the fault of somebody else.

We have a political party that takes gleeful, sadistic delight in mendacious cruelty, and a voting populace that sincerely believes it’s okay to vote for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party because surely the leopards won’t eat their faces—only the faces of the Mexicans and the gays and the trans people, right?

There is pettiness, and cruelty, and meanspiritedness. There are people who make voting choices because they want to hurt other Americans just to own the libs.

But viewed on a large enough scale, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We may be in the “one step back” part of the “two steps forward, one step back” cycle, yet this too shall pass.

I want to be here to see what happens next.

Virtue or virtue signaling: how do you tell?

[Note: This entry originally started out as an answer on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writings, I’m most active over there these days.]

Most people want to think of themselves as basically “good people.” Many people want to appear to be good people, particularly to their friends and social group. The cynic in me believes that few people are all that concerned with being good people, because being a good person is hard work, requiring careful analysis of complex, nuanced situations, dealing with ambiguity, and occasionally being forced to confront uncomfortable facts.

Enter Virtue Signaling, a way to express to your tribe that you uphold the tribal values without, you know, doing that hard, uncomfortable work! Gain all the advantages of conforming to the norms of your social group without any of that messy ethical stuff!

In the US, the political right loves to accuse the political left of virtue signaling, but this is something that knows no political divide. The rural conservative who throws away his Bud Lite because Budweiser gave beer to a transgender activist, or smashes his Dixie Chicks CD, is engaging in virtue signaling just as much as the liberal who posts “boycott Avatar 2!” on his Twitter feed without ever intending to watch the movie in the first place.

Emory & Henry College defines virtue signaling this way:

The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments to demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Modern examples of Virtue Signaling are posting opinions that you do not share on social media in order to gain popularity and reputation.

And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I admit I’ve done this. I’ve offered opinions on people and situations about which I was uninformed, because I wanted to be the good guy but didn’t want to take the time to better inform myself. (In fact, the times I’ve done this, I would’ve strenuously denied that was what I was doing, because of course I knew what I was talking about, even though I didn’t know the situation or talk to the people involved…I let my own narratives about How The World Works fill in the blanks for me. We human beings understand the world through stories; the narratives we accept, often without realizing it, inform the way we perceive the world.)

So, with that in mind, what separates genuine virtue from virtue signaling? How can you tell?

I would like to propose a set of guidelines that, I believe, makes separating the two rather easy:

Virtue signaling is cheap and costs nothing. You’re literally sending signals to improve your standing with your in-group; it will not cost you socially with your in-group by definition. It always goes with your in-group, never against it.

Virtue may cost you something—socially, politically, or financially. It sometimes may not match the expectations of the people around you. Holding to virtue might occasionally put you at odds with your in-group.

Virtue signaling has no nuance, no shades of gray. It boils everything down to bumper stickers: Jesus Is Lord. Make America Great Again. Eat The Rich. Kindness Is Everything. Because its purpose is to communicate that you belong with your in-group, it’s made up of simple slogans that champion the in-group’s values in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Virtue allows for nuance. Virtue requires looking at complex situations and making informed choices, rather than relying on bumper-sticker deepitudes. Virtue isn’t about clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; it requires constant engagement.

Virtue signaling is about the person doing it. It’s a way to say “Look at me! Look at me! I share your values! Look at me!” It centers the person engaging in it: “everyone, see what a good person I am because I support the values of my in-group.”

Virtue is about the thing. It doesn’t grab the spotlight or seek attention. While a virtue signaler is on YouTube talking about how great they are for shining a light on the fact that homelessness is bad (don’t forget to click Subscribe! And sign up for my Patreon!), virtue is out there with a hammer building houses for Habitat for Humanity.

There’s actually a Bible passage about this: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Virtue signaling is out there praying loudly in the middle of the street; virtue takes place off stage, with sleeves rolled up, doing the work to find the facts and minimize harm in a world where there’s not always a lot of adulation in it and sometimes things aren’t as simple as they seem.

Virtue signaling is about identifying who’s one of Us and who’s one of Them. We are good, noble, just, patriotic. They are evil, corrupt, traitorous dogs.

Virtue is about living, inasmuch as is possible, a life of kindness and compassion, rooted in truth, empathy, and generosity.

Virtue signaling is about keeping safe by rigidly enforcing and policing the boundaries between Us and Them through purity and moral conformity. It turns on itself. It eats its own. It seeks out those on our side who are insufficiently pure, insufficiently dedicated to our ideals. It frequently spends as much time savaging those on Our side as attacking those on Their side.

Virtue is about living in an imperfect world where people are not always 100% pure 100% of the time. It’s about genuine harm reduction, not moral purity. Harm reduction is, as my crush and co-author Eunice once said, “ethics trying to live in the real world.” Where virtue signaling is proving one’s moral purity in a vicious game of Last Man Standing, virtue is about making the world just a little bit kinder, a little bit better, not just for those who pass the moral purity litmus test, but for everyone.

Virtue signaling tells you who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Virtue is understanding that nobody is purely one thing or the other, so the best approach is to treat others the way you would have them treat you—ir, if you’re genuinely virtuous, to do unto others 20% better than they do unto you, to correct for subjective error.

In other words, the key takeaway I’d like to propose is this:

Virtue signaling is about bettering your own station by persuading the people in your social group of your moral purity. Virtue is about bettering the world for everyone.

Does silence mean consent?

[Note: This post started out as an answer on Quora]

Does silence mean consent? Sexually? No. Clearly not.

If you’re talking about Thomas More’s philosophy of qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent seems to consent), it’s…complicated.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and even had a long discussion about it with my co-author Eunice a few weeks back. We fall on opposite sides of the issue, or perhaps on subtly different sides of one aspect of the issue.

Buckle up, bruh, this might get long.

When people say “silence equals consent,” they’re uuuuusually not talking about sex. When More said “qui tacet consentire videtur,” he was responding to a legal question about why he didn’t recognize the king’s dominion over the Church. His answer basically meant “I didn’t object to it, therefore I recognize it.”

In law and international relations, qui tacet consentire videtur means something more like “silence means assent.” That is, if you don’t object to a statement or decision or policy or treaty or something, that is functionally the same as if you had voted “yes” to it.

Okay. So. Here’s the thing:

The same idea often seems to apply in social settings, especially in subcommunities. You’ll see this play out when, for example, people say “if you’re conservative but you don’t speak out against the fascists in your party, you’re basically saying you’re one of them.” Or “if you’re Muslim but don’t speak out against the violent extremists among you, you’re basically saying you agree with them.” (Whichever way you personally may fall on the political spectrum, dear reader, it always feels less comfortable when it’s turned around, doesn’t it?)

Now, I’ve seen this happen in a subcommunity that I used to belong to. I get how it works.

The thing Eunice points out, and I agree with, is qui tacet consentire videtur only applies if it’s safe to speak dissent. If you risk being beheaded for publicly saying that the king does not rightfully have dominion over the church, then keeping your mouth shut is not automatically assent.

The place we differ is whether or not remaining silent in the face of immorality is a morally defensible act.

Now I get it, I really do. If you live under the Taliban’s rule and you’re Muslim, you maybe might want to think twice about raising your voice in objection to extremism, or you and your family are at very real risk.

Where I think things get muddier is when you’re not at risk of having your head separated from your shoulders, but rather you don’t speak your dissent because you’re worried it will cost you social standing. Or friends. Or your position in your community. You know, something that’s not your life or your freedom.

Where Eunice and I differ is she’s way more patient than I am with people who don’t speak out about things they sincerely believe are wrong when doing so may cost something.

She believes, if I may take the liberty of stating her position as I understand it, that we all have the right to set for ourselves our own personal level of acceptable risk, and what we are willing to put on the line for our values. It is not necessarily wrong to decide the consequences for speaking dissent are more than we are willing to pay.

I’m a lot more hardline about it. I believe that, to quote Jon Stewart:

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.

If you make your values a part of your identity, but fail to express them whenever they might cost you something, then yes, your silence, functionally, does mean assent.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The problem is, evil can make it expensive enough that nobody wants to be the first one to do something.

It’s like a criminal holding 30 hostages with a six-shot revolver. If everyone stood up, they’d win. But the first one to stand up is getting shot, so nobody wants to be the first one to stand up, so everyone meekly complies with the criminal and allows him to tie them up, so now he can kill all 30 at his leisure.

There’s actually a scene in a Marvel movie, of all things, that nicely illustrates the dilemma of qui tacet consentire videtur:

At what cost our dissent? Most of us would like to look in the mirror and tell ourselves we are like this man. Almost nobody actually is. I’ll bet folding money that most people will keep silent in the face of things they are think are wrong even if the cost of speaking up is quite small.


When I posted this on Quora, a friend remarked that in his opinion, Eunice’s position shows greater empathy than mine; that is, Eunice is less hard-line than I am because she’s more sensitive to the plight of the person placed in the position of not being able to speak up without facing the community’s retaliation.

I chewed on that idea for weeks. I had a sense that there was something missing from that idea, but it took me a while to put my finger on what it was.

In situations where, for example, someone is in the closet as a member of some sexual or ethnic morality for fear of the community’s reaction if he comes out, I agree. That’s absolutely a reasonable choice, and deserves respect and compassion. In fact, I’ve chosen to live openly, as I’ve said in my memoir and also at events back as far as the 90s, in part because I can. I’ve never had a job that would be at risk because someone finds out I’m polyamorous, or family that would disown me.

In that sense, I’m privileged, and I know it, and it’s because I’m privileged I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for the next person to be open.

Image: Adrian Swancar

What I’m talking about here is slightly different from being in the closet, though. This answer is more about being silent in the face of things you know to be wrong—not silence in the sense of “I am silent about my own sexual orientation because I am worried people will harm me,” but in the sense of “I see people like me harming those who come out of the closet, and I’m silent about that because I don’t want those people to attack me too.” I do think those are two different situations, and in the latter, being silent to the bigotry of others does serve as assent to their bigotry.

If I as a straight person don’t stand up to homophobia, am I complicit in it? If I as a man don’t stand up to misogyny, am I complicit in it? I personally think the answer is yes.

The part about empathy is what triggered that realization, because it’s precisely empathy that makes me draw that bright line. I think that it’s easy to have empathy for the straight person who doesn’t stand up to the homophobe, because most of us identify with that person and it’s easiest to have empathy for those who are like us.

But the person who most needs empathy isn’t the straight person too scared to speak up, but the gay person being targeted in the first place.

Yes, it’s important to have empathy for the straight person who’s worried about being targeted by the bigots, because yes, bigots can and do come after those on the “side” of the disfavored group—look at, for example, American white nationalists who target Black people but also target “race traitors” they perceive as siding with Black people against their own race.

But in that particular case, who do we empathize with more? Who drives our compassion: the white person who is afraid of being branded a “race traitor” and harassed by the white nationalists, or the Black person at the receiving end of their hate?

I see that bright line not because I don’t empathize with the white guy who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself from the bigot, but because I do empathize with the person who has to live with that bigotry when nobody is willing to speak up.

So what’s wrong with social justice, anyway?

Well, to start with, nobody in the world actually wants social justice.

There. I said it.

Okay, lots of people sincerely believe they want social justice; the people who say they want it aren’t lying, exactly. It’s way more complicated than that, and a lot happens between “I’d like to live in a just world” and “I am going to work to make a just world happen.”

Buckle up, this answer is gonna get loooooong.

Let’s start here: The real world is complicated. Really, really complicated. You might think getting your scanner/printer to work with Windows is complicated, but that’s peanuts compared to socioeconomic and geopolitical reality.

And people, even smart people, handle complexity poorly.

Topical case in point: What’s happening in Israel and Gaza right now.

Image: Mohammed Ibrahim

If you want to understand what’s happening, you need to know quite a lot of history from the 1940s on. There’s a lot of “there” there: the Israeli offer, turned down by the Arabic population; the reasons Egypt and Jordan closed their borders to the Palestinians; the history of Hamas, which is both a terrorist organization and also a government (and before that, the Muslim Brotherhood); the way Egypt has deliberately played the Gaza refugees as political pawns…it’s complicated and ugly and no side has totally clean hands, but even understanding where the balance lies requires a pretty thorough history lesson…

…and oh God that’s, like, sooooooo complicated, whyyyyyyy can’t someone just tell me who the good guys are and who the bad guys are?

That’s the thing: a lot of people want to treat actual, real-world political situations like football matches or WWF wrestling, with a clearly defined good guy and a clearly defined bad guy, so they know who they’re supposed to root for.

Even people who start out genuinely, sincerely interested in social justice can easily get bogged down.

That’s the heartbreaking thing about, you know, empathy and compassion. When you sincerely want to leave the world in better shape than you found it, you soon find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Injustice doesn’t exist because someone woke up one day and said “Hey! You know what? I think I’ll be a dick to other people today!”

Injustice exists because entrenched economic, social, and political systems with roots thousands of years deep have entrenched ways of doing things because the people atop those systems benefit from doing things that way.

Fighting against that is hard. It grinds you down. However energetic and idealistic you were when you started, it pulverizes you.

Nobody has infinite time. Nobody has infinite energy.

Which is fine, except that most people want to believe themselves to be one of the good guys, on the side of Truth and Righteousness and Justice, even when we don’t want to—or can’t!—do the work of getting there. It’s not enough to say “You know what? I’m not informed enough about this to have a reasonable opinion.” Oh, no, no, we want to take sides but we don’t want to invest the time or labor in making sure we pick the right side.

We just want to know who to blame.

Knowing who the bad guy is helps define us as the good guy. If we’re against the bad guy, that makes us good, right? Right?

So what do we do?

We develop heuristics. Cognitive shortcuts. Quick and dirty rules of thumb to simplify complex situations and help guide us toward the ‘right’ team to root for. These fast and easy heuristics, at least in theory, cut through all the tedious drek of having to learn all that history and become informed of the goals and grievances of all the players and untangle a knotty and nuanced tangle that’s been all balled up for decades.

But here’s the thing:

Heuristics are not subtle. They’re fast intuitive guidelines that substitute for actual understanding. They feel right, but that doesn’t mean they are right.

Those heuristics—“believe women,” “always side with the most historically oppressed,” whatever they are—gradually become rules, then social tribal markers, then symbols of moral purity. Heuristics become adopted by tribes as ways to tell the in-group from the out-group. If you see a hashtag like #believewomen, you can probably make a pretty good guess about the politics of the person who subscribes to it.

Before long, it actually becomes morally wrong not to obey the heuristics.

Enforcing moral purity becomes a way to feel powerful, to feel like you’re accomplishing something, in the face of the overwhelming hopelessness and despair that comes from fighting an entrenched system day after day and ending each day with nothing to show for it.

What it feels like to care about justice

Say your crusade is animal welfare, for example. You’ve fought for years and what do you have to show for it? There are even more factory farms now than when you started. Consumption of animals is up, not down.

But then let’s say Bob, your staunch and stalwart ally, your comrade in arms, reveals that he’s not a vegan…he thinks it’s okay to eat fish. And…and…and eggs. And he wears leather belts.

You can’t end factory farming, you can’t stop the senseless slaughter of animals…but hey, you can rally the troops against Bob, because he betrayed the cause! You can destroyed his reputation and cast him out! Look! Look! You accomplished something!

This is inevitably what happens in social justice circles. We end up here because:

  1. People want a morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag; and
  2. Any morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag cannot capture reality, and therefore is rather limited as a tool to change reality.

People tend to think of “social justice” as a left thing, but this process knows no political bounds. Those on the right do it just as often—they simply don’t call it “social justice.”

But the same things still apply: they have a way they want the world to be; changing the world requires tremendous amounts of effort and work; people don’t have limitless resources; they fall back on simple rules to tell them who the good guys and bad guys are; those simple rules become tribal markers; before long, it becomes morally unacceptable even to question those simple rules.

We see the world not at it is but as we are. We invent narratives to describe the world, and to tell us who the good guys are, and who we should be in order to think of ourselves as good. Anyone who can co-opt those narratives can control the lines between Us and Them, the boundaries that define our tribes.

So here we are. We’re terrible at nuance, we don’t have tome to get informed, so we let the hashtag mentality do the work for us.