What non-human rights are really about

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

The issue of basic rights for the higher animals pops up with a certain regularity, especially in transhumanist circles; here’s George Dvorsky responding to some of the more usual objections:

The rights I’m talking about have to do with protections. Nonhuman animals, like humans, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I’m inclined to leave it at that for now.

While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That’s not to be taken lightly.

At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.

For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with Dvorsky on most of his points here, though I think the biggest roadblock to non-human rights is our incomplete provision of human rights. Until we live in a world where we genuinely treat all human beings – regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, attractiveness, intelligence or lack of privilege – as our equals (biological, economic and political), how can we ever hope to extend that parity to creatures whose existence we definitively can’t empathise with on the basis of experience? (Indeed, some of the more extreme animal rights advocates seem far more able to empathise with the suffering of animals than the emotions of their fellow humans, and as such have done their cause far more harm than good.)

I totally agree that we should be looking to protect non-human sentients from exploitation, but attempting to do so before we’ve flattened the human playing field is to put the cart before the horse and then wonder that the cart doesn’t respond to the whip. Look to the plank in one’s own eye, and all that.

It’s International Women’s Day

Paul Raven @ 08-03-2011

Did you know that International Women’s Day has been celebrated for over a century? I didn’t know that, and it shames me to say so, but it’s never too late to learn (or so I hope). I’m sure someone will decide to tell us how we don’t overlook the achievements and freedom of women at all, which will be frustrating… but will also demonstrate the presence of the very blindspot it attempts to deny. And so it goes.

All I can say in response is that the feeling that comes from having this particular cultural myopia pointed out to oneself – which always feels to me a little like being debagged in a public space, though less severe each time – is perhaps best looked at in the same way as the muscular pain that comes from unaccustomed heavy exercise, or that brain-stretched sensation that comes with learning something challenging and new. Does it feel like an unwarranted personal attack? Well, welcome to how a lot of women feel. All. Of. The. Time. Your mother, your wife or partner, your sister, your friends.

Oh, they haven’t told you that they felt that way? Well, perhaps there’s a reason for that. Give it some thought.

Anyways, here’s Annie Lennox and a bunch of successful British women discussing the meaning of feminism in the 21st Century. A quote from novelist Monica Ali:

There’s a perception that as countries develop economically issues of gender and inequality will automatically get better, whereas the whole thing needs to be stood on its head so that gender inequality is at the very centre of it all. A lot of studies show that if you focus on women’s rights that in itself is an engine for development. Female literacy rates strongly correlate with fertility rates, so if you educate women you will have fewer and healthier children. If you invest in women, the money they make will then be more likely to be invested in their families and local communities. Gender isn’t something to be dragged along behind.

As we look to the changes in the Middle East, and as our governments ponder what sort of intervention methods will best suit their long-term interests there, let’s at least all spare a moment to imagine the difference that investing in education and literacy could make to the lives of the less-fortunate, and speak in favour of it. Silence is complicity. And remember that while the situation for women in the West is much improved by comparison to those in developing nations, equality gets more lip-service than air-time. I am guilty of this, too, but I am working to do better. Perhaps you will, too.

Every woman is your sister. Every one.

What will publishing look like a decade from now?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2010

Via a whole bunch of sources comes this piece by former publisher Richard Nash at Galleycat – an eight-point bullet list of the changes he expects to see in the publishing industry over the next ten years. [image by adactio]

There’s nothing in there that you’ll not have heard from various prophets of hegemonic disruption, but to have a former publisher repeating it on a site which is very much a core industry organ (at least in the online sphere) suggests a certain degree of grudging acceptance of the changes coming down the pike. Here’s a couple of my favourites:

6. In 2020 we will look back on the last days of publishing and realize that it was not a surfeit of capitalism that killed it, but rather an addiction to a mishmash of Industrial Revolution practices that killed it, including a Fordist any color so long as it is black attitude to packaging the product, a Sloanist hierarchical management approach to decision making, and a GM-esque continual rearranging of divisions like deck chairs on the Titanic based on internal management preferences rather than consumer preferences.

7. In 2020 some people will still look back on recent decades as a Golden Age, just as some now look back on the 1950’s as a Golden Age, notwithstanding that the Age was golden largely for white men in tweed jackets who got to edit and review one another and congratulate one another for permitting a few women and the occasional Black man into the club.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.

The Internet is Not Democratising

Tom James @ 03-06-2008

New ideas are always interesting, and they are the bread and butter of good science fiction.

Here’s one: suppose the Internet is not the democratic, equalising, freedom-enhancing system it has been portrayed as? This network of computer networks has supposedly had the greatest democratising influence on freedom of speech and expression since the invention of the printing press.

But wars are still fought, prisoners are still tortured, dictators still grinding their people into the ground, and the oil price is rocketing. We have the Internet now: why hasn’t all that bad stuff stopped yet?

If you only read one lengthy article this month let it be this essay called The Liberizing Ideology of the Internet by a poet called Jesper Bernes.

Bernes’ basic argument is that the idea that the Internet is democratising and liberalising is wrong. A few controlphrases stand out:

The internet is a screen, a series of screens. It’s true: everyone can have their own blog, can publish their poems online so that the whole world can not read them, can peruse and produce the contents of the internet freely (in all senses of this word). But below this level of freedom, this level of leveling and equalization, the old exclusions and inequalities still obtain—differences in literacy and knowledge, differences in access to free time, differences in positionality with regard to social networks and cultural capital.

The essay is full of high-brow ideological arguments, which are interesting in their own right, but the basic idea is remarkable for the fact that it is not one that is often read or heard. It is that the Internet is just another system of control:

Essentially, with the internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people webcan work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date.

This isn’t a luddite argument: the Internet is a valuable and necessary tool, and there’s a lot of stuff in Bernes’ article I don’t entirely understand, and of what I do understand there’s some I don’t agree with. I’ve never felt comfortable talking about politics in terms of ideologies like socialism or capitalism, or of economics in terms of class. I prefer to discuss politics in terms of policy and pragmatism.

I’m aware of the irony of suggesting the Internet isn’t a force for freedom of speech in a blog: but it’s always worth bearing contrarian opinions in mind.

What is the reality of the Internet? Is it genuinely revolutionary, or does it “virtualise and disembody resistance” as Bernes suggests? These are perfect questions for science fiction to explore.

[via Jon Taplin’s Blog][link to Little Red’s Recovery Room][images by MR+G and renatotarga]

The male birth control pill is not a feminist issue

Paul Raven @ 29-04-2008

Contraceptive pill blister packGeorge Dvorsky has a lengthy post discussing the development of the Male Birth Control Pill … or rather the lack of development, which he puts down to a number of factors including male reticence and reluctance from the big pharmacological companies. And militant feminists, too:

“For those men who truly don’t want to have children—something that is completely within their rights—the MBCP will help them achieve that level of control.

And again, female claims that this will allow men to forever shirk their paternal responsibilities and live in perpetual adolescence are not just gross generalizations, but sexist statements of the highest order.”

Now, I’m pretty positive Dvorsky is overstating the case here so as to provoke some discussion; it wouldn’t be the first time (e.g. “meat-eaters are bad people“), and I can’t think of any women I know who’d argue the line described above.

But the issue of complete control over the functions of one’s own body that Dvorsky raises – his central theme as a transhumanist – is an interesting one, because it has wider implications. Moving towards equality, across lines of gender or otherwise, may come with costs as well as gains at an individual level.

What do we want to gain, and what are we prepared to give up for it? [image by Beppie K]