Not my first global pandemic

Make a list of everyone with whom you’ve had contact, in the last 2 weeks, where you spent more than an hour together and anyone present wasn’t wearing a mask. The reported infection rate in the US, based on tests, is 1.1%. The actual infection rate is somewhere between 6-24 times higher. So, being optimistic, let’s say 6.6% (though it varies by region quite a lot.) Is your list longer than 15 people?

Now consider the lists of all the people on your list. Are any of them social butterflies? Have they been traveling? Have they been working? Are any of them working with COVID-19 patients? Do any of them work at restaurants? How intimate is their level of contact? Are any of them carrying COVID-19? Do you know, or could you even find out?

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The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of all people. Events of the last year (ish) have challenged that idea for me. I think your dignity comes from how you live your life. How you carry yourself, represent yourself. Your observable integrity is the source of your dignity. Something like that anyway.

And your worth is what you bring to the world, whatever size your world is. It may well just be you. What value do you bring yourself?

These are not inherent qualities. They’re derived, consequences of beliefs held and actions taken. This can’t be what UU means. This is my crisis of faith, and here is my first attempt at a partial solution. (It’s after midnight and I’m having terrible insomnia. Stream of consciousness follows.)

If you have in your inventory a Narcan spray, and you find someone who has had too much heroin, you do not consider how valuable the person is, for any definition of “value,” before giving them the Narcan and calling emergency services. There are no conditions attached; someone will die if you don’t intervene, so you intervene, and that’s that.

What is it about that person’s life that makes the choice for you? Whatever it is, that must be their “inherent worth”, or at least one part of it.

If someone is facing charges, no matter the crime, no matter the evidence, we give them a fair trial. (Well, we pretend to, anyway.) What is it about them that guarantees the right to a trial? Even if they enter the courtroom and there’s no question what they’ve done, all the procedure is still followed. Whatever it is, I’m calling it their “inherent dignity” (or at least one aspect of it). No disgrace takes it away. But what is it?

I believe the answer is diversity. There is no other human like that one, and for that reason alone, they’re worth saving. That’s the part of their worth and dignity that is inherent.

This stigma sucks.

Everybody’s different. Every body‘s different. Every mind is unique and special. We humans are all the same in the most important ways, and different in the most interesting ways. Some we celebrate. Some we oppose. Some we just don’t talk about. We say, at most, that there’s a stigma around such-and-such difference. How sad that there’s a stigma around it. And then the conversation ends, because what “stigma” really means is just “I recognize that this taboo hurts people, but I’m not willing to stand up for them.” Be honest about it. What have you done to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, other than maybe talk about it when someone who isn’t like you makes the cover of Time magazine?

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The Only War Worth Fighting

English is so full of violence. It’s a fight, a struggle, a war, to verb. Any value of “verb” will do. People fighting and dying, or going to verb or die trying. The language is almost as full of violent sayings as it is phrases taken from the Bible. Go a day and count how many times you say something that came from the Bible, and realize that no matter how much you don’t believe, you can’t avoid quoting scripture. Or talking about some kind of violence.

Here in the United States, we’ve had wars on terrorism and drugs and poverty and science and education, on top of all the military conflicts. (so, so many military conflicts. It’s like war is the only thing we even try to do.)

The only war that includes violence and is worth fighting is between two species that exist in different dimensions*. Biological creatures on one side, memetic creatures on the other. It is absolutely ethical and justified to kill a meme. I’d go so far as to say it’s our duty, when we find a hostile meme, to gang up on it, torture it to death, and display its corpse in the public square.

One of the most dangerous of the memes–the Hitler of memes, if you will–is the idea that by killing the right people, we can somehow make the world a better place. It’s diabolical. It keeps humans fighting each other and ignoring the creatures who are actively hurting us.

If only they would see… we actually do need to go to war, but not with people, not with nations. We don’t need to commit genocide, we need to commit memocide.

(* I mean “dimensions” in the popular, non-scientific sense; I mean it as a different place, or even a different kind of place, built on a different set of substrates than constitutes our Universe.)


The Internet has a broad range. At the very, very top, you have sites and groups dedicated to spreading positivity and pro-sociality however they can. Most of the places people spend most of their time are essentially neutral. And then there are the dark places.

There is no bottom to the Internet. It goes down forever. This is not a property of the Internet, however: it is a property of humanity. There is an upper limit to how good we can be, but there is no bound on our potential for evil.

Previous generations have been able to mostly ignore their darker sides. That’s a two-edged sword. Facing demons isn’t fun. On the other hand, the consequences of a society that hasn’t faced its demons could be disasterous.

In a mostly successful attempt to make the Internet a more accessible place for people with language barriers (including some disabilities), emoji have become part of Unicode, and expanded far beyond the limits of sanity.

Before emoji, there were emoticons. We had Latin-1 (and called it ASCII) and we made do with sideways faces made out of punctuation marks. When everybody got UTF-8 on their terminals, we gained the ability to express shrugs, table-flips, lascivious glances, and more. These are still used occasionally but they’re not very convenient for most users, so the standards are emoji and emoticons still.

Emoji have bent over backwards to be inclusive of marginalized groups. Their vocabulary is not large enough to form a pidgin tongue, but they’re trying. If there is a language barrier between two people who want to cooperate, and they both have emoji in their toolbox, it won’t be long before they’re using them. These are fantastic developments.

Emoji have one nagging problem, though: the range of states you are allowed to express is narrow, and some of that is by design. We want the Internet to be a friendly and positive place, so we make more happy emoji than sad, and we try hard not to let people express anger. Emoji give people an emotional vocabulary that is too small, and contains a dangerous bias.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. The American “it could never happen here” is quickly giving way to “oh shit, it’s happening here.” In a world where it’s now possible to instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the globe, with whom your only commonality are humanity, it’s both possible and necessary (another two-sided coin) for us to expand–no, to complete–our emotional vocabulary and use it.