Suarez, and inconsistent vs disproportionate responses

Those of you who watch football might have heard of Luis Suarez, and in particular of his habit (if three instances counts as a habit) of occasionally biting opponents in the heat of battle. I want to briefly offer a distinction for your consideration, because – as is so often the case on social media – the reactions to his most recent offence have tended towards the hysterical.

The most recent offence occurred in a World Cup game where Uruguay beat (and in consequence, eliminated) Italy. Suarez. The video below clearly shows Suarez lining himself up for a chomp at Chiellini’s shoulder, and Fifa are currently discussing how long Suarez should be banned for (6000 has the scoop on that, by the way).

There’s no question that Suarez deserves sanctions of some sort. And this is where the distinction comes in: one can – and should – separate the issue of what a proportionate punishment would be from the issue of whether we’re treating this case as we treat similar (or worse) offences.

Just like in the last World Cup, when Suarez handballed against Ghana, some folk seem to want him hung, drawn and quartered. The reaction was disproportionate then, especially in South Africa, perhaps thanks to our bizarre adoption of Ghana as our surrogate team. Suarez is a nasty piece of work, as far as I can tell – there’s the three instances of biting, the racism, and the fact that he’s rather good yet plays for Liverpool.

But despite this, we shouldn’t let the fact that biting someone seems particularly strange – animalistic – obscure the fact that biting someone is a far less serious offence than repeated violent play, of the sort that can break legs and end careers. Our reactions to Suarez are inconsistent with our reactions to other serial offenders, who offend in ways other than biting.

Take Pepe as example, with reference to the video below:

Pepe attracts cards fairly frequently – 42 yellow cards and 5 red cards over the years 2008 to 2012 – as one might expect after watching that clip. Yet while the intensity and regularity of his violence attract comment from football fans along the lines of “he’s a dirty bastard” or what have you, I don’t see many people calling for a lifetime ban or many months of suspension.

But tell me: would you rather play against Suarez, with the possibility that he might take a bite of your arm or shoulder, or against Pepe, who might kick you in the head while you’re lying on the turf? As disreputable as Suarez might be – and this fantastic ESPN profile is worth a read, to see his history in this regard, as well as the lengths people go to to defend him – his offences are more notable for their sheer oddity than for their brutality, and we should keep this in mind when calling for his head.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the usefulness (or not) of philosophy

abou-tyson2Neil deGrasse Tyson has provoked some debate on the value of philosophy and its role in relation to science, following comments that he made on the Nerdist podcast in March this year. He’s not the first scientist to question the value of philosophy, and the most recent high-profile case was Lawrence Krauss, who (in a 2012 interview) said:

Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.

In short, he’s saying that the space remaining in which philosophy might make an important contribution to physics shrinks all the time. I agree with that, but Continue reading “Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the usefulness (or not) of philosophy”

No, voyeurism is not a “human right”

Much of what I end up writing here has to do with the nuances of some or other situation. Whether I get things right or wrong is your call to make, but hopefully many of you read what I post because you at least agree that the simple or instinctive reaction is often wrong, or incomplete at best. And in another example of how hype and hyperbole can people to switch off their brains, this morning I heard a caller to Redi Tlhabi’s show trying to make the case that his human rights were being violated, as he was unable to watch or listen to all of the Oscar Pistorius trial.

I don’t know the details (I’m not following the trial, except through the occasional summary recap or meta-commentary like 6000’s archives of the “insight” our journalists are occasionally displaying on Twitter), but some things can be seen and some not, some can be live and some delayed, and so forth. Cricket bats sound like gunshots, and if you’re a white model, you get to have your “dignity” preserved in death in a way that Anene Booysen never could.

The caller thought it grossly unfair – a rights violation – that he couldn’t follow the soap-opera, even though the outcome of it makes no difference to his life. Furthermore, the fact that two courtrooms had been set up for journalists to be able to observe proceedings was also grossly iniquitous – why them and not me, Lord? As I’ve argued in a different context, if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should shouldn’t be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.

Gender-based violence and apophenia

Earlier today, my friend @kelltrill said

and this led to a little bit of to-and-fro between her and some others who seemed to think it somehow obvious that if Oscar Pistorius had intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp, it would have to be classified as gender-based violence. Now, that might be typical usage of the phrase gender-based violence. But if it is, I’d like to suggest to you that it’s wrong, and lazy, to speak of cases like this (i.e. a man killing a woman) as axiomatically gender-based.

Steenkamp & PistoriusNone of what I say here is intended to minimise or trivialise the fact that women are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of domestic assault by their partners than men are. There are hundreds of things I could link you to, but the evidence is so overwhelming that there’s no need – you can easily find something yourself. (And in case any MRA’s happen to wander past here, no, I’m not saying that men aren’t sometimes victims of various forms of discrimination themselves.)

Furthermore, I’m quite happy to regard this case as at least in part an instance of gender-based violence (on the assumption, for the sake of argument, that Pistorius intended to shoot Steenkamp). I’m happy to do so because Pistorius fits a classic alpha-male stereotype – proud, strong, with a history of short-temperedness and violence. The stereotype might not fit or be fair, but I’m disclosing it to wall it off, in that this case in particular is not my focus – I want to instead address the use of that generalisation (gender-based violence), with the case as a springboard for doing so.

The mere fact that a victim is female (or whatever) does not mean that the violence can be described as whatever-based. If Pistorius knew that he was shooting Steenkamp, then – obviously – the most fitting label for this action is Steenkamp-based violence, where Steenkamp is also a woman.

Even if it’s true (as it is) that more men abuse and kill their female partners than vice-versa, Pistorius can’t be known to have been more likely to shoot Steenkamp than he would be to shoot anyone else who he was ill-disposed to, or where he could benefit from doing so.

If a person had a history of violence against a certain sex, race, nationality or whatever, the generalisation has more merit – but before establishing whether those facts hold, we shouldn’t jump from a) the existence of a general culture of violence against X to b) the conclusion that a particular instance of violence against X fits that pattern.

I’ve argued something similar in a post about “Satanic” killings, where while it’s easy to generalise, doing so can obscure important details about motivation and how we should respond (for example, that psychiatrists might be more useful commentators than ghostbusters like Kobus Jonker).

The same danger of over-generalising in a confounding sort of way could occur with a murder or assault that is perpetrated across races – in South Africa, entrenched distrust between races could (more in some parts of the country than others) explain the motivations behind a murder, but they can’t be assumed to do so.

Take Eugene Terre’Blanche as an example: yes, he was a white supremacist, but the farmworkers who murdered him might have done so because he was also an abusive employer, or a rapist (as the murderers alleged). So while you could call that an instance of race-based violence, doing so would (or, could) distract from more pertinent details.

In short, what I’m arguing is that we should be careful of affixing convenient labels to events or people, even if they are often true. Harriet Hall has a review of an interesting-looking new book on critical thinking on Science-based Medicine, where I was introduced to a useful idea I hadn’t encountered before. It’s called apophenia, and

It means the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena, the tendency to find personal information in noise, seeing patterns where there are none, the kind of subjective validation that cold reading exploits.

To recap: I don’t dispute that gender-based violence is a real thing, and a real problem. But to call every instance of violence across genders (usually male on female) an example of gender-based violence is hyperbolic, in that it might be a judgement that claims more than what the evidence tells us.

This, in turn, could be problematic, not only because it’s a simple instance of laziness in not making fine discriminations regarding what data can tell us, but also because the more things you fit into a category, the more diluted that category might become.

It’s precisely because gender-based violence is such a real thing, and is such a problem, that we might want to be more cautious about affixing that label to cases that it might not fit.

Please look after the place while I’m gone

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesIt’s time for a holiday. In a literal sense, because I am about to go off to a conference in Las Vegas (where some amount of holiday is difficult to avoid), but also in the more general sense of taking a break from what has become routine. One of those things is obsessing over the nuances of South Africa’s racial politics, and another is this column.

The optimism on display at the Agang launch earlier today was good to see. Many of you might share my fatigue at the constant succession of stories that don’t promote optimism – from the classification of the Nkandla report as top secret, to the ad hominem abuse of opposition parliamentarians. Last week, we even heard the absurdist – yet sadly apposite – story of how the very ambulance taking Mandela to hospital ran out of energy.

In the midst of all this, I had a Twitter argument with a black man over Dan Roodt – where I was criticising Roodt’s myopic nationalism and cherry-picking of evidence related to who was killing more of whom, and my interlocutor was defending Roodt’s right to hold those views. As long as the argument went on, I couldn’t persuade this man that while I agree that Roodt’s views can be held and freely expressed, we should certainly be on the same side in condemning them.

So, it’s a South Africa where a white liberal can now find himself disagreeing with someone (who has almost certainly borne a larger share of apartheid’s burdens) over whether a racist Afrikaner nationalist has a worthwhile point of view or not. These are strange days, indeed.

This isn’t to say that I share the pessimism that many seem to feel. I’d like to take a break from a certain form of engagement, a certain sort of discourse. Many of you might already avoid social media for exactly this reason – it’s too full of over-confident ad hoc opinions that tend towards the extremes. Depending on who you listen to, either we’re doomed or we’re in great shape, with little room for any position in-between.

The truth is most likely in-between, though, as it ever is. We’ll one day be rid of Zuma, and we’ll one day somehow get to a stage where we’re a democracy in more than only name – in other words, where the incumbent party feels the real possibility of losing power, and is thus fully motivated to do its job.

In the meanwhile, there’s plenty going on that’s far more local, far more manageable, and where it’s far easier for any and each of us to make an impact. If there’s no community project you can or want to get involved with, give to an organisation or charity that does things you support – Equal Education, DignitySA, a hospice, a hospital.

And, easiest of all, remember that each of us incentivises (and dis-incentivises) certain attitudes, behaviour and speech every day, simply though what we present to others as permissible or advisable. If you have kids, they will learn about how to treat others through you. If you have students, they learn how to think through you. Even in matters most prosaic – if you keep jumping the red light or rolling through the stop sign, don’t be surprised to see that behaviour becoming common.

In short, we can all contribute to upholding a social contract without indulging in the sanctimony of a LeadSA – and our despondency at the examples set by government sometimes allows us to forget that. We might think: with such a rot at the top, what difference does it make what I do? But for all the large-scale importance of what happens at the top, we affect each other’s lives frequently, and could sometimes do with a reminder that not everything can be blamed on the man in the high castle.

One of the things I’ve tried to do in most of the 158 columns I’ve written for the Daily Maverick is to deflate our certainty on various firm convictions. This is because oftentimes, it seems that we cede our responsibility to come to a reasoned conclusion and instead settle for something ready-made by emotion, political conviction or some other powerful force. In consequence, we’re less able to talk, debate and learn, and more often compelled to resort to the safety of stereotype.

In a young country, with a crippled education system, a corrupt administration, widespread economic inequality and still-seething racial tensions, the last thing we’d want to do is to stop thinking. So let’s not – and let’s keep encouraging each other to keep at it too. I’ll certainly be back to play my part – at this point it’s just not clear where or when that will be.

Dennett’s ‘seven tools for thinking’

In 2009, I had the great pleasure of sharing a number of meals and pub-sessions with Dan Dennett, when he visited South Africa for a series of lectures. The picture below is of his first encounter with something called a “bunny chow” – a hollowed-out section of bread, filled with curry. Since meeting him then, he’s always been exceedingly generous with his time and thoughtful input when requested, as I’m sure any of you who have dealt with him would concur.

Dennett-2009-298x300In case you hadn’t noticed, he has a new book out which looks well-worth our time and attention. It’s titled “Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking“, and is certainly next in line for consumption on my Kindle.

The Guardian recently carried an excerpt detailing “seven tools for thinking”. Number two on that list is certainly one I wish more of our “community” would take to heart, and deals with the tendency to caricature our opponent’s positions. I’ll paste an snippet below, but please go and read the rest – we could do with a reminder in many of these respects.

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

The idea of an afterlife

Of course it can be tempting to believe in the afterlife, because it reassures or comforts – perhaps we’ll see the loved one again, and perhaps (sometimes) we’ll get to shrug off some guilt we’re now left with because of hurtful things we said or did. But notice, especially with that last set of motivations, that selfishness is the governing principle, rather than a tribute to the deceased or the memory of them. If we did want to somehow acknowledge those that have left us, I’d imagine that satisfying the demands of our egos in that fashion would not be what they would recommend or hope for (if able to recommend or hope for anything).

But giving up on the belief in an afterlife does not mean that we have to give up on commemorating the lives of those we’ve lost. Rituals of significance are popular for all of us, even non-believers, and often deservedly so. They provide a narrative force that punctuates our existence, bookmarking our progress or regress, coming into and leaving existence. Weddings, birthdays, and funerals play this role, and we can engage in all of these sorts of things with as much or as little commitment to metaphysics as we like.

ghostFor a while, many decades ago, I used to light a candle on the anniversary of a particular person’s death, because he was such a treasured friend that I felt something was amiss if I didn’t remember him. Of course, that’s close to superstition. But it made me feel better, and that’s surely a respectable motivation, even if it isn’t the strongest one?

There is of course a range of significance to fictions, including the dabbling with the idea of an afterlife that might seem tempting in the immediate days after someone’s death. Fictions that allow you to sweep child molestation under the rug, to justify misogyny, or cause you to pray over a child while she dies instead of rushing her to hospital are clearly deeply significant. In addition to this spectrum of significance, it is to my mind indisputable that whether something is true or not matters.

In many cases, wishing that there were an afterlife is probably trivial. However, if a belief in an afterlife allows you to neglect duties in your “real” life, thinking you have time to make amends later, or allows you to think that your real obligations are in the hereafter rather than now (think, for example, of religiously motivated suicide bombers), then the belief can contribute to serious harms. And, because there aren’t any effective ways of preventing false beliefs from taking on these harmful forms, perhaps it’s better to avoid them as much as possible.

Even then, this shouldn’t mean telling the grieving mother that no, her child is not in heaven. But it does mean that we shouldn’t encourage such beliefs. And, not encouraging them doesn’t mean that we need to treat the deceased as if they never lived, or never meant anything to us at all.

Alain de Botton: 10 virtues for atheists

I really can’t make my mind up about Alain de Botton. Part of me finds him insufferable, thanks to what appears to be his perpetual smugness, as well as his fondness for translating complex ideas into aphorisms that could fit on a chewing-gum wrapper. But then, much as the equally (to me, at least) annoying Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World brought philosophy to people who otherwise wouldn’t read or think about it, perhaps de Botton does more good than harm. Nobody expects more from him than vaguely inspirational “deep thoughts”, so it’s entirely possible that part of my annoyance is mere jealousy at how he’s cornered the atheist version of the Deepak Chopra market. And that, in doing so, he’s getting people to think about worthwhile and interesting things.

But at a time when some really interesting conversations are being had between Loxton, Myers, Novella and others on the delimitations of skepticism, it’s particularly annoying that de Botton’s recent list of what are variously described as “virtues”, “commandments” or “guidelines” are being marketed as “for atheists”. First, because it plays into the hands of those who think atheists need such a list – ie. that we are any more value-deficient than any other “group” of people; and second because it seems to assume we are a “group” of people in any relevant sense, besides simply sharing disbelief in gods as part of our mental furniture. (I realise that this could open conversations about “dictionary atheists” and the like, but I really hope it doesn’t.)

So, in the midst of an interesting discussion regarding how to define a particular shared interest and those who hold that interest, here were have a lazy demarcation of “atheists” and “other” – and when you see the list, you’ll no doubt observe that there seems little that is specific to atheism, and little that can’t simply be described as “guidelines for conscious creatures”, or somesuch.

De Botton has previous form in the game of oversimplification, of course – in Religion for Atheists, he straw-manned new atheism in support of his creation, atheism 2.0, and then in 2012 he suggested the erection of a “temple to atheism“. There are many good ideas hidden in both of these initiatives, but also plenty of platitudes. As I said at the time, “de Botton is dressing up the obvious as if it’s insightful. And his further explanation of how he thinks these are good ideas don’t make them appear any more so”. So it is with the 10 virtues for atheists, which are:

  1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
  4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
  6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.
  7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.
  9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

It’s fairly obvious what’s going on here. He intends this list as a substitute for the Biblical 10 commandments – but doesn’t want to call them “commandments” (note, some newspapers have called them that, but he doesn’t), because that will too obviously invite ridicule from atheists telling him things like “atheism is not a religion”, as well as glee from theists saying “look, atheism is like a religion!” So, he loses the rhetorical force being able to call them “commandments” would have provided through superseding the Biblical commandments and making them redundant.

But they are already redundant to atheists, and superseded by a non-belief in gods and their hypothetical commandments. Furthermore, these are values most of us – whether religious or not – already have. So, he’s trading on an existing set of commandments – but only indirectly – and then doing so in a way which highlights the false distinction he’s making between atheists and everybody else. As a result, the list appears ever more opportunistic, and simplistic. And, of course, annoying – even though there’s very little wrong with the list itself.

Setting aside our differences

Originally published at the Daily Maverick

Daily Maverick readers will no doubt have noticed that last week, many of this community of opinionistas, editors and journalists congregated for The Gathering 2.0. A fair number of you were there too, and those I spoke with – readers and contributors alike – confirmed that they got as much value out of it as I did.

One key factor in its success, at least as far as I’m concerned, had to do with the value of community, shared goals and aspirations. Finding common ground and room for collaboration has always been difficult, and it has perhaps become increasingly difficult in a world of sharply divided identities and rather loud disagreements.

As was the case at the first Gathering two years ago, I was struck by the sense of a common purpose and shared commitment to finding solutions for South Africa and its developmental and political troubles. Sure, we sometimes disagreed on what those solutions should be, but there was little doubting our sincerity in looking for them.

It’s rare, though, to get to have these conversations in rooms without hostile commenters, and where a combination of ticket prices, self-selection and invitations extended pretty much ensured that people were going to be respectful, even when they disagreed. Out there on the Internet, or in more typical gatherings, civility and respect are not so easily guaranteed.

One thing that has certainly changed for me in the time between these two gatherings is my desire to attempt to be more sympathetic to the reasons why people disagree on goals and strategy – especially in the area of religion, where most of my attempted interventions take place.

Those of you who follow the endless squabbles in the secular, sceptical, or atheist community will know that fighting with each other is as much a part of the game as combating religious dogma is. And this isn’t only because there can be dogmatism and unreason on the non-religious side too – which there certainly can be – but also because everyone is sometimes guilty of being more interested in being right than in making progress.

Making progress – whether it be finding a political solution to a seemingly intractable problem, or persuading the rank-and-file Catholic to join you in publicly denouncing a child-abuse-enabling Cardinal – sometimes requires collaboration rather than antagonism. And, the former is more often appropriate than the latter is, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong – there is room for anger, and there is room for the sharpest criticism. Not only because the sharp criticism can inspire others to break with a tradition or belief, or serve as a lightning rod for debate, but also because it’s sometimes deserved.

The column I abandoned writing this week was going to amount to an extended insult (on issues, rather than ad hominem) directed at Blade Nzimande, and (leaving aside the fact that he would probably never have noticed it) attacking him seems permissible because he is presumably capable of brushing it off.

Likewise, I can feel more comfortable attacking Ray MacCauley rather than his parishioners, or the quack Professor or Doctor rather than those that change their diets or medical regimes on his or her advice. Because we all make mistakes, and while we should all sometimes know better, those of us in authority or with the expertise required to make the judgement in question should know best of all.

But as with any area of contestation – and especially in what I’m confident is an Internet-fuelled tribalism and hyperbole – caricatures so often win out over trying to find common ground. On the pro-science and secular side (and note the false dichotomy there – as if the religious can’t be pro-science, just like pro-life invites the caricature of “anti-life”), what community there is is partly premised on a caricature of the “other”, just like religious folk can easily point to some obnoxious atheist they know and use that person as their baseline for understanding non-believers.

What I worry about in these cartoonish versions of reality is firstly the possibility that we’re forsaking opportunities to learn things – about each other, about difference, about persuasion; and second that we’re impeding progress towards what could in many instances be common goals.

A significant proportion of secular activism – at least on the web – currently consists of people mindlessly (or so it appears) sharing photographs of a Hitchens or Sagan looking thoughtful, and accompanied by an inspirational (or blasphemous) quote. Often, these imagines will come from Facebook groups such as “I fu**ing love science” – as if saying so makes it true.

It doesn’t make it true. Mostly, we love the false impression of community that’s gained through imagining that the other – whether it be the unscientific, Bronze Age-mythology believing monotheist, or the dogmatic, immoral and cruel New Atheist – through the eyes of our respective prejudices.

I’m currently (too slowly) working on a review of Chris Stedman’s provocative new book “Faitheist” (edit: review now posted here), in which he makes the case for atheists “reaching across the aisle” and getting involved in interfaith efforts aimed at bettering lives. As he puts it somewhere in the book: “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to change the world?”

These goals are of course not mutually exclusive, but in our eagerness to caricature each other, I worry that we lose sight of the possibility that focusing on the latter could contribute to achieving the former. More to the point, it could do so at a lower cost than encouraging divisiveness does, because the partisan outlook obscures the fact that we probably have more in common than what divides us.

Of course we need to keep asking whether beliefs are true or not, while encouraging people to discard untrue beliefs where possible, even if they are comforting. But no matter how often we ask those questions, they will have no effect unless someone is listening. And why should anyone listen, when it’s clear that the person asking you to listen has no interest in conversation?

The tragedy of absurdity – on Holmes and the Batman shootings

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Last week’s shootings in Aurora, Colorado brought to mind the power of absurdity. Amid all the speculation regarding what motivated James Holmes to open fire on a crowd of moviegoers – killing 12 and injuring dozens – we can safely assume that there at least was a motivation or a reason. But it might not be something we can relate to, and in at least one sense, it will be absurd.

Much of the speculation as to Holmes’s potential motive is of course also absurd: from pastor Rick Warren’s claim (edit: he claims misinterpretation) that the teaching of evolution is somehow to blame, to the equally idiotic assertion that the killings are the result of the teachings of Christianity. Most if not all armchair psychologising about cases like this is little more than an opportunity for people on the sidelines to air their fears or prejudices.

Without speculating on his motives, then, we can still say that some set of deliberations led him to plan and execute this attack. And the narrative underpinning those deliberations would have been absurd, because whatever he thought the act would demonstrate, or whomever he thought it would punish, it would inevitably fall short of succeeding in its goals.

To wit: If he intended to kill people of a certain demographic or class, the quality of his targeting was clearly absurd, in that the victims were essentially chosen at random. If he meant to send a message, we’ve not yet been given to clue as to what it is, nor are we inclined to being persuaded by messages delivered in such a fashion.

The only long-term effect on the world from actions such as these is to inconvenience future cinemagoers, who will most likely soon have to pass through security checkpoints to get into the theatre. Minds won’t be changed, whether that of a lover or a god you intended to impress, or those of a set of politicians or bankers you wanted to chastise. In all these cases, the act and the motivation for it will be absurd.

And of course, a heavy price is paid for such a vanishingly small or nonexistent reward. This is the power of absurdity – we define the groups or ideologies we belong to abstractly, to the extent that our political or religious identities become unfalsifiable or irrefutable. Sometimes, we kill, fight and die for ideas, even those that we think will only manifest in an afterlife.

More broadly, communal commitment to the same set of beliefs, whether absurd or not, deepens trust and galvanises group solidarity. We demonstrate our commitment in our actions; and the more elaborate and apparently heartfelt those actions are the more convincing and persuasive they appear to an audience. This can in turn grow the audience or the community, in that they are attracted to the sincerity and solidarity they observe.

When the Pope washes the feet of worshippers, for example, the gesture is costly because it sacrifices power and ego. It’s intended to be a hard-to-fake symbol of commitment to higher powers, or to a shared set of beliefs – this is part of what makes those commitments or beliefs more likely to be adopted by an audience.

Holmes’s gesture was more costly. Clearly so in the case of those who were injured or lost their lives, as well as their families and friends, but also for Holmes himself, who faces certain loss of freedom in one form or another and even potential loss of life (capital punishment is legal in Colorado, even though the last death sentence was handed down in 1987, and then finally executed in 1997). It’s tempting, therefore, to speculate as to some grand motive, because the motive needs to be grand enough to allow us to reconcile these costs.

But perhaps the speculation is always more for our own comfort than anything else, given that you can’t explain the absurd. That is partly the point of these gestures and narratives – they are designed to be un-interpretable and outlandish, because that’s how they perform the task of separating “us” from “them”. We distinguish between cultures not only on the grounds of things like language, but also through ritual, and if the rituals are too easy to fake they become less useful tools for doing so.

To some extent, we now have what one might call universal religions or cultures – things like democracy, human rights and so forth – and various commitment devices that indicate our membership of these religions or cultures. As with all religions, costly gestures indicate greater commitment. If it is inconvenient for you to cast your vote, yet you still do so, you’ll appear to care more for democracy than someone who can’t be bothered to vote. If you spend 27 years in prison, you’ll appear to care even more.

We can’t yet know what religion, culture, or identity Holmes was demonstrating commitment to, and perhaps we never will. Perhaps he was doing nothing of the sort, and we’ll later discover that this (ex) PhD student in neuroscience should himself be a case-study of a certain sort of brain abnormality which predicts this behaviour better than any speculations as to his hypothetical beliefs could do.

Or, more worryingly for those who’d like to take comfort in a narrative – any narrative – that might bring something resembling sense to this tragedy, events like this could simply be a reminder that those universal religions many of us take for granted aren’t yet as firmly rooted in modern cultures as we’d like to believe, and that there’s still plenty of work to be done.