“Any Tool is a Weapon if You Hold it Right”

Posted by on November 18th, 2008 in activism, concepts, doomed future, ethics, Futurism, homework-assignment, identity, rage against the machine, sex, weapons, world hacks

I love people. I firmly believe people are smarter, more resilient, more adaptable and downright more awesome than even most people give themselves credit for.

But sometimes, people really piss me off.

That said? Let’s talk about Ontological Violence. For instance, the word on the street is that the ability of homosexuals to marry and gain the same legal and religious protections and rights as heterosexual couples actually damages the status of heterosexual marriage. According to ProtectMarriage.com, all California’s recently successfully passed Proposition 8 did was to “simply restore the meaning of marriage and protects it as an essential institution that has benefited mankind since the beginning of time.”  Search for the documentation backing other recently-enacted anti-gay marriage (or gay adoption) bills and amendments, you’ll find similar statements that make a very fuzzy distinction about where the line is drawn between defending our religious freedoms and impinging on the civil rights of others.

I don’t want to get bogged down here, debating the morality of gay marriage; there are plenty of other pundits who will tell you one version or another of their moral truth. What I’m more interested in is how the very idea of homosexual marriage and homosexuality in general is a threat. I want to talk about how progressive ideas of all stripes – be they subcultures, religions, sexuality, different loves or different goals are transformed in the media and in the hearts and minds of millions into a threat. How has love become a weapon in a war that, according to Protect Marriage,  has been going on since “the beginning of time?”  How has love become a thing that inherently does violence to – if polls are to be believed – a majority of the people in the United States?

Most importantly, however, since this isn’t a piece for Feministing or Feministe, I want to talk about what this means for Grinding, for transhumanism and for the people reading this site.

That people have a tendency to “Other” the people who are not them is not a strange new development. It’s the fodder for a thousand Philosophy 201 classes around the world every year. You can cite Buber, you can cite Heidegger, you could – if you wanted – discuss the tendency for Cartesian thought to make “Self” or “Not Other” the axis upon which existence spins. But on a practical level this does us no good. The entities immersed in the system we call the world (whom I like to refer to as “People”) still display an amazing ability to separate the world into dualities, most notably “Self” and Other.” And if something threatens that sense of Self – and really, anything that is Not-Self threatens Self by its very existence – many people are quick to interpret that Not-Self’s inherient existence as an act of violence.

Whoever you are reading this, there is something about you about what you think, feel, love, hate, fear or represent that makes you – in the eyes of someone else – a bomb. In a world where the media assures us there is a Culture War, we have moved past the point where “Everything is Political.” The politicization of your every action or inaction is now taken for granted. If there is a Culture War - and so many people tell me it’s real - then you, no matter your lifestyle, are not just political, you are weaponized. It only makes sense that in a world where information flows faster and faster between corners of the globe and the people living across it that ideas – especially “progressive ideas” – acquire the high velocity of a bullet. And in this world, there’s never just one bullet, but a hail of them. I grew up in a small community in which I literally did not know that homosexuals existed. Now they are my friends and lovers.  The world opens broader and brighter every day.

Here on Grinding, we talk about bodymods and cyborging and hacks and the bits of science that can push us that much farther beyond the narrow envelope of what is human. When our voices grow loud enough, when it stops being “the guy in the Olympics”, or “that girl with the forked tongue”, or “that kid who can feel your arphid chips in your wallet” – our collective voices will echo like a barrage of gunfire to someone. Given enough velocity, any idea threatening the envelopes of “Self” or “Human” Sounds like the crack of gunfire. Transhumanist voices will sound like violence. Just like queer voices or feminist voices or voices of colour, there will be those (there ARE those, look at Stem Cell research or the nascent anti-longevity movement) who interpret our ideas as a violence done to them.

Why? It’s beyond me. I have my theories, and I tend to point people back to Terence McKenna, Alastair Crowley, Grant Morrison, Robert Anton Wilson, Judith Butler, or maybe Emmanuel Levinas for my beliefs on why we shape our internal worlds like we do. But given this is Grinding and I’ve always got an eye towards practicality here – I want to talk about the stakes. In a world where the spaces between things and people shrink because of the power of interconnective technology what is conceivably on the line when – through the mere act of existing – groups perform violence on each other?

I’m going to take a page from our friends over at Project Marriage and take this back “to the beginning of time”. Well, I’m going to take this back before there were Christian marriages, which is apparently the same goddamned thing.  I’m going to take this little anthropological time machine all the way back to the time of the cave men.

Now I’m many things, but I’m not an Evolutionary Biologist. I’m also not an Anthropologist, but I think Mohinder from Heroes is supposed to be both of those things and if he can manage it, then it can’t be too hard. (Actually he’s a genetics professor apparently, but the joke stands.) However, I do want to talk about our former friends and neighbors, the Neanderthals. Now, we don’t know for certain what happened to the Neanderthrals. What  know they were wiped out. We are here gazing intently into our interweb-reading devices and they are religated to museums, crude graves, buried under rocks and in doomed to Geico commercials. We can construct a lot of narratives as to what happened to our genetically similar, broad-browed cousins, but the specifics, sadly are the domain of the past and as such are ever mutable. We can only ever add detail to the narratives of their passing, we can’t say for certain what made them pass. (Although I’m going to offer a few of my favourite ideas in a bit.)

Bottom line is that we (and by we, I mean Homo sapiens) won and they (and by they, I of course mean Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and let’s throw in Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus just to get the point across) lost. They lost the whole ball of wax in a game where the stakes are infinite and the play was cutthroat. But how did that happen? For about one hundred and fifty to two-hundred thousand years, they were the biggest game in town. The Neandrethals were everywhere in Eurasia and while their population numbers possibly peaked at somewhere around thirty-five to fifteen thousand, they were still the star players in town, assuming the name of the game was “build intelligent bipeds”. Then, you get a period of co-existence where our heroes the Neanderthals were sharing bits of land with the newest Human upstarts on the block – Humans, fresh, if the story is to be believed, out of Africa.

The Neanderthals may not have been as un-like us as high-school biology textbooks have led us to believe. In fact, researchers at the Max Plank Institute estimate that there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a 99.9% similarity between them and us. They used tools, and while those tools never reached the sophistication of Eurasian human tools, they theoretically weren’t too far off the “state of the art” at the time. They had fire. There is even evidence they may have had language: They had the pre-requisite musculature necessary for  human-like speech and they carry the exact same FOXP2 gene that we do – a gene tied to  the development of language skills. Prof. Steven Mithen even makes the claim that Neanderthals had a musical language that never bifurcated into two different tracks of cognition – one for language and one for music. Hell, according to some controversial findings, they may have even had musical instruments.

So what did we Humans have going for us? If the margin of survival between our two closely related groups was that narrow, what made the difference? Well, obviously weather had a lot to do with it. The weather in a lot of the areas the Neanderthals called home sucked and was not really conducive to a hunting-based society. But one serious advantage the Humans had in areas where we overlapped in harsh climes was that Humans had a “cultural cache:”  In other words we did more than hunt. We had a back-up plan. Plan B came in the form of rudimentary agriculture, whereas as best as we can tell, our Neanderthal buddies were strict hunters and carnivores. (And possibly cannibals, to boot.)

Our human ancestors also seem to have had larger social groups. While Neanderthals appear to have had small tight-knit family units, the proto-humans were forming things recognizable as communities. This of course, would have created greater social and linguistic sophistication. And as linguistic sophistication grows so does cognitive function. The Humans, by existing in larger communal structures would have been exposed to a greater range of ideas and variations. The Neanderthal would have had tradition and an extremely isolated small family unit, not facing the cognitive and social challenges that an increasingly networked proto-culture faced.

Perhaps they were simply unable to deal with the climate change of the ice age. Or perhaps when thrust into contact with our ancestors they had a sexy party and interbred (although recent studies show a great deal of doubt that there was ever an appreciable amount of interbreeding between the two competing species). There are a lot of theories on why we won out in the evolutionary sweepstakes, although perhaps the most believable (to me at least) is the one put forth by authors like Jared Diamond and Howard Bloom:  When and where these two vastly similar but very different cultures met they did what we all feel the reaction to do when encountering a perversion of “self” – they fought.

The proto-humans, being faster and having projectile weapons that the Neanderthals’ material culture never developed and – according to Bloom at least – harboring an instinctual and genetic drive to win – wiped out the Neandterthals wholesale.

Honestly, it was probably a mix of all of these things:  Climate change, differing community structures, different material cultures, outright naked aggression, scarcity of food. Me? I still leave a lot of room for the humans gaining the upper hand through the use of psychedelics, but I’ll leave “The Stoned Ape” to its own devices for now. What human culture shows in almost all of these scenarios is an ability to adapt faster than their opponents. More to the point, as author Bruce Sterling points out in his book Shaping Things, they appear to have possessed the ability to make mistakes and learn from them with a greater speed; a necessary skill for a successful culture.

The things that saw Humans win that race were not big things, really. Certainly  they were game-changing  ideas at the time: change how families work, orginize the old family units into tribes, divide labor tasks in case the present state changes so we’d have something to fall back on.  Our forebears were able to – and were forced to - try new things in case the old things stop working. These are lesions we should have learned from cavemen. Theirs was a live-or-die situation, certainly but how is now really any different?   

Look at the news, look at the polls. Over fifty percent of the people in this country (not even getting into other cultural and geopolitical morasses, here) do not have the ability to suspend their fear of the Other long enough, to embrace real change, to make mistakes at high velocity, to have a sense of self that is porous enough to allow other kinds of people to live their lives, to let love be not a weapon.

But here’s the part that keeps me up at night:  I love people.  If I didn’t, I think I’d be in a different line of work.  My fear is that the roots of Ontological Violence stem from way back in the day.  Back when two like species met each other on the world’s dusty plains and only one walked away. And the one that didn’t walk away? It had beauty, it had art, it was so much like us… but it didn’t adapt. It didn’t have the little ideas to enable a species to make it through the long haul.  Because of their inability or unwillingness to incorporate little ideas that by the light of the cities look like the simplest fucking things, they  wasted away, or we might have killed them. Who knows?  There’s no one left to tell their tales.

I still love people.

I think we’re capable of wonderful things. I think we’re capable of anything if we let go of our fear and our prejudices and the dogma that stops us from being able to learn and persevere and make new and exciting mistakes.

But I see people preaching hate on the street-corners, defending their god, their religion, and most of all their fears with hate, anger and bile. I can’t help but look at those people who see my Self as a violence against them, and wonder if they can adapt and survive and change. In those hate-filled faces I see for just a moment – despite my better nature – a big-nosed shaggy-headed singing Neanderthal watching in terror as people it cannot understand crest over the ridge with their cunning weapons and dangerous ideas. I can’t help but wonder if we freaks and queers and Others do, in fact, commit a violence against them. Because all of us - The outsiders, the pagans, the Grinders, the subculture kids, the futurists, the cyborgs, the freaks, the fags – all of us mutants and monsters?

If there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s adapt and try new ideas.

Maybe there is a Culture War. And maybe history is just repeating itself.

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27 Responses to ““Any Tool is a Weapon if You Hold it Right””

  1. Interesting point, but too much clickable stuff for my poor brain :P

  2. I really like dense hypertext. :)

  3. I took a few courses in biological anthropology so I feel it’s my duty to add a few amendments to this post, which, by the way, I LOVE (except for the following points). I don’t have my textbooks with me so this is from memory, and I’m sure these will also have to be corrected by someone with more expertise.

    1. Homo erectus/heidelbergensis didn’t lose, they are our and the Neandertals’ shared ancestors.

    2. There’s about 98% genetic similarity between us and chimpanzees, so 99% similarity between us and Neandertals isn’t all that surprising or meaningful.

    3. Neandertal stone tools surpassed those of our ancestors in elegance, beauty and design for a good long time until a certain point when our ancestors had a bit of a “design explosion”. Neandertals stuck with their lovely tried-and-true Mousterian handaxes (which are still arguably more beautiful than anything our ancestors made until the Neolithic revolution), and were only outdone when our ancestors started making a wider array of more specialized tools.

    4. Among countless theories and explanations for the mystery of the Neandertals’ extinction, there are some theories about the Neandertals that are as innocuous as a VHS/Beta analogue. Limited resources + competition = one small statistical advantage snowballs into eradication. It could have been just a sad quirk of statistics. There are lots of interesting theories, though, and not many of them rely on violence between the subspecies.

    5. The Neandertals were long gone before agriculture was even a glimmer in a Homo sapiens’ eye.

    6. This isn’t really a correction, but my impression of the Neandertals is that they were a much more elegant, spiritual and yet visceral subspecies than we were. They were burying their dead I think before we were, and they may have left flowers at graves and things like that, before there was any sign of that sot of behaviour in Homo sapiens. My personal belief is that the statistical advantage that our ancestors had was caused by the reduction in hunting-related injuries when we started using projectiles like pussies, while the Neandertals would literally wrestle their quarry to death using handaxes. There’s some research from the University of Toronto (my alma mater) that shows Neandertal bone injuries to be statistically similar to those of bullfighters. Our wimpy pointy-thing-throwing techniques (necessary due to our wimpy gracile skeletons and skulls compared to their durable build) was what made us the VHS to their Beta. But that’s just what I think. I believe we were both capable of innovation in different ways, but we were forced to innovate in a more cowardly way.

  4. @Elana – Sadly, my own Anthro clases are are distant memories, so I had to try and get by on a quick survey of the topic. Thanks a lot for the feedback, as I quipped elsewhere I wondered how much violence I’d be doing to Evolutionary Biology, myself :)

    As for a few of your points:

    3. I understand that the difference in technologies wasn’t so much a matter of sophistication, just a difference in techniques and material resources. One source I checked credited the Neanderthals as having excellent blunt tools and axes and the like, just not excelling in the area of ranged weapons and spears. Before of course specialization set in.

    4. Yeah, I figure it was a lot of different reasons. It was honestly probably a question of “Why did they die out in X area” as opposed to why did they die out in general, as though there was a mass extinction from one cause. There were probably little extinctions in all the pockets of Eurasia they lived in. Still, Bloom and Co make a good argument for an aggressive conflict when the two types of peoples came into contact with each other, with the faster, more versatile Humans coming out on top.

    5. Point. I misspoke. Or rather I conflated agriculture with stockpiling and gathering, which I understand was a deciding factor. S’hat you get when you send an English Major to do an Anthropologist’s job.

    6. I don’t disagree, to be honest. I’ve found references to musical instruments, like I said, and even where I’ve found things that claim the flowers at burial sites were not actually ceremonial, those researchers turn around and make the claim that they were medicinal in nature! I wouldn’t call our innovation cowardly, just that it was better for the numbers game. In the long game, that’s the idea, isn’t it?

    I hope I’m batting better than Mohinder, still, at least.

    After all is said and done, though, I’m glad you liked it.

  5. Bravo, good sir, bravo.
    And sure, wrestling a buffalo might be brave, but it’s also stupid and dangerous. Especially considering that a homo sapien is more likely to be seriously injured or killed while doing it.

  6. A very interesting article, and one whose points I agree with, but to play devil’s advocate for a moment; there is a whiff of self-promotional bias around your conclusion, casting yourself in the role of Winner in the culture war.

    I have to be honest, when I read it I was casting myself in the same role in assuming teh Win, but if Under Siege 2: Dark Territory taught us one thing it’s that assumption is the mother of all fuckups.

    It’s not enough for us merely to be clever and open to new ideas; we need strength in numbers and resources. In my mind this comes down to convincing as many people who *may* class themselves as our opponents as possible that a more progressive attitude can be beneficial to them.

  7. Good post. I think the progressives win, when we leave a broken, depleted, polluted planet earth to all those that fear us on our way to explore the galaxy. It’s a hope at least.

    As to the Neanderthals, is there any evidence that it might have been disease carried by an immune homo sapiens species that did them in; similar to how disease nearly wiped out the AmerIndians when the Europeans arrived?

  8. @seej – Of course I cast myself as winner. After all, “They” can’t win, can they? It’s a clever trap, that one… one very easy to fall into. And yeah, I actually do tend more towards the “conversion” or “making friends with them till the beg for mercy” route.

    It’s just sometimes, I’m in a Magneto frame of mind.

    @rick – There is in fact evidence for that scenario as well. Like I say to Elana above, there’s probably a whole lot of reasons they died out, depending on geographic area and circumstances.

  9. I want to design an exobiological uterus to manufacture your babies.

  10. If bonobos do it, it can’t be “wrong” — and I’ve always felt that Neanderthals simply couldn’t cope with an Ice Age in a way “modern” man could. And sometimes I think we still have some of them with us.

    What so-called “Traditional Values” idiots can’t see is they won’t stop progress. It’s the archreactionaries’s activities we need to negate by clear explanation. IE if we vote to take civil rights from one group today, what prevents our group from being targeted tomorrow

  11. First off, I agree with Damien on the babies part, and will construct one myself.

    Second, I think it’s very possible that the Culture War as talked about here is not what people tend to think of when they think of war but what you say here–more of an evolutionary war, where our very lives are, as you put it, a weapon in it.

    It’s a struggle I seen all the time–between the Traditionalists, who want everything to stay the same, and the Progressives, who will try anything new if it works. I’m not entirely sure if it’s as easy of a win for the Progressives as you somewhat imply–while we have the ideas and culture, it was shown earlier last month with the examples you mentioned that they definitely have the numbers.

  12. @Jared and Damien – Thanks for the womb-offers!

    @Jared – Yeah, it won’t be nearly as easy as I paint it, but I’m not above a little agitprop, you know? There’s a few links in there to Little Light’s stuff in there… I’d recommend checking out more of her work for some more poetic thoughts on the weaponization of love. “We” (tricky there, eh?) may not win, but I intend to go down fighting. And loving.

  13. with that much hyperlinks, you should probably make this into something akin to zero punctuation video game reviews. you know, read your text quickly and blend in appropriate images. that would make it available to a wider audience. i would certainly love the effort.

    the thought is intriguing. if i can hurt someone with my very existence and beliefs, i would say that’s pretty powerful. i was always wondering about how to start a proper religious war, but if all it takes is a bit of thinking, pondering and questioning authorities, then that’s a splendid arrangement!

    i used to be pretty hyped up about the psychedelic mindset a few years ago but managed to frustrate myself so much that i rarely get a glimpse of universal vision, even if properly boosted, but your essay is full of it. thank you. maybe a few more of those will jumpstart my cosmic consciousness again.

  14. While I am in no position to talk of your anthro studies, which others have already sought to correct you on, I do hope your conclusion is accurate. We seem to be at a crossroads here in the states. One direction leads to “Transmetropolitan”, the other leads to Religious rule. Just when I thought Bush’s end would see a downturn in bigotry, prop 8 passed in the same state that is home to San Fransisco and the silicon valley, with an actor governor. Change is a scary thing. Scary because it doesn’t seem to be coming near quick enough for me.

  15. Good post Kevin.
    (My-wife-the-ex-neuroscientist-shaman used a similar phrase to your title – “anything’s a weapon if you try hard enough” – in the unfortunate circumstance of answering a question from a US Customs officer re. her luggage… she survived.)

    The trick with culture war, I think, is not to fight it on the enemy’s terms. It’s too easy for it to fall into dualistic spat-fights that way. Better to fight their memes with better ones, sideways attacks on their assumptions… out-thinking ‘em, indeed. Anonymous versus Sci*nt*l*gy is a good model for some approaches.

    As ever, deep background on the Dominionist xtians – the hard-core of the curture warriors of the right – can be found on the Dark Christian LJ group. And John Robb’s thoughts on 4G warfare being countered by strong, well-wired ‘resiliant communities’ gives a possible larger scale and long-term Grinder approach.

  16. While it is possible we ate our closer cousins when there were 20 plus hominid species about, I remain skeptical war existed between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.

    As to a cultural battle with hateful bigots who gulled the confused, asymmetrical warfare seems a good approach. I prefer showing them how the GLBT community are more connected to them than those who want to isolate them as outsiders/strangers. And I want to show what happens when a community gets splintered. Information is our best tool.

  17. [...] Any Tool is a Weapon if You Hold it Right [...]

  18. There’s a reason I keep going on about Mars. We ran out of “unoccupied” continents ~200yrs ago. It’s off-world or genocide basically. I want to be nice. Really. I’m trying.

  19. Is it a matter of information space of physical space, though? I’m betting on the information space. Go to Mars and the Earth bastards will still be down here thinking “Those Mars fuckers are up there playing the gong and marrying rocks!” so long as the informational space between us is so dense.

  20. Fantastic post. The more words, the better. It’s funny how this post came at almost the same time as a link on Warren Ellis’ blog about evidence of Neanderthals with spear wounds.

    @m1k3y: If we’re going to colonize Mars, we might as well colonize all the deserts of Earth, first. They’re still more hospitable, and they’re a hell of a lot closer. Fewer raw materials, perhaps, they’ve got everything else working in their favour.

  21. In reference to Mars, here is something I wrote back in the days when I was blogging. I can’t seem to link to the piece directly, but it’s the third post down at http://radicallyinept.blogspot.com/2004_03_07_archive.html

    “A Modest Proposal: A Solution to the Problem of Poverty in America”

    At the time, I meant it as satire, now I’m not so sure…

  22. I wonder if in the future, will those among us simply submit to the status quo in the face of conservatism, or rebel.

    I also wonder if rebellion will garner support, or dilute the cause with trendy jerks…

  23. Every time I feel alone and afraid and like I’ll never be where I want to be, or look the way I want to look, I will re-read this article and feel amazing.

    Thank you.

  24. Realized I hadn’t commented on this.

    I can’t wait to see you, and to talk about these things.. my brain moves too fast for my fingers sometimes.

    Adaptation is scary to those who don’t do it. Shapeshifters are sketchy. Etc. Brain juice time.

  25. @willowbl00 “Shapeshifters are sketchy.” For a species supposedly put in the Garden to Name shit, liminality is pure arachnid reaction fodder.

    And yes, we can do this in person, soon.

  26. Hooray for open-mindedness.

    Incredibly ironic that the article is written ethnocentrically.

    Oh well. Keep trying.

  27. @eris – I’d love to have a chance to pick apart any ethnocentric bias or privilege I’m showing, either here or @ kevin.grinding(at)gmail.com