Category Archives: Life

The Future of Sexuality

Sexuality In The Past

Sexuality in the Anglo and European West for some recent previous generations was a simple affair. In the Victorian worldview, when categorising things was the preoccupation, the population was divided into two categories, men and women. If a person (a subject), founds themselves to be in the category “man”, then their sexual and romantic desires were felt towards someone from the other category: women (the object of desire). The same is true in the exact reverse for people in the category “women”. If the subject was a woman, their object of desire was a man. Simple.

sexuality past (5)

There was, however, a certain Victorian consciousness of male subjects who desired other men as their sexual objects. This phenomenon was considered ‘deviant’, the result of some sort of mistake. The specifics of who was at fault and what to do about the problem make an interesting study in themselves but are not relevant for our purposes.

sexuality past_man

I strongly suspect the Victorians found men desiring men upsetting. Part of this upset was to do with the notion that it violated categories. They believed their categories to be “natural”, part of a higher order. The order was ordained by Science, if not by God. When strange anomalies occured to upset the “natural order”, they found them threatening, not least because these anomalies could seriously bugger up their nice diagram.

This uneasiness over categories is very pertinent. It is an emotional reaction to the perceived threat to a structure which is supposed to be neat, perfect, correct and inviolable. Structures (or categorisations) are only emotionally reassuring, only comforting, if they can rely on claims of (near) absolute Truth, solidity, precision and certainty.

If there are persons or behaviours that call into question the completeness of a category structure, or even the entire structure itself, this is so emotionally unsettling that something must be done to shore up the primacy of the system. If such persons or behaviours are in a clear majority, then the structure needs to be recreated. However, if these anomalies are in a minority it is tempting and common to try to eliminate the inconsistency. In this way persons who are privately having sex with whomever they wish without really thinking about it can come to be perceived as a threat to an entire structure of categorisation and sometimes, because structures rely on other structures, a threat to an entire nation’s public behaviour code, civil liberties, laws and moral fibre.

Sexuality is one such category, and we are still struggling to categorise it correctly today.  We are required to continue wrestling with categories because we still live in a world based mostly on inviolable structures to which we turn on questions about  laws, public behaviour, civil rights and so on.

Sexuality In The Recent Past

The civil rights movement of the 1960s-80s sought to redraw the category diagrams.  In terms of sexuality, it is now a very well-known story of improving “gay rights” in the public realm, triggered by the Stonewall riots and onwards through many milestones. One of the milestones that shows us that the movement has been successful is the achievement of same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples can thus access an array of civil and social privileges that they were previously excluded from.

The new acceptable categories can now be described thus: a male subject usually desires a female object, but sometimes, less commonly, a male subject may desire another male as their object. The same is true in reverse. A female subject typically experiences desire for a male object, but sometimes, less commonly, a female object. There are two new categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual” that apply equally to men and women. The categories look quite nice again now, with a lovely symmetry down the middle.

sexuality recent past full crop

hetero-homo (1)

I couldn’t decide which diagram to include, so here are both.

Sexuality Now

In recent years the “homo” half of the diagram has begun to use the acronym LGBT(Q), standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and (Queer). This is an attempt to recognise that lesbians and gay men are not the only people who are “not straight”. Each time a movement arises to point out that there are more groups within in the “not straight” space, a new letter is added to the acronym. LGBT is currently an accepted basic standard.

At the moment there is a lot of activism and discontent around the lip-service adoption of the B and T letters because most organisations fail to actually provide meaningful services for, or inclusion of, bisexual and trans people. These categories have been very grudgingly added to the diagram.

This unease exists because these two groups “upset the diagram” once again. The bisexual movement currently suffers from erasure, while the trans movement is not actually about sexuality at all. None the less, I will argue that the (much younger) trans movement has been more successful than the bisexual movement to gain recognition.


The trans movement has recently come to prominence as a group of people who experience something unusual about their gender. Both feminists and trans people have come up with a language to speak about the difference between biological gender, known as sex, and the social construct of gender i.e. the way people are expected to behave or “perform” in social life which is based on their sex but not necessarily inherent in it.

The trans movement has pointed out that it is possible to have gender dysphoria, which means extreme anxiety relating to sex and gender. In the most clear-cut of cases some people are born strongly feeling that they are biologically one sex, but their body appears to have most or all of the characteristics of the other sex. This is detectable at a very young age, often pre-puberty. The feeling of mismatch is so strong that people with dysphoria are more likely to be depressed and some may take their own lives.

Recent campaigns for the rights of trans people have become quickly prominent and successful. Some Anglo-Euro nations have begun to sanction via state benefit the hormonal and surgical treatments for trans people to “transition” from one sex to the other, whereupon the symptoms of gender dysphoria can be eased.

Trans people still suffer from terrible social treatment (not least a very high chance of being murdered for appearing to be gender-nonconforming) however I think the success of the trans movement in civil/legal terms has been partly due to the fact that this revelation about trans-ness has not upset the category diagram too badly. Now we have a small minority who would like to switch from the known categories of “man” and “woman”.

sexuality now 2

Being trans is an issue to do with sex/gender, rather than sexuality. It is orthoganal to the goals of the diagram but, happily it does not disrupt it too much. Apart from the switch between categories, transmen and transwomen still have a subjective sex/gender and still identify their sexuality according to the sex of themselves in relation to the sex of their object of desire.

Background Bisexuals

The bisexual movement has existed for as long as the “gay” civil rights movement. Indeed in the early days there was little differentiation between gay and bisexual because the issue at hand was same-sex relationships and legal rights. However the bisexual worldview has been sidelined because it is hard to understand, hard to lobby for, appears to “muddy the water” of essentialist messages of what it is like to be gay and people who are willing to identify as bisexual keep going in and out of existence.

Therefore, the bisexual (and intersex, asexual and other “queer”) thoughtforms and practices have been dropped from the public gay agenda for being too confusing. These priorities and people have been erased from gay awareness.

So while organisations now label themselves LGBT, the B in particular is almost universally ignored. I believe this is because bisexuality upsets far too many assumptions about how to categorise people and sexualities.

Here is my attempt to include bisexuality on the diagram:


sexuality now with bi

I added the grid to make it more confusing

Bisexual people occupy both sides of the diagram, because they can be a man or a woman, and then they have all these extra labels because they can desire either a man or a woman, or a man and a woman! That pesky and/or causes quite a lot of confusion. This spread across the diagram even calls into question whether the genders of either the subject or the object matter at all, which is the very foundation of the diagram!

Bisexual people have no place to be, a third wheel in the hetero/homo binary, excluded from both groups depending on the gender of their current partner, but still not included even if their partner is a match. Bisexuals are treated with suspicion because they seem to violate the purity boundary between gay and straight. Bisexual people themselves flip-flop between “being” gay and straight because being “half” anything never worked.

Studies of sexuality exclude bisexual people for ‘throwing off’ the results. Many straight scientists call the sexuality “indeterminate” and gay and lesbian people call it “on the fence” and “halfway out”.

Bisexual people also tend to come out at a much older age than straight or gay people, partly because many people experience their sexuality as something that changes over time, rather than as something essential they were born with, or that happened to them growing up as a child that they can’t control. This notion has been the cornerstone of gay rights, and to think that one has any control over their sexuality, or that it can change, is taboo.

Most people who have bisexual feelings take care to not identify with this reviled label, thus creating the illusion that this sexuality is a tiny minority, which is good for everyone else because bisexuality is so upsetting to the diagram that it cannot be tolerated.

(NB: if you unscientifically read between the lines of other data sets and hang out in bisexual activism circles, it seems clear that at least 40% of the population have behaved in a bisexual way in their lifetimes).

Straight and Queer

It has become increasingly common recently for the LGBTQI+ community to ditch all the letters, because they are becoming quite a mess, and adopt a former slur “queer” as an umbrella term to easily point to “not straight”. This umbrella has the advantage of pointing to a fairly large group (up to 20%) of the population while being non-specific about what it means, other than it’s in the gender & sexuality mess space. In this way it can encompass all the pesky extra weirdos with just one term, and reinstate the precious binary.

This is an opportunity for another way to organise the diagram.

The “queer” side is still just lesbian and gay, with its perfect symmetry of straight, but we’ve added the other weirdos (trans and bi) on the side. While these people apparently make up a minority, it still makes the categorisations looks awkward.

straight-queer (1)

Intersex, Questioning and Asexual need to go on the right but I ran out of space

This straight/queer grouping is supposed to be reassuring and it has worked for a while (for straight/gay people) but it seems like an unsatisfactory way to “contain” all the “mess” of people who are not-straight.

On the other hand, bi people flock to the word “queer” if not the community. More on that below.

However, this is not the only possible taxonomy.

Bisexual and Monosexual

I’m going to let you into a secret of the bisexual community, when those communities have enough structural momentum to temporarily coagulate. Bisexual people sometimes use an alternative binary to describe the world. It consists of Monosexuals (60%): those who are attracted to only one gender and Bisexuals (40%): those who are attracted to more than one gender. When bisexuals are prominent as a category, rather than treated as an enormous “anomaly”, a very different diagram appears.

bisexual-monosexual (1)

This representation gets closer to the world from a bisexual point of view. The gender of the subject is completely dropped from bisexuals in this worldview, because the label would say “man or woman” attracted to “man and woman”, which is pretty pointless. In the bisexual world, the diagram is not based on the gender of subject and object. So it also doesn’t matter if you are trans, or if your object of desire is trans.

“Monosexual” is the label for those strange people who insist on gender being the ultimate factor for sexual subjects and objects, and “Bisexual” is for those who do not. Monosexual people can still be trans, and I am remiss for not including it back on the diagram. At any rate they fit ok in the monosexual categories too.

How successful is this model? In my experience, people who are not bisexual, and even those who disagree strongly with bisexuals, tend to congregate in bisexual spaces. These include trans, intersex, agender, asexual and neuro-atypical people, as well as straight and gay of course. The true “umbrella” queer world, in my view, is the bisexual space, because everyone can fit there, with no dogma on gender or sexuality that fundamentally rejects what they feel inside.


At this point the actual word “bisexual” is simply meaningless. It originally meant “two” sexes and now the bisexual community defines it as “more than one”, in opposition to monosexuals, who only like one. But if gender is not really in the picture any more, why are we using these terms to define sexuality? Some activists have tendered the word “multisexual” as the opposite of monosexual, however this has largely failed. It has failed because using the idea of gender to define sexuality is pointless to bisexual people. This binary of bisexual/monosexual is unstable, and contains the seeds of its own destruction.

If not bisexual, then what? While ‘monosexual’ still seems somewhat descriptive for those with single-gender tastes, we have no good name for everyone else. The diagram is not based on gender, so the meaning of the words is dissovling before our eyes. The bisexual label has disappeared, with just a gap in its place. This is why so many bi people say “I’m just me” when asked to identify their sexuality. The question of their sexuality is mu. The true answer is outside of the frame of the question.

(I will, however, continue using “bisexual” for this article for lack of any other good word.)

I believe if we take the implications of the bi/mono model to their logical conclusion, if we run headlong into the black hole, we can finally dissolve or explode our categories of sexuality altogether. We can find new ways of making meaning about this attribute: sexuality.

Let’s explode

The danger of spectrums

When seeking new ways to define sexuality, it will be tempting to describe attributes as “spectrums”. Let’s take gender as an example. We have already said that bisexuality removes gender from the concerns of sexuality.  However, most people do have some preferences when it comes to gender.

Two scientists have so far tried to classify bisexual preferences. Kinsey designed a spectrum (with numbers 1-6). Number 1 means those who are exclusively heterosexual and number 6 means those who are exclusively homosexual, with number three meaning you are equally attracted to men and women. This spectrum is sort of useful but has many problems.

One problem is that this Kinsey number changes as soon as you modify any part of the question. The dimensions of time (past, present and future), fantasy, sex drive and levels of opportunity all play a huge role in how one’s attractions can be rated on the scale.

In comes the Klein grid, attempting to make sense of these different desires, where you rate your Kinsey number for fantasy, the past, the present etc. and end up with a grid of different numbers. This is quite fun at first,  however as their own website shows, this taxonomy soon dissolves into nonsense. As I’ve written before, these are well-intentioned attempts at eternalising an inherently nebulous thing.

The truth is, sexuality is nebulous and refuses to be pinned down by number scales. Level of attraction to one gender does not really relate to attraction to another gender along a sliding scale. They are not even on the same scale! Placing an apparent binary at opposite ends of a single scale is a mistake. It is still within the old gender binary way of thinking.

Factors, influences, preferences

It is easier to say that gender is a factor, but one with as variable importance as any other number of attractiveness factors, such as: body shape, eye colour and social status. It is perfectly possible to find both blue eyes and brown eyes attractive and to prefer blue eyes does not say anything at all about how much one likes brown eyes. These are all just factors of attraction.

Now that we are looking for factors of attraction, the landscape becomes clearer. Factors of attraction in the object of desire can be physical attributes, mental attributes and social attributes. There are also a number of factors relating to the subject experiencing attraction too. One’s age, sex drive, hormone balance, sexual practices and turn-ons are all big factors in attraction.

Cruicially, one lesson from the bisexual world is that preferences can change. It is not threatening to think that one used to prefer blondes but now like brunettes, but it is currently taboo to say that one used to prefer women and now finds men attractive too. The essentialist argument was important for gay rights, but now it is damaging all of us by impying that sexuality can never change. When we acknowledge change, our various identity labels can change too, with much less harm than is caused now.

When thinking about all of these preferences and factors, common configurations emerge. The queer world has been making headway inventing names to refer to these clusters of attributes, such as: femme, boi, bear, butch, cub, twink, unicorn. The straight world has far fewer words, but they exist, such as ‘cougar’, even if they do get ruined  (‘sapiosexual’ anyone?) However there could be much greater mileage in identifying and naming these common configurations.

Gender will very much still be in there, since not-trans straight people are still the most common. These days one ticks some boxes on dating sites e.g ‘male’ looking for ‘female’ and this new model would be just as simple. Non-transgender people are known as cisgender and most people are straight, or heterosexual. ‘Cishet’ is the word for the common configuration of “cisgender” and “heterosexual”. It is already commonly used in the queer world. So now you might tick the box ‘cishet’ looking for ‘femme’. Simple.

None of this is new. Dating sites have been trying to capture these preferences with more or less success for decades. I simply believe that our conceptual models, which are exclusively based on gender, are holding us back from realising the broad potential of sexuality.

Sexuality In The Future

Given the avenues of thought provided by Bisexuality, the future of sexuality could be very different. Rather than see sexuality as a biological binary because it depends on the biological “binary” of gender, sexuality can be seen as a personal attribute with both biological and cultural components that is affected by many factors.

Like other human attributes a person’s sexuality is both enduring and also evolves over time. It features many strands of influence, some biological, some social. Most of these strands are context-specific, some occur all the time. Some strands of attraction relate to the subject of desire and some strands relate to the object of desire. Some refer to social context, some are factors totally outside of our control, while some strands can be readily changed by new interactions or even conscious effort.

Many of these strands commonly appear together and so colloquial labels will continue to grow up around these clusters to make it easier to describe oneself and who one desires, but these labels should be seen as flexible, incomplete and eventually, obviously, they will go out of date.

In this model, changing one’s own gender, or changing which genders one is attracted to is unproblematic, just as liking blondes or brunettes is unproblematic now.

Some scales apart from gender seem obviously very useful, such as sex drive. Some people have no sexual desire at all, and some people prefer to have sex every day. Surely matching with a person on sex drive is just as important as on gender (if you’re monogamous). The ways that age can interact with sex drive seems very interesting. Should we be encouraging more sex between older women and younger men, for example?

What other scales and dimensions come into play with sexuality?

New Diagrams

I think some of the current ways of thinking about sexuality are still useful when providing a simple model for people who need that. Much like high school physics, we could present a simpler model to high schoolers that is oversimplified. Then, just as with physics undergrads, the more complex model can be revealed when the person is cognitively ready for it. Perhaps in high school we will still use this diagram:


and for those who are cognitively ready it will look more like this, a many-stranded colourful cluster of changeable attributes and preferences:

sexuality future

I imagine this to be like colourful strings of yarn, and there would be hundreds of strands all dangling before us. Each person can grab lots of strings, and grab different ones on different days. A certain group of strings might have a label that describes it, and one’s own fistful might be quite similar to the label, but each person’s fistful o’ yarn will also be unique. This diagram does not have hundreds of strings, but you get the idea.

I think that if we adopt this way of approaching sexuality, our conceptions of it can go from this:

sexuality now 2

to this:

rainbow harp

Rainbow Harp! Image by Sheppard Arts

…without too much hardship. Looks like fun!


Sexuality and gender don’t belong in boxes forever, and it’s not too hard to think outside them. We can conceptualise sexuality as a personal attribute that depends on many factors and evolves over time. We may simplify this for those who need it, but the complex model should underpin adult life.


  • Diagrams are harder to make than they look.
  • Bi people are fun! You should hang out at their parties.
  • I got the inspiration for this blog post from a strangely coherent dream.

Post Script

I did not realise when I started this post that I am proposing the end as we know it of sexuality labels and ditching LGBT. By the end of this post I realised that’s exactly what I’m doing. While this is scary, I think it may actually be the right time. The straight /L / G project has been pretty successful. There’s very little left to do. In order to achieve the goals of B, a turning-inside-out of assumptions has to happen. As a bi activist, I started to realise that, rather than berate people for not identifying as bi (which causes sooo many organisational problems), or berate others for being so prejudiced towards “b” that no-one will identify as it, I decided I should accept how others feel and behave, understand why, and work with it. Work to push it further in its own direction, rather than force it into boxes. This might be one way of doing that? I’m not certain. As I said, I woke up from a dream with this all in my head, you can let me know if it makes any sense.



Reflections 2017

Reflections on the past year. I feel proud of how long this calendar year has felt. It’s nice to balance the feeling of vertigo I get when I reflect on how old I am vs hold I feel with the sensation that I have crammed a lot into a single year.

The start of the year was all trips to Portugal, to our new land. I luckily found some work too, overseas no less. Early summer was stressful looking for more work, but I had some good weekend holidays and BiCon too. Then work, endless work until October. But that month is a traditional time for new beginnings, it seems. More Portugal, then a final push of other travelling and events. I visited the Isle of Bute in Scotland and I’m taking my driving theory test today, for the second time in my life.

All this on the backdrop of communal warehouse life, and something else. The background of thinking, always thinking.


So, judging by my diaries from last year autumn is a time for change, and boning! Same thing this year too, happy days. I am now edging, very slowly, towards my own personal ideal minimum number of boys (three). And my, oh my, the latest escapade was gooooooood. Had some female-flavoured sexy interaction too, which as usual has left me extremely thoughtful about roles and gender.

My family and friend relationships have really been improving this year. My nephew is now nearly two, and alongside seeing much more of that sister, I’ve also been seeing more of my cousins and other sister. I am finding these relationships really satisfying. Despite the sadness of two grandparents passing away, the cousins on that side of the family are now genuinely warm with each other and aware of each other’s lives. It felt so good to great each other warmly, while the older generation are distant.

My longer term partner and my best friend provide relationships that feel like very solid foundations upon which I build my life, and I feel privileged to experience such security and affection.

I’m starting to meet the people of the Philosophy Twitterverse in meat space, which is very exciting. This techincally started last year, just a few months after I first found Meaningness but one friendship in particular blossomed this year, while another has just begun. I hope to meet up with the same people more next year, and meet others too. Chuffed about this.

Made friends with a new housemate and it’s been excellent.


Was it really this year that I separated this blog from the philosophy one? I guess it was, all the way back in January. Well, Theory Engine was born and I feel very smug about the name. It also inspired me to move back to more personal topics on this blog, which was great.

I also founded my fortnightly meet called Balcony Philosophy that has yielded excellent conversation and reading lists.

As I said, I met some people in meat space, which has brought me (digitally) closer to some of the others, woo-hoo! Finding these peers and elders feels really good, and when lots of them are in the Bay Area kinda-rationalisty space it feels really cool in a Bloomsbury type way. I want more!

(I think last year’s missing Philosophy section, that I was going to write in the reflections post, would have described reading Meaningness, then spontaneously starting to write my own stuff. I thought I’d need discipline and tricks to get me writing and keep me doing so, but as it turned out I couldn’t help but snatch as much time as I could to write posts in between all my summer travels. I commented on meaningness and slatestarcodex to get their attention, while following up on Twitter. It worked and occasionally I got mentioned in tweets or roundups. It was very satisfying to participate in the online bloggy philosophy world. Now that it’s extending into real life I am super stoked!)


This year I worked over the summer, though the contract started a bit later than I would have liked. I failed to earn a whole year of salary, but was as near as dammit. It’s been two months since I finished and only slowly getting back the philosophy mojo. Three months in one go was hard, but I learned some things, both code-wise and about getting on in offices. I loved working in the City. My London love continues without letup.

Earlier in spring, when I was just about out of cash from last year, I had a contract in the states for a couple of weeks. I got to see San Fran for one day and made some lasting freelance friends.

Bi Stuff

I went back to BiCon this year, after a gap of three. It was excellent and affirming to see old friends there. BiCon is important in a way that’s hard to describe but “Bisexual Christmas” is pretty close. I feel more secure and happy than previous years, and truly not expecting too much this time, so I had some meaningful interactions. I also broke my toe.

Represented Bis at Pride, went well. I love the Pride parade. Also had a Bivisibility Day cake party in September, because I’ve been realising that there is a bi culture, and it’s pretty cool and super important. It’s a full way to be, and everyone should be able to know about it. One of my favourite parts of bi culture is the term “monosexual” as the opposite of “bisexual”. We don’t say it infront of them though.

This bi activism thing has simply not gone away, even in the midst of my “I don’t believe my politics any more” phase. It’s clearly fun & meaningful to me so I guess I’ll keep doing it.


I have been so proud of how long this year has felt. I have been on seven international trips: three for work (San Fran and Munich twice) and four to Portugal. I also finished up the year visiting Scotland.

We began clearing work on The Land in January, have had architects plans drawn up and now we are canvassing quotes for the house to be built. I cannot wait.

Portgual trips seem to warp time, where it’s hard to remember what came before one’s life of getting up with the sun, hard work under the bright sky, peeing anywhere you want and cutting logs for the fire. It seems like that life has gone on forever and London is a distant memory. At the same time, when I get back to London, it is as if the last events that happened to me there occurred just yesterday, which can’t be right. I get this strong feeling of not knowing how long I’ve been gone.

Anyway, I’ve deliberately disrupted my routines / not gotten into any outside of work and this year has been a subjectively long one, which is great!

Mental Health

Have been feeling mostly fine. It’s like a sleeping monster. I still get that panic about dying at night sometimes, but with big gaps between occurences. I feel like I have a few different ways to calm it down.

Something happened to me in Portugal in November. Some kind of unlocking to do with enjoying pleasure in the moment. I can feel it in the background all the time now. It’s making life better, this quiet focus on the pleasurable body. It has inspired one swimming session, and I hope it leads to more exercise, exercise with a more consistent motivation. I’m certainly suddenly interested in yoga, including the sprititual practice, which is a change from before.


I’ve come to feel that Heathrow Terminal 2 is the best airport terminal in the world. I love London so much. I love my living situation less. Hard to not post projections for the future, maybe I’ll write those down separately.


Time changes

My sense of time has changed. I’ve come to notice this by being around people who are still in their twenties (I’m 33 now).

My friend Jo is 23 and to them, 6 months is an absolute age.

I’ve recently connected with a new partner who is 26. He is going away for four months, and hopes to stay away longer. He has more anxiety than me about the future of our relationship.

I recall being about 28 or 29 and realising, through polyamory, that my relationships will probably no longer follow the meet-date-acrimoniousbreakup pattern that was an unquestioned way of things in my “20s monogamy” phase. Rather, relationships can have ups and downs, recesses, corners, timeouts and timeins. The older I get, the longer relationships can be and the more they’ll morph.

Around this time I started saying “the future is long”, meaning that whatever stage a relationship is in now (normally just broken up), it will change over time and the change will happen quicker than you think. There is always the possibility of: -getting back together -becoming friends again -being thrown back into a life situation together -actually not really caring about them anymore.

Some of my longer-term relationships, like family and early boyfriends have followed so many twists and turns it’s now not very easy to describe them all. The swings from love to hatred to indifference to betrayal to empathy to love again have been numerous.

I’ve had a monogamous friend with whom I could have sex only when he didn’t have another partner. I saw several girlfriends come and go, and didn’t really feel particularly deprived when I wasn’t allowed to have sex with him for a while. The friendship was clearly going to endure much longer than these partners.

There is security in patience.

(Post-script: I am aware that one day, the longer I live the more likely it will be that my relationships with others will end. Time will speed up again. Relationship needs will be more urgent. I’m sure it will feel like a blink of an eye since I was here, now, saying these young things at this young age.)



Not A Meritocracy

Social Justice

So, I’m done with the social justice world.

I always had more time for the really complex and nuanced arguments of the heavyweight writers anyway and I had the privilege of working with smart and level-headed activists when it came to actions.

But, in the last few years I lost my certainty about every cause I was involved with and now I feel much more interested in studying all sides, watching how things play out and to a certain extent having a go at predicting outcomes, without feeling particular alleigence to any “side” in a debate because almost everything has merit and almost no-one is interested in measuring actual outcomes. When outcomes are played out, things are normally good for some people and bad for others, appropriate in some circumstances and irrelevant in others.

Im interested in that fact, but openly sympathising with the problems faced by men’s rights activists gets you pushed out of the feminist activist club fairly quickly, and rightly so, because passionate outrage is the fuel needed to act there.

Anyway, excellent activism is more drowned out these days by tribe-signalling meme warfare and I generally ignore it.

But I still have thoughts and critiques when particular examples float my way and here is one of them.


A friend invited me to a talk by a woman of color about the difficulties she has experienced in the media industry. It set me to thinking about the media industry and how this is a known industry for being extremely difficult to get into. It also strikes me that the media industry is one of those industries that is most obviously based on nepotism (powerful people promoting their friends) than based on merit (fair interview processes for all job openings).

In this talk I wonder if the person will be calling for less racism in a meritocratic sense or in a personal relations sense.

Systematic lies

I certainly used to be a highly systematic and individual person who believed in rules and fairness. My understanding of feminism moved through the following cycle:

Believing that the world was fair to the genders -> angrily realising it was not -> advocating for more fairness ->seriously thinking about how to educate others to be fair -> realising you partly have to tell the next generation to behave better than you do ->telling kids that the world already allows boys in pink skirts ->those kids believe the world is fair ->angry realisation that it’s not…. etc.

In this way we are iterating over the generations since the 60s telling little lies that everything is fair.


I recently spent some time working on my skills when it comes to relationships, being dissolved in a web of humans, forgetting the rules and so on.

A pertinent example of this is moving to London. I had always been too scared to move to London since the barriers to entry are so formidable. When I decided to make the move, I had no money, no previous address and no (current) skills. I knew that the “correct” way to move to London, use an agency to rent a property at market rates, would be impossible for me. I knew it was impossible for others too, and yet people managed to get there. It seemed obvious that it was important to meet some people who had found some sweet deal, some cheaper niche of their own, by luck and rule-bending and circumstance. It was important to personally meet these people because any spare rooms would be a closely guarded secret that would never leak out onto “official” channels, reserved only for friends by word of mouth. This strategy would take time and luck, but was my only way in.

It worked, and that is exactly how I moved to London.

This is nepotism, the epitome of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The catch-22 of “networking” is that human networks is one of the only ways things get done but articifially trying to build those networks at networking sessions is exactly the wrong way to forge those connections. It must be done in a way that feels natural and inspires trust.

More Lies

Back to lies we tell our kids. Adults claim that their institutions are based on a meritocracy, which is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of truth to that claim, with most universities and boring companies on the meritocratic end and Oxbridge, government and the arts industries on the nepotism end.

When I was a feminist activist, I took fair, meritocratic systems as a given and was trying to eliminate unfair practices between genders in what I perceived should be a fair system.

I wonder if this woman of color is making the same assumption: that unfair racist practices are occuring in what should be a fair, meritocratic system. If so, I don’t think she will get very far. Not because of the resistence to equal treatment of race and gender (though that is likely present), but because protecting the facade of merit over the reality of nepotism is something people will fiercely defend and lie about (and do it well, this is the media we are talking about).

My advice to this woman would be to use race and gender as a tool in this nepotistic setup. Go find the people of color who are already there and if they won’t help you (likely) they might indicate who in power likes having black friends. Gender is an even more unpalatable option, since other women may not help (they might, find that one feminist who works in TV), so one might have to resort to feminine attractiveness or, more likely if its TV and theatre, one could do well by butching up for all the gay guys that find women a bit scary.

This all sounds like a social justice nightmare, but if you’re not willing to be realistic about these strategies a career in the media may not be for you. It also does not preclude activism. Someone’s personal climb through the nepotisitc ranks may lead those friends on the way up to regard a person of a colour as a good bet in the relations stakes, whereas before they were prejudiced/ blind to it. I genuinely believe that that outcome would be a big win that does a lot of good.


I won’t be going to the talk. I’m bored with all that. My advice above would not be taken well, and I can see why. But my friend is definitely showing signs that she takes my lack of support for her talks as a rejection of her friendship. Is it possible to show support for someone in this part of their life without resorting to totally faking it?

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

Emotionally Dealing With Cheaters

It’s time for some emotional maturity when it comes to agents engaged in systems.

Hawks and Doves

A few decades ago, a couple of scientists applied game theory to evolutionary development. The result was evolutionary game theory and it gave us some neat new ways to understand evolution.

The most famous example of this work is known as “hawks and doves”. The premise is that given a certain set of circumstances, individuals within the same species competing for finite resources may have more than one strategy for obtaining those resources. Divided simplistically, an individual may behave in a “dove”-like fashion ie standing down from conflict (after an initial bluff of force) and sharing resources with other doves it discovers, both of whom are non-violent or a “hawk”-like fashion ie following through on threats of violence and not sharing resources with others. The dove strategy has low costs but also low rewards while the other has high cost but also higher potential reward.

The theorists produced a graph that showed which strategy might be optimal under which conditions. There is an awful lot more to evolutionary game theory however I mention this as an illustrative example.

Depending on the conditions, you have a certain percentage of hawks and doves. The more hawks you have, the more costly it is to be one as you might starve or be killed. The more doves you have, the higher the reward for being a hawk (violent and not sharing) since almost everyone you meet is a dove and will back down. In the high dove scenario, it makes sense for more individuals to become hawks since the rewards are high and the risks very low. Once you have several hawks though, the chances of meeting another hawk are higher and it once again becomes too costly to be one compared to the expected reward. There is a certain balance that appears between the types of strategy. The exact ratios depend on the situation, but what I want to point out is that you always have some hawks.

Social Strategies/Cheaters

Evolutionary game theory goes on to analyse circumstances where individuals within a species co-operate to a certain extent, rather than compete.

Humans often co-operate, and this behaviour is said to be ‘social’. Humans are one of the most socially sophisticated animals on the planet.

In a highly social society there are systems of rules in place and a few different strategies for success. Social systems are typically based on varying degrees of trust, you need to trust that other people will follow the rules and humans have evolved extremely complex skills and heuristics to assess trustworthiness in others.

One strategy in trust based systems is to fake trustworthiness, not abide by the rules, screw people over and reap the benefits. This strategy risks being caught and completely shunned, which may even lead to death. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that is the social equivalent to a hawk.

It seems to be that any social system that has rules based on trust is also open to the possibility of cheating being a viable strategy. In any social game you always have some cheaters.

Stopping Cheaters

Our social evolution has given humans pretty powerful tools to spot a cheater, helping groups to keep cheaters to a minimum. Many of our formal systems also have safeguards to attempt to weed out cheaters.

However, I frequently come across the assumption that it would be ideal to completely eliminate cheaters. This is wrong.

Eliminating cheaters is not possible. All games of any complexity have rules and therefore can be cheated. The more dove-like rule-followers a game has, the greater the rewards are for cheating and so the likelihood of having cheaters in the game increases. I believe that past a certain point you have a power-law situation with cheaters, where the energy expended to detect and remove cheaters grows exponentially the lower the number of cheaters becomes. Eventually, the measures taken to eliminate the cheaters become more injurious for everyone than the harm the cheaters are causing.

A recent example from my life: at a Pride parade of tens of thousands of people a political group of a dozen participants was denied entry, but unofficially they ‘broke in’ at the end of the column and marched anyway. Despite the fact that the organisers had made reasonable efforts to prevent the group from marching that year the outrage was huge, so the following year the organisers implemented a security system requiring all 10,000 people to acquire official wristbands, the parade needed extra staff, security barriers and to change the assembly point and shorten the parade route. The measures far exceeded the harm.

Eliminating cheaters is not necessarily desirable. Cheaters have to develop great skill to cheat, skills that are often prized in general, from thorough attention to detail to ingenuity, innovation and improvisation. In David Chapman’s essay ‘Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths’ the sociopaths – the cheaters – have an important function. They use their skills to market the New Thing made by the Geeks, making money and enriching culture, even if they reap an unfair share of the rewards. Sociopaths in general are quite likely to be cheaters but also quite likely to be very useful, like surgeons.

Emotional maturity

The extreme measures taken to eliminate cheaters seem to be often caused by the emotional pain of being a rule-follower and seeing or knowing that there are cheaters. Cheaters seem to reap great rewards, while the costs of the strategy are less visible. The emotional reaction can blind people to other causes for cheating, such as injustice (which I think may have played a part in the Pride parade example).

This emotional overreaction goes for double when money is involved – the obvious example is rabidity over benefit/welfare cheaters. I think the extra effort expended on trying to prevent cheaters is one of the key reasons that universal benefit works out cheaper.

People also seem to overestimate how many cheaters there are. I would expect any system to be capable of supporting around 10% hawks/cheaters. However from internet reading I’ve done about crimes, false claims about crimes (eg false insurance claims, false rape claims) are around 2%. This seems absurdly low.

The emotional desire to eliminate cheaters is prioritised over the rational knowledge that cheaters are inevitable, exist in low numbers and are even desirable. We need to sort that out because so often the measures to prevent cheaters are worse than the cheaters themselves.