META: Reason, Rhetoric and Reputation

Date: Sat Jun 24 2000 - 19:50:17 MDT

Someone has forwarded me the material from the transhumanist list that seems
to have given rise to the "anti-Semitism" talk here and the personalistic
firefight that's erupted in its aftermath. I don't think it would be
productive for me to try to get into a point-by-point response to the posts
on the other list or, for that matter, the specific posts that have been made
here. Instead, I'll exercise whatever prerogative I may have as the
sometimes-sort-of list moderator and as an officer of Extropy Institute to
state my views on a fresh screen.

1. Extropianism isn't anti-Semitic. To me, the very notion is so absurd I
have a very hard time even imagining how any rational person could come to
such a conclusion or even harbor such a suspicion. In fact, as wordy as I
am, I have a hard time mustering the verbal energy to respond to such an
idea. As I've thought about this during the day today, I've considered
writing that this or that particular person who has been involved in
extropian activities is Jewish, or that one of my best friends and most
influential mentors is a devout Jew, or that one of the historical
wellsprings of the ideals of independence and autonomy that extropians value
is the Judaic tradition, all of which are true. But such statements seem
hardly to express the revulsion I feel for the notion that the ideals and
values this community shares could be characterized as anti-Semitic.

As I said in an earlier post, the reference to "ZOG" escaped me because I
simply don't know that much about the paranoid ravings of the particular
brand of fringe lunatics from which such ideas come. The discussion of
circumcision I've seen here from time to time actually had little impact on
me - no offense to people who might feel strongly about it, but I just don't
buy that infant circumcision causes trauma: I don't see enough difference in
the lives of men who are and aren't circumcised to support such assertions,
so it seemed to me like a harmless preoccupation (something we seem to have a
little of in this community that has an amusingly high percentage of
entertaining eccentricities).

The bottom line is that it would take a lot more evidence than I've seen in
the posts I've read to convince me that there is a shred of support for the
notion that "extropianism is anti-Semitic". If this were a legal case and I
were the judge, I'd dismiss the complaint on the pleadings and seriously
consider a motion for sanctions by the defense.

2. Extropianism isn't a cult. Buried in amongst the verbiage of the
exchange leading up to the recent heat here was that old canard. Again, the
idea is just nuts. Anyone who's taken the trouble to read Max More's
expression in the Extropian Principles of the ideals and values we share
would have to see that these principles 1) encourage individual inquiry and
development; 2) discourage dogmatism; and 3) nowhere suggest the kind of
personal, hierarchical "leadership" that characterizes a "cult". Like any
creative and playful group of people who share the same ideas and values and
who have common cultural influences and experiences, we've got a little "in
group" jargon. So does my regular backpacking group. Neither is a cult.

3. Some of the more prominent extropians, the mailing list and ExI sometimes
attract nuts. Because we're exploring ideas on the edge of mainstream
culture and science, from time to time we have to deal with people who have a
tenuous grasp on reality. People like Max and Natasha More and Ray Kurzweil
get interviewed in magazines and appear on television. They talk about ideas
that sometimes attract people who have mental and emotional problems. I've
seen the same thing happen with Eric Drexler. It's a problem. It's not
uncommon for such people to have delusions that these public figures are
somehow "involved with them" and to develop delusions of persecution.

In fact, this is a fairly well-recognized syndrome of mental illness. When
such people don't get the attention to which they imagine they're entitled,
they can turn nasty, or even dangerous. I've seen some of the truly sick
things people have written to Max. I've even gotten a few scary
communications as a result of my activities with ExI from people who
obviously have mental problems (and I don't look nearly as good on TV as Max
or Natasha). It's a sad thing, but it's a fact of life for people in the
public eye. (Hey, at least we don't have the kind of problems Madonna has!)
But this phenomenon doesn't have anything to do with the substance of our
ideas and the work we're trying to do.

4. There's no transhumanist "turf war". The ideas we're developing are big
enough for lots of variation and diversity. I happen to think that the
Extropian Principles imply a libertarian political philosophy. I use that
word AS AN ADJECTIVE to describe the confluence and implications of certain
values regarding social organization. In particular, I think that placing a
high value on individual human life leads one to value maximally open social
structures that work as much as possible on a "bottom-up" basis, that leave
as much room as possible for the exercise of individual autonomy and that are
explicitly premised on actual individual consent as much as possible. I
don't know a better word for this than "libertarian".

Other people who share an enthusiasm for key elements of the transhumanist
agenda may not value these things as highly as extropians do. They're free
to develop a different approach to the idea that the human animal can be
transcended. There probably isn't a "One Best Way" to a post-human future,
although I feel pretty strongly that we could make some choices that could
lead to some pretty bad ones.

5. No one owns the word "ultra-human". During the day today, I finally
remembered the coincidence that Brian Delaney used the term in a post
immediately preceding Max's talk at Extro4 last year, in which Max used the
term "ultra-human". I believe Brian's post preceded Max's talk by some brief
period of time.

During that time Max was so busy preparing for the conference, that he wasn't
reading emails (or at least mine). I have the most serious doubts that he
was aware of Brian's use of the term before he gave his talk at Extro4, not
least of which because I know Max had been working on the talk for quite some
time before the conference and he wasn't reading the list in those days (and
thus I got stuck with list moderation duties, such as they are).

Newton and Leibnitz independently developed the calculus. I've always
thought that was kind of cool, that they both thought of it independently at
about the same time. And maybe Francis Bacon really wrote Shakespeare's
plays (although I really doubt it). So what? Big deal. Who cares?
"Ultra-human" is a neat word that does a good job of expressing ideas we're
interested in. "Transhuman" is a great word, too, and I think Natasha's
research has shown that it's use stretched back farther than any of us had
imagined. If Brian came up with it first, way to go, Brian! But really,
it's no big deal.

6 "PR" matters. Our ideas are attracting increasing attention from the
mainstream media. The Internet makes our discussions here available to the
world at large. Journalists and other opinion leaders will develop an
attitude about transhumanism from what they read here. What the world at
large thinks about tranhumanism can and will have a big impact on the kind of
future we all get to (or have to) live in.

Cracking jokes is fine. Talking about controversial subjects is good. But
exercising good judgment about how folks who aren't totally clued in to our
vocabulary and personal histories might interpret a wisecrack or an offhand
musing IS important. Being sensitive to the mind-set of people who may not
have spent years working through the implications of nanotechnology or
genetic engineering or AI isn't that hard. Likewise, engaging in endless
haggling over subjects that don't easily lend themselves to real resolution
doesn't necessarily move our agenda forward. I know we don't all agree about
the value of diplomatic speech, but there is a ground of common sense about
what is and what isn't productive discussion that we ought to be able to
agree on.

OK . . . back to the wisecracks . . .

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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