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They Lie So Easily

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Fall in New York City makes me forget all my troubles. The juxtaposition of red, orange, and yellow leaves over blue-glass buildings, the breezy weather, the yellow taxis pressing the leaves into the pavement, the splendor of the botanical garden I visited a few weeks ago–all of it sometimes feels like it was made just for me to wander through.

Today I walked almost five miles through Central Park. I had my headphones off, which I almost never do. Usually I keep them on, even if I don’t want to listen to music, so that I don’t hear the things men say to me. But I wanted to hear the sounds of the park.

I’ve wanted to see the Mall in autumn for a while now–you know, that walkway lined with American Elms that features prominently in When Harry Met Sally.

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Well, I saw it. And as I was seeing it, a man stopped me.

“Excuse me miss–”

“No thank you, I’m not interested.”

“Whatever, bitch.”

He started to walk away towards a couple sitting on a bench, but I whipped around like a woman on fire.

What did you just say to me?”

It’s happened plenty of times, but it still surprises me because it feels so far from where I’ve been. My voice came out clear and strong. I faced him, looked right at him, as the couple on the bench watched on.

“I asked if you’d donate to–”

“No, after that.”

“I said have a nice day.”

Sure you did.”

I walked away.

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What else can you do?

I thought about how easily he had told that absolutely blatant lie. He did not appear nervous. He did not hesitate. His voice was confident, casual. It’s nothing, just a little misunderstanding.

They all lie so easily.

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“I said have a nice day.”

“I never touched her, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Of course I didn’t call you the n-word, I’d never do something like that, I’m not a racist, stop pulling the race card.”

“I didn’t sexually assault her; she got upset after I rejected her advances and falsely accused me.”

Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others. After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety.”

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It is not enough for them to simply say that we were wrong or misunderstood. They have to try to paint us as crazed, over-emotional, hysterical bitches, too.

Despite widespread belief that detecting lies is easy, research shows that people do barely better than chance at it. This man I encountered in the Mall was showing none of the signs associated with spewing complete unadulterated grade-A bullshit. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing.

It’s not just lying, either. It’s gaslighting, too. I’ve been through this many times. They try to get me to believe that what I absolutely just saw or heard did not really happen. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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It is difficult, nearly impossible, for a woman (or another person affected by systemic oppression like this) to relearn the skill of trusting your own perception. There are many things that have happened to me that I’m no longer quite certain happened simply because somebody told me they didn’t. Like an altered Soviet photograph with a space where some persona non grata used to be, these memories feel shaky and uncertain to me.

Not this time. This man called me a bitch. He called me a bitch because I politely said no. Never forget that. I will never forget that, no matter what anyone says.

I am sure that there are people who would find it easier to believe that I, a person without hearing impairment, who was standing at most two feet away from this man in a relatively quiet place, either managed to mishear “Have a nice day” as “Whatever, bitch,” or that I deliberately accused an innocent man of saying such a thing (Why? To what possible end?) than that a man might use a slur against a woman who refuses to give him her time or attention.

It’s not just that these things happen so commonly. It’s that they happen so commonly and yet people continue to believe them to be the fantastical inventions of some jealous/delusional/over-emotional/vengeful/uptight/slutty/prudish/ugly/crazy bitch. Instead, they propose explanations that are more fantastical by orders of magnitude, such as the idea that I could have somehow heard “Whatever, bitch” instead of “Have a nice day.” Or that someone could believe themselves to have been sexually assaulted when nothing of the sort happened. Or that they would willfully lie about it and have their names dragged through the mud in front of the silent, shrugging world.

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And I thought, too, about the couple on the bench, looking at the man and at me. Maybe they thought I was a crazy bitch. Maybe they knew exactly what was going on. Maybe they were confused and didn’t know what to think.

Regardless, I cannot concern myself too much with the opinion of the couple on the bench, because I will never see the couple on the bench again. I will, on the other hand, have to live as a woman in this world for the rest of my life. Talking back will not end sexism and it is not an option available to everyone. But it replenishes me. It is a power that I have. I know it is a power because if it wasn’t, men wouldn’t be so afraid of it.

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The photos in this post are all ones I took during that walk today. I included them here for a reason, and it wasn’t to show off my photography. It was to give those of you who haven’t experienced it a sense of that juxtaposition, of having almost every joyful, peaceful, meaningful moment in your life punctuated somehow by oppression.

I am not a happy person, not even when I’m not depressed, but I am a person who constantly marvels at the world–the physical world, the social world. Yet sexism follows me everywhere, taints almost all of my experiences and memories. I can’t get away from it, not even in the twisted paths and falling leaves of Central Park. I cannot escape it no matter where I go.

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Not three minutes after my encounter with the man who called me a bitch, another man approached me. I said the same sort of thing as I said last time, only my voice had gone cold and hard as the ancient boulders in the park. This man did not call me a bitch. He just said, “Have a nice day,” in the cruelest tone I’ve ever heard those words said. I thought, Too late.

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After that I put my headphones on, concluding that particular experiment. As the world around me went quiet, I felt those headphones like a shield around my mind. The singing birds, the fountains, the intriguing conversations all became dull and fuzzy, like the way your mind feels when you’re sick.

But I didn’t turn the music on. Instead I imagined my own music. Sometimes I thought of the Russian songs my parents and their friends and I sing around campfires. Other times I made up my own songs. It comforted me.

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I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I felt suddenly disconnected, like I was experiencing the world from inside a bubble. I felt very alone. I felt weary. I also felt grateful for the privileges I do have, without which this situation could so easily have been much worse.

But I thought about it for the rest of the walk, because it had lodged itself, as these things often do, in my mind like a splinter that itches and burns.

Central Park is a wonder this time of year. If you live nearby, I encourage you to visit it, especially if you, unlike me, have the freedom to be able to take your headphones off, let it fill your ears up with its beautiful noise.

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#GamerGate Link Roundup

I haven’t written anything about gamergate because others have said it so much better than I could. Here are some links and excerpts from my favorite pieces about this whole sordid situation. Feel free to leave your own in the comments.

1. Kathy Sierra at her blog:

I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.

From the hater’s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.

You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t alltrolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.

2. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast:

I’m not scared of desperately uncool cultural reactionaries like Jack Thompson or anti-witchcraft Harry Potter burners. I’m scared of the people who do hold cultural power, who have the loud voice, who are, in fact, the cool kids, but think they’re embattled underdogs. I’m scared of the people who think that because disco was “taking over music” they had the right to “fight back” bullying and attacking disco performers and fans.

I’m scared of people who look at someone like Zoe Quinn, an individual who makes free indie games, or Anita Sarkeesian, an individual who makes free YouTube videos, and honestly think that these women are a powerful “corrupt” force taking away the freedom of the vast mob of angry young male gamers and the billion-dollar industry that endlessly caters to them, and that working to shut them up and drive them out somehow constitutes justice. The dominant demographic voice in some given fandom or scene feeling attacked by an influx of new, different fans and rallying the troops against “oppression” in reaction is not at all unique. It happens everywhere, all the time.

But let’s be honest: It’s usually guys doing it. Our various “culture wars” tend to boil down to one specific culture war, the one about men wanting to feel like Real Men and lashing out at the women who won’t let them. Whenever men feel like masculinity is under attack, men get dangerous. Because that’s exactly what masculinity teaches you to do, what masculinity is about. Defending yourself with disproportionate force against any loss of power? That’s what masculinity is.

3. Jennifer Allaway at Jezebel:

#Gamergate, as they have treated myself and peers in our industry, is a hate group. This word, again, should not lend them any mystique or credence. Rather it should illuminate the fact that even the most nebulous and inconsistent ideas can proliferate wildly if strung onto the organizational framework of the hate group, which additionally gains a startling amount of power online. #Gamergate is a hate group, and they are all the more dismissible for it. And the longer we treat them otherwise, the longer I fear for our industry’s growth.

4. Mike Diver at Vice:

GamerGate, to date, has taught us nothing. OK, maybe it’s taught us that certain men are horrible and have no shame in announcing their hatred of women to the world in the most hideous manner available to them. If GamerGate really was about ethics, Wu or Sarkeesian wouldn’t be going through what they are.

Until female developers, critics, columnists, and bloggers feel comfortable doing their jobs—which is to discuss gaming and expand the medium to wider and wider audiences—the ethics debate will be backgrounded by boisterous boys complaining that their toys aren’t how they used to be: i.e., made by dudes and played by dudes. That’s living in the past, though. Today, Peach can spank Bowser’s backside on Super Smash Bros., one of the highest-rated action games of 2014 features a kick-ass woman protagonist, and 52 percent of gamers are female.

Something, not someone, has to die—and that something goes deeper than GamerGate. I don’t have the answer to the question of how we prevent bias in the media, but I sure as hell know that we can’t sit idly by and just hope that the hatred goes away. Gaming hasn’t even reached the middle of its own excellent adventure, but it’s gonna suck if it doesn’t pick up more princesses along the way. So how about we all calm the fuck down before someone really gets hurt?

5. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville:

What women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Adria Richards, Kathy Sierra, and others have gone through, and continue to go through, all for having the unmitigated temerity to be women in gaming and tech, is incredible. And reprehensible. And shameful beyond description. And harmful.

Actively, ongoingly, profoundly harmful. Individually harmful, and reverberatingly harmful, as other women see what happens to women who do what they do and calculate whether it’s worth it to pursue their passion, in exchange for, potentially, their lives.

Women are being harassed, and abused, and threatened, and terrorized. Women have killed themselves. If the word “hurt” is to have any meaning at all, we need to stop saying that things need to change before someone gets hurt, and start saying plainly that things need to change because people are already being hurt.

6. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

1) The main target of #GamerGate is not a journalist. She’s a video game developer. Holding her accountable for “ethics in journalism” is like telling your accountant that it’s his job to negotiate peace treaties in the Middle East. While the attacks on Zoe Quinn aren’t, like the rest of this list, attacks on ethical journalism itself, the fact that this all started off with a non sequitur shows that, on the long list of shit #GamerGate cares about, integrity in journalism doesn’t even rate.

2) The second biggest target of #GamerGate is an exemplar of clean journalism. If what you don’t like about gaming journalism is that it’s too cozy with the industry and therefore the writers are afraid to be critical, then your fucking hero should be Anita Sarkeesian. She funded herself with Kickstarter and not industry money. She is harshly critical of video games, even as she is a fan. She is the ideal of what a critical gaming journalist should be: Knowledgeable, critical, fair, thorough and utterly non-corrupt.

7. Jenni Goodchild at the Flounce:

Throughout GG, I’ve undertaken a survey to find out what people want from reviews. Some of the answers highlight the above issue:

“Basically, a review that describes the game without involving the author’s personal opinion on it.”

“Focus on the gameplay and technical aspects, not the story and art style.”

“I mean that I want a game to be judged solely on its mechanics, story, immersiveness, strength of character and level of involvement, and judgement be based solely on that. Not whether a game is “problematic.”

These are all totally valid things to want from a review – it’s okay to not care about social critique – but the inclusion of these things isn’t corruption. It’s just a style of review people don’t like.

8. Lesley at xoJane:

The irony of this situation is massive enough to develop its own gravitational field. These harassers want Sarkeesian to stop talking about misogyny in video games. So they unleash horrifying misogyny on Sarkeesian herself. To, I guess, make the point that video games are just fine? That misogyny in games is having no broader cultural effect? That there is no problem here? Because this kind of behavior is normal? If I wasn’t half convinced that the men harassing Sarkeesian weren’t in fact actual trolls — like, the kind that live under bridges with only rocks for friends — I would wonder how they’d feel if their mom or girlfriend or wife was receiving the same threats.

9. Brianna Wu at the Washington Post:

My friend Quinn told me about a folder on her computer called, “The Ones We’ve Lost.” They are the letters she’s gotten from young girls who dream of being game developers, but are terrified of the environment they see. I nearly broke into tears as I told her I had a folder filled with the same. The truth is, even if we stopped Gamergate tomorrow, it will have already come at too high a cost.

10. Poopsock Holmes at Medium:

So when Anita Sarkeesian tweeted that “gamergate is the new name for a group that has been harassing me for 2 years,” she was factually correct. Many of the most consistent users of #GamerGate are inextricably linked to harassment of Ms. Sarkeesian and other women. I’ve just shown you 20 of them, all of whom are happily welcomed into the GamerGate movement and not censured in any way for their actions. I’m sure this list will grow as more people share their experiences.

These people have spent the last two years harassing and demeaning women in and out of the games industry. You know what they haven’t spent the last two years doing? Talking about ethics in journalism.

There may be ethical, honest people involved in #GamerGate. But a few good apples won’t magically make a rotten barrel edible. And #GamerGate is rotten to the core.

11. Amanda Marcotte at the Daily Beast:

It’s being referred to by those engaging in the harassment as the “Zoe Quinn cheating scandal,” a phrasing that implies, ridiculously, that the private relationship snafus and infidelities of a video game developer rise to the level of public interest. But even the misogynist harassers of the Internet know it’s a stretch to justify abusing someone for garden variety infidelity. So, in a desperate attempt to justify this nonsense, Quinn’s ex and the harassers are accusing Quinn of an “ethics” violation, accusing her, no joke, of using sex to get a favorable review from Kotaku.

The fact that the review she was accused of “buying” doesn’t exist hasn’t slowed the self-righteous haranguing, of course. That’s because the “ethics” question is a paper-thin excuse for what’s really going on, which is that the video game world is thick with misogynists who are aching to swarm on any random woman held up for them to hate, no matter what the pretext.

12. Liz R at her blog:

one of the biggest sources of paranoia i took from reading through my first 4chan thread about this issue is that social justice activism will inevitably destroy communities like 4chan. these people feel so disempowered in their lives that they head to communities like 4chan or reddit to be able to feel some sort of empowerment, to act out on something, to feel part of something bigger. this is where the whole mythos of Anonymous comes from. that a lone person with a computer has a tremendous power to take down the shadowy elite. but in that act, there’s no accountability, and no moral code. anyone with the resources can mobilize people to target anyone they see fit. sometimes it attacks against the interests of power, but just as often it’s a conservative, reactionary anger that comes out of disillusionment and fear, and gets constantly externalized onto marginalized people, especially women and queer people.

13. Andrew Todd at Badass Digest:

“Social Justice Warriors” is a term used often by these sort of people, and it’s a term whose pejorative use perplexes me, because aside from the source of its invention, it sounds like a really badass thing to be. I’d much rather label myself a Social Justice Warrior than a warrior for…whatever it is that these people are warriors for. Social justice is such an inherently positive thing – literally everyone benefits from greater equality – that it’s impossible to see its enemies as anything but sociopathic. Hatred of Social Justice Warriors can be seen as a broader hatred of social justice itself.

Central to the self-centred psychology of these people is that they see themselves as the targets of a grand conspiracy of feminist, progressive journalists and game developers that seeks to destroy their ability to…something. They have no actual issue. It’s all perceived persecution at the hands of political correctness. These “theories” are so narcissistic, so devoid of substance, that the only way to explain them is through delusion. And I mean, I get it – justifying one’s shitty behaviour with a made-up conspiracy probably feels better than confronting the painful truth that one is an asshole. They think they’re part of a “silent majority”, but the real silent majority is the one that either isn’t aware of their ridiculous conspiracy theories, or understands that there’s simply no reasoning with people who are so obviously out of their minds. It’s the same kind of fictional oppression old white folks claim about foreign immigrants who are still generally less well-off than they are. The moment a woman – or even someone who empathises with women – muscles in on “their” territory (which hasn’t actually ever been “theirs”), they’re off, spouting slurs, giving the fingers at intersections, and publishing their banking details on hate sites.

14. Zennistrad at his blog:

Fun fact: Morgan Ramsay, founder of the Entertainment Media Counsel, did an objective study of how much of gaming journalism talks about sexism or social justice.

To do this, he downloaded 130,524 articles from 37 RSS feeds of 23 outlets, including The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, CVG, Edge Online, Eurogamer, Gamasutra, Game Informer, GamePolitics, GamesBeat, GamesIndustry International, GameSpot, GamesRadar, IGN, IndieGames, Joystiq, Kotaku, Massively, MCV, NowGamer, PocketGamer.biz, Polygon, Shacknews and VG24/7, published over a period of twelve months. He then did a search on how often these games articles mentioned sexism, feminism, or misogyny.

The result? Over a period of one year, 0.41% of 130,524 articles referenced feminism, feminist, sexism, sexist, misogyny, and misogynist explicitly.

15. Garrett Martin at Paste:

That’s who is behind this entire situation: anti-woman trolls who intentionally distort the meaning of the word “ethics” to further their own agenda and mislead their followers. There are some beating the #GamerGate drum who sincerely believe that it’s not related to misogyny or the persistent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, that it’s simply about keeping the games press accountable. It’s impossible to extricate that hashtag from its roots, though, which grew out of unconscionable smears and threats against two prominent women in gaming merely because they are prominent women in gaming. All the conspiracies and trumped-up claims of “evidence” of collusion among developers, press agents and the press spread by the #GamerGate founders are lies and distortions aimed at driving Quinn, Sarkeesian and other women out of videogames. Whether it’s hate, fear or simply the grotesque joy horrible people find in maliciously denigrating others, this entire #GamerGate nonsense is built on silencing women and shutting them out of games.

That’s the scandal here. Not that some journalists are friendly with some game designers, or that review copies of games are often sent early to critics (an entrenched practice that occurs across the entire spectrum of tech and entertainment journalism, and which is crucial to informing readers in a timely fashion). It’s that a vocal minority of videogame fans who tend to congregate at sites like 4chan and Reddit, who blanket twitter and comment sections with hate and anger, and who adopt the exclusionary identity of “gamer” have united to intimidate and silence videogame fans, developers and writers who aren’t like them or don’t think like them. And the leaders of that movement, the ones who stir up the most resentment and convince their followers that it’s not about hate but ethics, the YouTube “personalities” and condescending Breitbart hacks and, uh, Firefly’s Adam Baldwin, are all well-established opponents of equality and social justice. Some are trolls, some are disingenuous, politically motivated bullies, and none of them are worth the attention.

16. Zack Kotzer at Motherboard:

Claiming not all gamers, Redditors, or Channers are responsible for despicable behavior is as deflective, tone deaf, and self-centered as the now lampooned ‘not all men’ response. It’s obviously ‘not all,’ but it’s still far too many. Gamers are being played, and not by journalists.

If people want to save these communities they’ll have to do better than throwing their hands up and saying “it wasn’t us!” when the world breaks into their speakeasies. Smoke them out and band up these silent majorities you speak of. As with anyone, you have to earn the respect you think you deserve.

17. Kyle Wagner at Deadspin:

The default assumption of the gaming industry has always been that its customer is a young, straight, middle-class white man, and so games have always tended to cater to the perceived interests of this narrow demographic. Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.

There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that Being a gamer doesn’t mean you’re sexist, racist, and stupid—a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary.

18. Brianna Wu at xoJane:

There’s no easy way to say this. I am a massive target for Gamergate/8chan.coright now and it is having horrible consequences for my life. They tried to hack my company financially on Saturday, taking out our company’s assets. They’ve tried to impersonate me on Twitter in an effort to discredit me. They are making burner accounts to send lies about my private life to prominent journalists. They’ve devastated the metacritic users’ score of my game, Revolution 60, lowering it to 0.3 out of 100.

With all of this, my only hope is that my colleagues in the industry will stand by me — and recognize the massive target I made myself standing up to these lunatics.

I woke up twice last night to noises in the room, gasping with fear that someone was there to murder me. I can barely function without fear or jumpiness or hesitation. I’ve been driven from my home. My husband says he feels like he’s been shot.

But I have to be honest: I don’t give a fuck.

I am mad as hell at these people, and I’m not going to let them keep destroying the women I love and respect.

Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

Secular Solstice cover art.I wanted to write a little bit about secular ritual and tradition and why it’s important.

To me, that is. It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

I think people leave or avoid religion for a number of different overlapping reasons. Some just don’t believe in god. Others don’t believe in god, and also resent the communal aspects of religion. I’m not a huge fan of singing in groups, either, so I can relate to that somewhat.

But mainly, my issue with religion is the superstitious and unscientific thinking, and also the frequent presence of political conservatism. Ritual is something I always loved, and still love, which is why I attended Jewish religious observances often when I was in college and wish I had the opportunity to keep doing it. Despite my atheism. Despite the fact that I disagree that I have any obligation to avoid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.

I don’t think there is anything like that outside of Judaism, and can’t be for decades or centuries more. I’m trying to make my peace with that.

Ritual and tradition feel good. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason and there isn’t. Chocolate feels good, too, despite being harmful in large quantities. I don’t care that there aren’t Valid Logical Reasons for loving ritual (or chocolate). There is a lot of stress and pain in life and if I can spend a Friday night feeling cheerful and whole, I will do it.

But I also know that non-secular Judaism can’t be a home for me anymore, so I’m looking for other ways to get even a fraction of that feeling. One such way is a project run by my friend Raymond Arnold, called the Secular Solstice.

Although groups of humanists/rationalists/atheists have presumably been running their own winter solstice celebrations for a while now, this particular event is an attempt to actually create a new secular ritual, a set of traditions for celebrating a winter holiday that usually goes unnoticed in the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s Eve pandemonium.

And it’s too bad that it does, because it’s an interesting holiday. Unlike most holidays, the solstice marks an astronomical phenomenon. People have known about it and observed it for thousands of years. From the simple physical fact of the winter solstice, people can (and do) draw all sorts of meaning.

The Secular Solstice, for instance, celebrates science and progress. It’s all about how humans overcome darkness and winter, literally and metaphorically. It’s about how even on the longest night of the year, we can look forward to the days growing longer and longer again. It’s about a lot of things, really.

The first Secular Solstice was held last year, in New York. I went with a bunch of people I care about and had one of the best holiday experiences I’ve ever had. The celebration was set up as a sort of concert with both music and short readings. Some of the songs had a sing-along component, though, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel pressured or expected to actually sing (which, naturally, means that I felt comfortable enough to sing). The songs and readings were about winter, humanity, science, space, planet Earth. Not all of them resonated with me, but most did. (You can listen to them here.)

There were a few reasons I especially liked this particular event. One is that, on a psychological level, winter is just hard for me. I don’t know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder necessarily, but I’m sensitive to extreme temperatures and to light (or lack thereof) and I find that winter saps me of physical and mental energy. Some of my favorite things–long walks, outdoor photography, swimming, reading outdoors in the sun, wearing the clothes I like–become difficult or impossible. The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.

On a related note, the Secular Solstice also differs from a number of other humanist events in its avoidance of faux (at least to me) cheeriness. In this way, I’d contrast it with Sunday Assembly, another event I’ve started regularly attending. I do enjoy Sunday Assembly a lot, but I find myself generally unable to produce the amount of happy singing/dancing/clapping it seems to demand of me. I like my communal observances, secular or otherwise, to be a little more…I’m not sure what the word is. Solemn, maybe.

That’s something that Jewish ritual does particularly well. Most Jewish holidays (with a few notable exceptions) commemorate joyous events or concepts, but the rituals themselves often have a sort of gravity, a seriousness to them. Not every song is loud and cheerful. There is an opportunity to acknowledge adversity, loss, and melancholy.

Perhaps those who lead secular observances worry that people will be pushed away by too much solemnity, that it’ll be too much like religion. Many some people would be, which is why I understand why events like Sunday Assembly are the way they are. But the Secular Solstice differs in that it has so many quiet, beautiful, powerful moments, some of which might even feel quite sad. This, too, was an integral part of the experience for me.

But it had joyful and funny moments, too, as well as plenty of hopeful ones. I felt like I experienced pretty much a full gamut of emotions throughout the concert. Moreover, when it was over, I felt like I had actually observed something, in the sense of observing a holiday or a tradition. I had connected with the other people in the room, as well as with ideas that I believe in–the hope that we can overcome challenges, the ability of scientific progress to improve our lives, and the fact that it is okay to feel sad and scared.

Traditions, including new ones, help me mark the passage of time and find some sort of meaning in it. They also help me connect with people who share my values. While religious values serve a similar function, the values themselves are obviously quite different.

Unfortunately, unlike religious observances, secular ones appeal to a small minority of people and do not have the financial and social capital that theistic congregations can provide. That’s why, if you want to see secular traditions and communities flourish, it’s important to support them.

If this is something that matters to you too, I urge you to support the Secular Solstice through their Kickstarter campaign.

Therapists Can Be Wrong

Therapists, like many professionals who work directly with clients, need to present themselves confidently in order to be effective, even when they’re not feeling very confident. It can be difficult for therapists to admit that they have or could be wrong, or that they don’t know everything. Like doctors and teachers and others, therapists worry that acknowledging their own limitations will erode their credibility and trustworthiness. When your livelihood depends on people finding you credible and trustworthy, that adds to the aversion of being wrong and admitting mistakes that virtually all of us already experience.

Yet we have to learn how to admit and accept that we are sometimes wrong–not only because it’s a foundation of accountability and ethical practice, but also because clients can often see through that facade, and they won’t like what they see. It’s difficult to trust someone who will never–can never–admit that they’re wrong.

This was going through my mind as I read one of my required texts for school, Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding“Psychiatric interviewing” is really just a term for the process of therapists asking their clients questions, so the book covers a lot of very important ground. While I’ve found it useful so far, a few things irk me about it.

For instance, the author has a strange preoccupation with labeling clients using the article “the” in a way that implies uniformity. The text is laden with references to what “the paranoid patient” may do or how “the guarded patient” may behave in an interview. This type of language is not only dangerously vague (who qualifies as “the paranoid patient” as opposed to “a person who has some paranoid thoughts”? Who gets to make that determination, and using which measure(s)?), but stigmatizing to therapy clients and a potential source of bias for therapists. If you’re a young therapist who reads this book and gets all these ideas about what “the paranoid patient” may do, you may project these assumptions onto every client you work with who struggles with paranoia or expresses thoughts that seem paranoid to you. Assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing–and may even be useful in some cases–but you need to be aware of them as you work. Thus far in my reading of this book, it has not provided any cautionary notes about making assumptions. Even in my classes, in which we are often told not to make assumptions, provide little if any guidance on learning to actually notice these assumptions in practice.

Shea also recommends a few other techniques that I find excessively presumptuous. Take this example dialogue from the book:

Pt.: After my wife left, it was like a star exploded inward, everything seemed so empty…she seemed like a memory and my life began to fall apart. Very shortly afterwards I began feeling very depressed and very tearful.

Clin.: It sounds terribly frightening to lose her so suddenly, so similar to the pain you felt when your mother died.

Pt.: No…no, that’s not right at all. My mother did not purposely abandon me. That’s simply not true.

Clin.: I did not mean that your mother purposely abandoned you, but rather that both people were unexpected loses.

Pt.: I suppose…but they were very different. I never was afraid of my mother…they’re really very different.

A lot of therapists, especially those in the psychodynamic tradition, are understandably attracted to the idea of making this sort of “insight.” As Shea points out, when you get it right, it can build a lot of trust because the client feels understood in a very special way. It feels good to feel “smart” and insightful, to be able to read people like that. It can remind us that there really is something special we can do as therapists that others cannot. It probably doesn’t hurt that this, the therapy-via-Sudden-Brilliant-Insight, is usually the only kind we see represented in the media.

But a lot of the time, there really isn’t enough information to reach this conclusion. Therapists may make these leaps based on hunches, but that doesn’t mean there’s data to back it up. Sometimes the client will tell you so, but I think that a lot of the time, they will say, “Hm, I suppose you might be right,” because you are an authority figure and they want to believe you have the answers.

From the information given, you can’t reasonably jump to the conclusion that the client felt similarly when their wife left them and when their mother died. Those are very different types of loss, and even similar types of loss–two breakups, two deaths in the family–can feel very different.

Certainly there can be conceptual similarities between losing a spouse to divorce and losing a parent to death. It might even be worthwhile to explore them, but the therapist need not assume they felt “so similar.” If I were the client, I would’ve liked the therapist to say something like:

Between this and your mother passing away, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot of loss. I’m wondering if losing your wife is bringing up any memories of losing your mother.

This resonates with me; it might not with other clients. That’s why sometimes the more important thing as a therapist isn’t what you say, but how you respond once you realize you’ve said or done something that strains the connection between you and your client. In this case, a responsive therapist might say something like:

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make assumptions about how you’re feeling. Can you say a bit more about how this loss feels different for you?

The client is the expert on their experience.

But instance, in the dialogue, the therapist doubled down on the (mis)interpretation, attempting to justify their response to the client’s disclosure. This leads the client to double down as well, justifying to the therapist why the losses feel different. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves that way.

Here is the thought I had, as both a provider and a consumer of mental health services, when I read Shea’s example dialogue above:

The failure mode of Brilliantly Insightful Therapist is Arrogant, Presumptuous Therapist.

Now, I don’t know if Shea is arrogant or presumptuous; I don’t know him but I would hope he isn’t. I do know that refusing to acknowledge missteps and misunderstandings can lead one to across that way, though. And that’s exactly what Shea refuses to do both in the dialogue itself and when he analyzes the dialogue for the reader:

Needless to say, this attempt at empathic connection leaves something to be desired. The patient’s attention to detail and fear of misunderstanding have obliterated the intended empathic message, leaving the clinician with a frustrating need to mollify a patient who has successfully twisted an empathic statement into an insult of sorts.

This probably infuriated me more than anything else in this text. Here, the failure of the interaction has been blamed entirely on the client. Shea has assumed that the client has taken his statement as an “insult” when there is no evidence of this; the client is merely correcting the therapist’s misinterpretation. It reminds me of how, often when I tell people they’ve made inaccurate assumptions about me, they respond by shrieking about how “upset” I am and how I take everything as an “insult.” Correcting someone is not the same thing as being “insulted.”

If this situation is “frustrating” for the clinician, then, I can only imagine how much more so it must be for the client.

There is no room, in this approach, for any acknowledgment that the therapist’s interpretations might simply be wrong. No room for the possibility that it’s not the client’s personal characteristics (“paranoid,” “guarded,” “histrionic”) that made this interaction fall flat, but the therapist’s presumptions and subsequent refusal to step back from them.

I discussed this particular example because it’s what came up in my reading, but it’s hardly the most egregious thing of this type that happens. Therapists who cannot conceive of the possibility that they’re wrong not only fail to help their clients, but can actually hurt them.

Since there are probably a lot more therapy clients (or prospective therapy clients) reading this than there are therapists, I want to be clear about why I wrote this. It’s not to discourage people from seeking therapy, but to arm them with the knowledge and language to advocate for what they need from their therapists, and to find therapists that suit their needs.

That last part is important. Some people may want a therapist who makes bold interpretations and takes that authoritative, explanatory sort of role. Personally, I think conducting therapy in this sort of way opens practitioners up to all sorts of bias and errors, which is one reason I want to avoid it both as a client and as a therapist. But if that’s the approach that resonates with you, then it’s likely to work a little better for you, because the most important factor is the client-therapist relationship.

Aside from that, the reason I write about problems in mental healthcare is the same reason I write about problems in feminism or atheism–to hold my own communities accountable. Anecdotally, I know that this sort of thing makes it difficult for some people to benefit from therapy, or even to want to access it to begin with. I’m not the only person who dislikes having an authority figure tell me things about my life without bothering to find out if their assumptions are even accurate.

I trust people more when they admit their mistakes.

 

Before You Speculate About Amanda Bynes’ Mental State

[Content note: mental illness, ableism]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about the gleeful speculations about Amanda Bynes’ supposed mental illness.

Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”

Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.

Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.

They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.

Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.

How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?

For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.

Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”

Read the rest here.

A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions

I read a piece on xoJane today that I felt compelled to share on Facebook:

Screenshot 2014-10-07 14.30.57

 

After my friends fisked this silliness capably, the conversation moved on to the concept of an “unpopular opinion.” My friend Sam said, “I would love it if we as a society could stop framing things as ‘unpopular opinions.’ It’s almost never accurate – for example, I can tell there are TONS of people who don’t care about students in debt because, y’know, we haven’t fixed student debt yet. Something like ‘controversial opinion’ would be more on-point and less reflexively defensive.” He later added, “Reverse-appeal-to democracy is an quick and dirty way to make yourself look like an edgy truth-teller.”

This made me really think about the “unpopular opinion” thing seriously. I think there are a number of things going on when someone refers to an opinion they’re about to share as “unpopular.”

First of all, though, as Sam said, this opinion is not unpopular in our country. Here’s the main idea, from the article:

I can’t pretend I completely understand how these people feel after the fun is over and the repayments begin, but I can say that I really don’t feel bad for them.

Why not? Because I worked hard to avoid taking out loans. My wonderful parents and grandmother helped me pay for my education, but in the end, it was a few decisions I made that saved me the burden of borrowing money I would never have been able to pay back. Unlike the majority of my friends who went to schools less than an hour from their parents’ homes and chose to live on campus rather than commute, my college roommates were named Mom and Dad. I chose state schools that were half, sometimes one-quarter, of the cost of the schools my friends were attending and worked a part-time on-campus scholarship job in addition to full-time hours at my retail job. I spent the four years of my life designed for partying essentially reliving my high school years. And yes, it was awful.

Is this an unpopular thing to say? Here are some very similar sentiments:

In America this idea of competition – it works! …don’t just go to the [college] that has the highest price, go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on. I know it would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that.

Or:

Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

Believing that people should not attend anything but the cheapest college in the cheapest way, and that they have only themselves to blame if they’re stuck in debt, is a belief that you can openly profess and come within four percentage points of being the President of the United States. 60,771,703 people voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Does that look like “unpopular” to you?

And sure, maybe not all of them were aware of his views on rising tuition and student loans, or maybe they disagreed with him on that but voted for him for other reasons. Maybe some of those voters did think that Romney is ridiculously out of touch for assuming that everyone has parents who are able and willing to help them out financially. In any case, “unpopular” conjures up images of someone sitting alone at a lunch table or getting picked last for the kickball team–images that, I will argue, it might be the writer’s intent to conjure up. Many, many people picked Mitt Romney for their team.

So, when people call something an “unpopular opinion,” what do they mean?

Sometimes they seem to mean that it’s a controversial opinion, which isn’t the same as an unpopular one. If people are split 50-50 on a given issue, that’s a controversy. But you can’t really call either side an “unpopular” opinion if half the group agrees with you. I’d say that 40-60 and 30-70 splits are also pretty controversial, because even in a relatively small group of random people, you’re very likely to encounter dissent no matter which side you’re on.

Of course, because our social groups tend to be so homogenous in all sorts of ways, we aren’t actually all that likely to encounter strong dissent on political topics, even ones where the overall split is about 50-50. For instance, I don’t think I’m actually friends with anyone who thinks that same-sex marriage or abortion should be illegal–at least not close enough friends to be aware of this political difference. (And, by the way, I’m absolutely fine with it staying that way.) Yet same-sex marriage and abortion are controversial issues today, even though they’re steadily becoming less so.

But even within a relatively politically homogenous social group, there will be strong disagreements–and therefore controversies. In a feminist group, a critical take on Emma Watson’s recent U.N. speech might be very controversial. In an atheist group, a critical take on Richard Dawkins’ opinions on gender might be very controversial. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone on any side of these issues is presenting an opinion that’s “unpopular.”

Which brings me to my next point. Sometimes, when people declare their opinion “unpopular,” sometimes they mean, “unpopular with my target audience/social circle/a group of people whose approval I care about.”

Of course, social (dis)approval is a pretty powerful force. Even people with tons and tons of privilege may feel very hurt by social disapproval, which is perhaps why some people claim that perceived “attacks” on men or white people or what have you are “just as bad” as sexism, racism, et cetera.

Even then, though, perceptions aren’t always reality. We’ve probably all seen articles like, “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I am a strong feminist woman who still wants to marry a man and have babies.” While some people may disagree with this, to whatever extent you can “disagree” with someone’s desires and self-identification, this is not even remotely unpopular among most feminists.

Other times, it might be the case that a particular opinion that someone has places them in an extreme minority in their social group. In that case, declaring the opinion “unpopular” before it’s even stated might serve several functions:

  1. Deflecting expectations to defend the opinion. “Well, it’s unpopular, so I guess you’re just going to disagree with it.”
  2. Giving the audience a “spoiler” so that they aren’t as shocked by the presumed unorthodoxy of the opinion.
  3. Cultivating sympathy for the speaker’s presumed alienation or isolation due to their minority opinion.
  4. Showing the audience that the speaker is aware of the opinion’s unpopularity, making disagreement almost unnecessary.
  5. Inspiring respect for the speaker for their presumed bravery in stating such an opinion.

A confession: I used to sometimes label things as “unpopular opinions,” and there’s still a category on this blog for that reason. I did this for a mix of reasons, chief among them the fact that I was deeply insecure about my opinions–not in the sense that I wasn’t confident in them, but that I felt like I would never be accepted by people because of them. I think that was sometimes a little accurate–I really did get a lot of shit in college from people who disagreed with my writing, and I really do get harassed online sometimes for it. I did lose friends. I did fear people finding it and reading it and deciding that I’m a horrible, mean person because of it, because sometimes that actually happened. But mostly, it was a matter of me needing to come into my own a little bit and meet people who affirmed my thoughts and opinions–even if they don’t always agree!

I don’t think that calling opinions “unpopular” really helped me lessen their potential negative impact, though. Most people see through this gambit even if they can’t necessarily articulate why. Defensiveness, especially preemptive defensiveness, is probably never a good look. And personally, I have heard “This is an unpopular opinion, but” followed with meanness and ignorance so many times that hearing it now biases me against the forthcoming opinion by default. I’d imagine many people feel the same way.

Even if you don’t have that sort of association with it, though, calling an opinion “unpopular” probably predisposes the listener to disagree with it. Why would you want to do that? Unless you are, for instance, just trolling and wasting everyone’s time?

In the case of this particular xoJane piece, Slizewski does not specify who her opinion might be unpopular with, or why. I’m not sure if she thinks she’s speaking to her presumably irresponsible friends (one of whom is referenced, extremely flippantly, at the beginning of the piece), or to xoJane’s presumably progressive readership, or to high school seniors currently applying to college. The way Slizewski imagines “the stereotypical college experience” may be instructive:

Imagine the stereotypical American college experience. You pick some private university in the middle of a cornfield with a tuition price of about $36,000 a year, plus room and board, party it up every night since you’ve finally escaped the teenage hellhole known as your family’s home, and stumble into your Symbolism in Harry Potter seminar at 11 a.m. still half-drunk and probably reeking of Icehouse. You join a sorority, get vomit in your hair more times than you’re willing to admit publicly, and spend half the day on whatever flavor-of-the-week social media site the guy you currently like is active on.

This doesn’t sound like the college experience of me or any of my friends who went to private universities, but the hypothetical person who seeks this sort of experience is, presumably, the sort of person with whom Slizewski’s opinion would be “unpopular.”

But because she doesn’t specify, it comes across like she thinks the opinion is just, well, globally unpopular. It’s not. As I noted, you can come very close to becoming the President while expressing this opinion. If that’s not a popularity contest, I don’t know what is.

What are some truly unpopular opinions in this country? That women literally shouldn’t even have the right to vote. That the military and the police are inherently oppressive, corrupt, violent institutions that should be disbanded immediately. That roads should be privately funded. That men are all individually evil. That atheism should be criminalized.

Certainly there are people, even plenty of people, in this country who believe these things, but those people are probably a very small minority. And notice the dearth of articles titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: The 19th Amendment Should Be Repealed.”

Most of the time, I think, “unpopular opinion” is really just code for, “an opinion that will hurt people.” Calling it “unpopular” rather than “hurtful” is quite a convenient way to take the responsibility for causing hurt off of yourself.

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Alterconf Sessions logoThis weekend I attended something called AlterConf, which I hadn’t even heard about until a friend mentioned it, but was very glad I did.

AlterConf is basically a series of local events that feature short talks about diversity in tech and gaming, by people who are actually members of the communities they speak about. The project was started by Ashe Dryden, a programmer, organizer, and consultant who speaks and writes a lot about diversity and marginalization in tech.

Obviously, I am not a programmer or a game developer or any of that other stuff, but I play games (I don’t like to use the word “gamer”) and am a pretty huge tech nerd. (How huge? Doesn’t matter. I’m tired of getting into those pissing contests with guys.) I am also a woman, and someone who cares a lot about inclusion and diversity, and someone who has been watching the Diversity In Nerdom War for a while.

Despite my lack of technical knowledge and serious involvement, I really enjoyed the session and learned a lot because it mostly concerned the experiences of marginalized people in tech/gaming and some of the efforts they are making to create community and inclusion. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that some people claim that there are no tech professionals in/from the Bronx (there were at least two speaking) and that cochlear implants only allow you to hear a rather poor representation of the actual sound, which is just one of the reasons many Deaf people don’t necessarily think they’re that great.

What also stuck out to me, though, was just how well the event was run in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. For instance:

  • Eight of the ten speakers were people of color, and five were women. One of the speakers was deaf, and one spoke about having chronic pain and mental illness.
  • The speakers were paid.
  • Although tickets cost money, the Eventbrite page also had an option to choose a free ticket if you could not attend the event otherwise.
  • When attendees checked in, they were instructed to make a name tag that included their preferred gender pronouns.
  • The event had an ASL interpreter, as well as someone who was making accurate live captions appear on the screen (?!) as the speakers talked. Ashe invited any audience members who needed ASL to let her know, so that she could make sure the interpreter was signing at them.
  • There were healthy food and snacks, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and Kosher options.
  • The venue had plenty of physical space for the audience size, and the chairs were arranged in a way that made it easy for people to get out of and into their seats with minimal tripping over others.
  • The venue had free wifi, the details of which were written prominently on a whiteboard.
  • Before the talks began, Ashe let the audience know that there would be one talk with a content warning, and that in general people should free to get up and leave at any time if they needed to. She repeated the content warning before the talk that it applied to, in case anyone missed it or forgot.
  • The event had a comprehensive code of conduct (although I don’t remember if this was actually discussed at the event, which would be important).
  • For the most part, speakers were audible, slides were visible, and Ashe made sure that people stuck to their time limits and had time for questions.
  • Ashe let the audience know that the speakers had all explicitly consented to being photographed, videotaped, and/or livetweeted, and also asked the audience to keep context in mind when doing so.
  • The talks were recorded and will apparently be posted online.
  • Ashe invited attendees to come see her after the event if they needed help with transportation or if they wanted to be paired up with another attendee for safety reasons.

I include all this here because the level of professionalism and attention to detail I saw at this event was pretty much unparalleled at other conferences and events I’ve gone to. To be fair, Ashe Dryden is a professional organizer, so it’s probably a pretty high bar for student/volunteer organizers to reach. (Also, I don’t know how the event was funded besides ticket sales, but maybe she had a lot more money to work with than most organizers can get through fundraising alone.)

Regardless, it’s definitely something to think about for those of us who plan events, whether they last an hour or an entire weekend.

As far as the talks themselves go, I was also very impressed. Some of the speakers were very new to speaking (one said it was her first talk, and everyone cheered and applauded); others have spoken at many conferences before. The speakers were clearly chosen very intentionally, as they covered a wide variety of topics and issues in just nine talks. Some of my favorites:

  • David Peter spoke about deafness, the medical and social models of disability, Deaf culture, and how to make tech/gaming communities more welcoming to Deaf people.
  • Catt Small, a friend of mine who runs approximately fifty thousand projects, spoke about one of those projects, Code Liberation, which teaches women to code through classes and game jams. It’s so incredibly important to hear from people actually doing work like this if you want to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech and how to change that.
  • Manuel Marcano spoke about stereotypes of Native Americans in games and how they perpetuate oppression.
  • Senongo Akpem gave an overview of the tech/games industry in Nigeria, shattering what I’m guessing are many misconceptions and stereotypes that people have.
  • Shawn Alexander Allen spoke about how crowdfunding can help games with diverse characters get made, and how it also allows backers and fans to hold developers more accountable in terms of diversity.
  • Aly Ferguson was amazing and discussed research on how video games can be used to help people dealing with mental illness, chronic pain, and disability.

Here are some highlights, or at least the ones I was able to tweet fast enough:

Of course, that can only paint a very small picture of what the event was like and why it was so awesome. I was told that recordings of the talks will be posted online at some point, so follow my Twitter or the #alterconf hashtag if you want to see them.

One small thing is that I wish gender identity and sexual orientation had been discussed more–or at all, really. That was one topic that seemed oddly missing from the entire event. There are certainly game developers out there addressing these issues explicitly, and it would’ve been really cool to hear some of them speak. But, obviously, there were only 10 speakers and four hours and so many important things to cover that got covered–race, gender, ability, class–and so I really can’t hold this against the event. For all I know, it has been discussed or will be discussed at other sessions.

On that note, AlterConf sessions are being planned for a bunch of other cities (so far they’ve happened in Boston and NYC), such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and others. If there’s one near you at some point, I highly recommend going, even if you’re only tangentially knowledgeable/involved in this stuff, like I am. If all these recent debates within communities like atheism, skepticism, science (and science writing), video games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that very few of these issues are specific to any particular community. Even if you don’t care much about games or technology, I think you’ll learn a lot from AlterConf.

Feminism Can Make You Better At Sex

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about sex and feminism. (What else is new.)

Does feminism make women bad at sex? Some “sexperts” would say yes, if being bad at sex means expecting to get pleasure out of it. In a blog for Yahoo’s lifestyle section, Dr. Pam Spurr, author ofSensational Sex, warns of the dangers of equality in the bedroom. “In the past few decades, women have learnt that orgasms, like voting and equal pay, are their right,” says Spurr. “This tide of female emancipation has led to a ‘princess-and-the-pea syndrome': her ‘pea’ gets all the attention, while everything else gets sidelined… The pea’s demands will eclipse those of your penis.”

Like Dr. Spurr, maybe some feel horrified and intimidated at the prospect of empowered women seeking out and expecting sexual pleasure from their partners, but in reality, feminism and good sex are not at all mutually exclusive. One can even lead to the other, if you use feminism to examine your own sexual ideas and interests.

To be clear, having feminist views does not automatically make you “good at sex,” whatever being good at sex means to you or your partners. You can be bad at sex and also be [insert literally any descriptor here]. You can be good at sex without identifying as a feminist, although I’d argue that you cannot be good at sex if you are unable to respect others’ boundaries.

However, feminism can inspire us to challenge myths and stereotypes that can make sex scary, stressful, or boring. Thinking critically about gender allows us to abandon tired and outdated ideas about What Men Want and What Women Want and what they “should” do with each other in bed. Here’s what feminism can teach us about sex.

1) Consent.

For decades now, feminists have been challenging dominant views of sex as something men must try to “get” from women, who can agree to “give” it by lying back and thinking of England. Feminism also challenges the idea that anyone of any gender ever “owes” anyone of any gender sex (though, usually, it’s women who are presumed to owe it to men, perhaps in return for a paid restaurant bill or a committed relationship).

Moreover, thanks to feminism, more and more people are starting to understand that consent is not just about “no means no,” but also about “yes means yes.” Being good in bed isn’t just about knowing the right things to do, but also about knowing when not to do anything at all. If you choose “YES, PLEASE” rather than “Ok, that’s fine” as the standard for consent, you’ll be a better partner, not to mention a better person.

Read the rest here.

A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

[Content note: depression]

This is a personal post, not an advice post or a big societal problems post. But past experience has shown that some people appreciate and benefit from it when I describe how I try to think about things.

“Reframing” is a term we sometimes use in mental healthcare (and elsewhere) to basically refer to changing the way you think about something. While therapists sometimes suggest ways to reframe things to clients, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to reframe, and if so, how.

For some people this concept can hit a nerve because it can sound a lot like the well-meaning but ultimately useless (and even hurtful) advice we get to “look on the bright side” and “think about the positives.” But that’s not what reframing means to me. Here’s an example.

In one of my classes, we are required to meet in pairs for ten weeks to administer and receive counseling. Not as a roleplay exercise, but as an actual attempt to disclose one’s struggles or work with someone else on those struggles. Many students in the class expressed strong discomfort with being one of the “clients” in this exercise, but I’m already accustomed to sharing very personal and intimate details with thousands of strangers online, so I had no qualms about signing up to be counseled.

During our first session, my student-counselor asked me a question: “What, to you, would be an ideal or perfect day?”

It didn’t take me long to think about my answer, which turned out to be sort of a non-answer.

“There isn’t one,” I said. I explained that after eleven years of depression, there is no longer such a thing as an ideal or perfect day and it feels like there never was. That sort of thing is so far out of the realm of possibility for me that, in my view, there’s no point in sitting around hypothesizing about it*.

The reason is that hypothesizing won’t bring me any closer to experiencing it. The things that stop me from being able to have perfect days, those days you spend the rest of your life wishing you could relive, are not surmountable things.

As an example, I told them about the previous weekend, when my roommate and I had gone to visit friends in the suburbs of Philly and then went to a steampunk-themed dance in the city proper. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It was supposed to be one of those awesome nights. We got all dressed up, and I was wearing my friend’s spectacular dress that I felt amazing and sexy in, and I was with my friends, and it was going to be awesome.

Until, of course, it wasn’t. Not long after we got there, I experienced one of the things I refer to as a depressive trigger, for lack of a better term. It’s whatever the depression version of getting triggered is–specifically, it brings on acute depression symptoms–and it happens to me periodically. I heard it and I felt every metaphorical gear that keeps my brain working properly grind to a halt. It was like driving down a beautiful country road in the sunshine and suddenly finding yourself in a thunderstorm.

After that I couldn’t make myself function. I felt an uncomfortable combination of numb and sad in a very “deep” sort of way. I was constantly on the verge of crying, and knew I would if I let myself think about the thing that had triggered me. I couldn’t talk to anyone, at least not in any socially appropriate way, and I couldn’t dance or pretend to be happy or do much of anything else.

So I left my friends, sat in a corner, and spent most of the rest of the night writing in my notebook (good thing I carry it everywhere) and messaging with one of my partners on my phone. (Situations like this, by the way, are one of the reasons I’m so adamant that it should be socially acceptable to be on your phone at social events. Because my options at this point were: cry in front of my friends, be on my phone, or leave and somehow find my own ride back from Philadelphia to New York at 10 PM on a Saturday night.) I was eventually more or less okay, but it took a long time, and I spent most of the night on the effort to make myself feel more or less okay.

This is not atypical for me; it’s been happening for almost as long as I can remember, and while the triggers have changed a little over the years–as has my ability to manage them–the fact that they happen in the first place has not.

I used to hate myself for it. I’d berate myself endlessly for “ruining” everything or “wasting” good times away, especially since the triggers were as predictable as they were unavoidable. Surely I could learn to stop doing this? (But I see nothing about “acute depression triggers” in any of the scholarly material I read and I don’t even know if this is a typical aspect of the experience of depression or if anyone has ever reported it at all. I just know that that’s how depression works for me.)

Now, I told my student-counselor, I think about it differently. Of this specific incident, I think: I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it.

And because I’ve learned to think about it that way, a lot of other things start standing out–the things that went right. I had a great, relaxing day with my friends before it happened. I got dressed up and felt good about how I looked. At the event itself, during the times when I was feeling more or less okay, I met some interesting new people and took some great photos that I’ll have to look at and reminisce. While I was feeling triggery, my friends noticed and checked in on me in ways that demonstrated their concern and care but did not step over any of my emotional or physical boundaries. (Most significantly, I don’t like to talk about the things that cause me to feel bad, and nobody asked or expected me to.) While I was feeling triggery, I managed to disclose a little bit of it to my partner online–not something I am often able to do–and my partner was supportive. I was able to stop it from getting any worse.

Reframing is not the same as its distant cousins, “looking on the bright side” and “finding the silver lining.” I didn’t choose to look on the bright side or find the silver lining. The silver lining found me, after I had reframed the situation in a way that didn’t make me look like a horrible wretched failure of a person. And when I reframe, I don’t attempt to dilute or ignore the reality of the situation. It is not preferable that things like this happen when I’m trying to have a good time with my friends. There is no “silver lining” to getting triggered. I’m not going to wax poetic about what this teaches me about myself or about the human condition. I’m not going to gush about how situations like this really bring out the wonderfulness of my friends and partners, because my friends and partners are wonderful a lot of the time, whether or not I’m currently feeling like crap.

When I think back to that night now, I don’t feel sad, because I’m remembering the good things along with the bad. Previously, the distortion that my brain engages in would’ve made that impossible. I’ve tried to somehow force myself to think about the good things before and failed. It could only happen once I found a way to look at the situation realistically.

I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin anything. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it–with the help of some of my friends, but also by drawing on my own strengths and resources.

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*That said, the question the student-counselor asked is typically a pretty good one to ask, as it helps the therapist understand what their client hopes to change about their life. But I already know that I want something impossible. I want to be cured. I won’t be, and that’s okay.

Sexually Assaulting Someone As A “Prank” Is Still Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault, sexist & ableist slurs]

A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank” in which he walks around grabbing random women’s butts as a joke and films their reactions.

Or, to rephrase: A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently made a video of himself sexually assaulting multiple women, and then posted that video online, presumably without the permission of the women being assaulted in it.

To its credit, YouTube has taken the video down after a large outcry from (former) fans, various well-known YouTubers, and many Tumblr and Twitter users. In its place is now an odd notice: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” As though the problem were “sexual content,” rather than sexual assault.

I’ll skip over all the tired rehashing of how this sort of thing seems to be Pepper’s M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being, how Pepper’s boringly regressive ideas about women are easy to glean from the videos, how there’s now a backlash calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “tumblr cunts,” how folks are claiming, as they always do, that this is somehow okay because some of the women laughed or smiled (because that’s what we’re taught to do to survive, and besides, other women literally said “I don’t like that”). Because all of this happens every single time and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar. So I’ll jump straight to the analysis.

Sexual assault is not (just) a prank. A prank is putting rubber insects or plastic poop in your friend’s bed. A prank is coming home from school with a fake note from the principal to your mom. A prank is, in one slightly extreme case that I heard of, a bunch of friends getting together and having tons flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned coworkers who he “lost.”

Pranks can run the gamut from wonderfully hilarious for everyone involved to scary, spiteful, and cruel. Pranks can cross the line. Even if we are to believe that Pepper did this because he thought it would be “funny” rather than because he wanted to make women feel violated and creeped-out, then this is a very unambiguous example of a prank that crosses the line. Specifically, it crosses the line into sexual violence and criminal activity.

Of course, this isn’t uncommon. Daniel Tosh made a video about touching women’s stomachs (specifically, their belly fat) and also encouraged his fans to make their own (which they did). YouTubers LAHWF and Stuart Edge made videos of themselves kissing random women on the lips without their consent and of themselves picking women up off the ground and trying to carry them away. All of this is assault. Not a joke. Not a prank. Assault against women.

Sam Pepper and Daniel Tosh and their sympathizers appear to believe that there are two mutually exclusive categories of human speech and behavior: “just a joke” and “not a joke.” Moreover, these categories are so painfully clear and obvious that anyone who mischaracterizes “just a joke” as “not a joke” is “an idiot,” “a r****d,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” etc. The only dimension on which items in the “just a joke” category can be judged is funniness. They cannot be judged on, for instance, ethics. So if you try to judge those items based on how ethically acceptable they are, then you’ve clearly placed them into the “not a joke” category and are therefore “an idiot,” “a r***d,” and so on.

Obviously, a joke can be funny or not funny to a given person. But it can also be experienced by a given person as not a joke at all, especially since many types of humor seem to rely on “saying a commonly-believed/-endorsed thing and then acting like you don’t really believe/endorse that thing” as their main mechanism. A joke can also be hurtful or unethical, even if everyone understands that it is a joke.

I hate to keep trotting out that “intent isn’t magic,” but it really isn’t. When I am being sexually assaulted, I don’t care what the person assaulting me truly deeply believes about this encounter and what it means to them and how they feel about it in their heart of hearts. I am being sexually assaulted. I would like them to stop sexually assaulting me now.

Now, if someone stumbles on the train and accidentally touches my breasts or butt, I might be momentarily startled, but I’m usually okay because I understand that they did not intend to touch me. Sam Pepper intended to grab the asses of the women whose asses he grabbed; he just didn’t intend–or pretends he didn’t intend–for them to feel uncomfortable or disgusted by this. Well, unfortunately, you can’t will people’s feelings in or out of existence.

Pepper later claimed that the video was a “social experiment”–the last resort of those who can no longer even claim a botched attempt at humor. If you unpack this a little bit, “social experiment” usually just means “doing something wrong/weird/unusual/inappropriate to see how people will respond.” You know, like a baby who discovers the ability to throw toys out of the crib to see what will happen.

There is no need to conduct an experiment to see how women will respond to being sexually assaulted by a stranger. It happens all the time, and has been happening all the time for centuries. If you’re curious, you could try speaking to a woman.

This also seems to be contradicted by another of Pepper’s claims, which is that everyone in the video gave “prior consent.” If the women knew exactly what was going to happen, how is it an “experiment” or a “prank”? And even if they did, how are viewers–some of whom may be survivors of sexual assault–meant to understand the original video?

On Twitter, Laci Green responded to Pepper’s defense of the video:

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible–and I am even willing to briefly entertain the idea–that Sam Pepper absolutely got the consent of everyone involved (for the touching and for the placement of the video online for the perusal of 2 million fans), that nobody was uncomfortable, that everybody involved had a great time (and the women who appeared uncomfortable in the video were just acting [why?]), but what concerns me is, as always, that others will see in Pepper’s defenses a get-out-of-assault-free card. “It was just a joke!” “She’s only pretending to be creeped out as part of a social experiment!”

Of course, this sort of thing already happens all the time. Rapists say that they were absolutely certain that they had the person’s consent and were totally not raping them on purpose, of course not, what kind of person do you think they are?

But believing that you have someone’s consent and totally not intending to assault them isn’t the same thing as actually having their consent and actually not assaulting them.

And I’m not so sure how many of them actually believe it.

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Related/relevant:

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Addendum: Despite the title of the post I linked to just above, and the views I’ve expressed here in general, I no longer stand by the claim, “sexual assault isn’t funny.” The reason I don’t stand by it is because it’s false. Sexual assault is funny. To certain people. “Sexual assault isn’t funny” is more a statement that I wish were true than one that is actually true at the moment.

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