Do Children Matter?

[Content note: child abuse]

Someone posting in a Facebook group–doesn’t matter who or which group, since they were merely voicing an opinion held by many–said that censoring high school graduation speeches is acceptable because “I just don’t think people that age are mature enough to have free speech.”

(I will say that it was a group related to humanism, and I’m not sure what the fuck kind of humanist accepts the denial of constitutional rights to entire classes of people.  Not my kind, at any rate.)

There are two issues to discuss here, one surface-level and one a little deeper. I’ll dispatch the surface-level issue first.

I actually do think that there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in high schools, just as there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in certain spaces for adults, such as colleges and workplaces. The best argument I can think of is that these spaces need to promote certain goals and functions, and free speech, while a very important part of our public life in general, can quickly overwhelm these goals and functions. The creation of a safe learning/working environment is more important than letting everyone say exactly what’s on their mind all the time. However, that has nothing to do with “maturity” and everything to do with the particular goals of particular spaces.

First of all, what is “maturity”? Do people suddenly obtain it on their 18th birthday? Are all adults “mature”? If not, should they also be denied their First Amendment rights? How will we determine who is “mature”? Should people with developmental disabilities be denied First Amendment rights? Should people who have demonstrated a lack of impulse control (a potential marker of immaturity)? Should a 30-year-old who goes to wild parties every night and gets drunk and can’t hold down a job be denied First Amendment rights? Should everyone be required to take a maturity examination before they are permitted to exercise rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution? What would that examination entail? An interview? A neurological test?

I am not a constitutional scholar, but note that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans a similar concept, literacy tests for would-be voters, and that legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

So hopefully that complicates this question of “maturity” at least a little bit.

The whole point of rights is that they’re not just for people we like or agree with. They’re not just for the people who have their lives together and always think rationally and critically. They’re not just for adults, or just for white people, or just for Christians. They’re not just for people whose brains work the way we think people’s brains should work. Rights are rights because they are for everyone, especially the people you don’t agree with.

Now on to the thornier part of this discussion, which is this: the attitude displayed by this person towards children and adolescents is very common, and very harmful.

It harms in several ways. One is that engaged, altruistic, passionate adults do not generally develop (at least not easily) from ignored, insulted, condescended-to children. If we tell children that they have nothing of worth to say or contribute until their 18th birthday, believe me, they will not wake up that morning with a sudden desire to write letters to the editor, vote, volunteer, and generally speak up for what’s right. They will be insecure and trapped by impostor syndrome. Not a recipe for an active citizenry.

Oh, I’m sure you’ll say that you hang up all your child’s artistic creations on the fridge and forward their best book reports to Grandma and Grandpa, but let me ask you this: do you think your child has important and insightful observations to make about politics, culture, ethics, art, literature? If your child said something with which you disagree, would you engage them in a spirited debate, or would you shut them down with “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Aww, that’s nice, sweetie”? If your child has criticisms to make about the way they receive their education, or about the extracurricular activities they participate in or the house or neighborhood in which they live, do you actually listen to them and see if there’s any way that the adults in your child’s life (including you) could be doing better?

If you’re reading this and you have children, chances are you do all that stuff, because you’re great. But do most American adults?

At this point someone will usually say “But what if my child says that they are morally opposed to eating vegetables or doing homework or having a bedtime see I can’t possibly take my child’s ideas seriously.” Here’s the thing, though. Even adults sometimes (often) say things that are totally unreasonable. If you truly respect another person and value their thoughts, you can engage their totally unreasonable opinions with reasoned debate. Obviously, In The Real World, we don’t always respect other people and value their thoughts, and that’s (broadly speaking) fine. But you should respect your children and value their thoughts. You can also take this opportunity to model good critical thinking and argumentation skills, by engaging their opinions respectfully and directly.

And I know that parenting is hard and you can’t be a good parent 100% of the time and sometimes you will say “Not now honey” or “That’s nice” because you’re exhausted and juggling 100 things and that’s how it is. I’m not giving parenting advice. I’m absolutely not here to judge who is a Good Parent and who is a Bad Parent. I’m simply offering a reframe. Children saying silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly people. You can engage silly ideas seriously, and thus send the message to your children that 1) backing up one’s arguments with evidence and reason is important, and 2) their arguments are important enough to be met with kind counter-arguments, not outright dismissal and condescension.

Ah, but do I have children, you may ask. No, I do not. I helped raise two children, though, and I carried those children out of a wrecked car and over broken glass once (no, I did not cause the accident), and I taught one of those children to speak, and right now I’m living at home and engaging in all sorts of serious intellectual discussions with those children on the daily. Today I had a discussion with a 13-year-old about the ethics of business, or, why ripping off other children to get nice Pokemon cards for cheap is wrong. This weekend I had a discussion with a 10-year-old about police brutality and racism. Given our privileges and where we live, it’s very possible that I have been, and will remain for some time, the only person to directly address racism with her.

I was also very recently a child. Probably not many of you reading this can remember your own childhood as well as I do. I was a very lucky child because my parents have always endeavored to send me the message that my thoughts are valuable, no matter how old I was. Yes, sure, they sometimes engaged in a bit of condescension, for which I usually called them out and sometimes won the resulting argument. But the fact that there was an argument, and not a “That’s just how it is,” is what matters.

More importantly still, my parents basically lived the whole idea of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” You would probably be surprised to know that although they (probably) don’t even read this blog and (probably) wouldn’t agree with a word on it, they have tirelessly encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, to publish more and more widely, to speak publicly, to ask for payment and recognition. It never seemed to occur to my parents that just because I sometimes said something foolish meant that I shouldn’t have spoken at all.

As a child, I was often stung by my parents’ quick criticism, their rush to ask me for evidence and examples and clarity. I can’t say that it was always easy or pleasant. But I always knew that they loved and valued me. And moreover, that constant process probably contributed to the strength of my writing now.

Perhaps as a result of this aspect of my upbringing, I was editing my high school literary magazine at 16, writing a monthly column for a print newspaper at 17, and publishing in campus magazines and newspapers starting at 18. I started my first blog at 12, as soon as blogs became a thing. And I don’t mean an online diary, although I’d encourage people of all ages to do that to build their writing and communication skills. I mean, I was blogging about politics and society. At 17, I was trained in pro-Israel activism (I used to be a conservative; it went away) and used those skills online–the same skills I now use in the service of the causes I now support. At 18, I started this blog. At 21, my writing first started to go viral online, and that’s when I was invited to join FtB. At 22, I gave my first solo conference talk. (SSACon! W00t!) At 23, I started freelancing professionally.

None of this would’ve happened if the closest adults in my life had not said to me, directly and indirectly, over and over, that my voice matters. It mattered when I was 12. It matters now at 24. It will matter when I’m old and nobody thinks I’m pretty anymore. Maybe it will even matter after I’m gone.

Most children don’t have all the privileges I have that contributed to my ability to put my opinions out there like that. Moreover, not all of them have adults in their lives who encourage them to speak, and who hear them when they do.

And yet, even now, at 24, I hear constantly of how useless and naive and dumb people my age are. You’ve seen the tired millennial-bashing thinkpieces. Despite two degrees and a list of professional accomplishments and leadership positions that’s too long for a standard resume, people who are older constantly talk down to me as though I’m, well, a child. Their child, someone else’s child, doesn’t matter. I’ve thought (not too seriously, but still) about quitting writing publicly plenty of times, and it was almost never because of the violent threats and harassment I receive, although that sucked. It was usually because someone on my own “side” (ha, not really) made me feel like I was worthless and my thoughts are too. (There was one particularly horrid incident where a man insisted over and over, in an increasingly abusive fashion, that I should not write a blog post about a particular topic because, despite my degree in the fucking field, I was not qualified. I must’ve cried. I don’t cry about the internet a lot. I don’t really cry a lot at all.)

If that’s my experience, imagine the experience of young people of color, young trans people, young people from a poor background, young recent immigrants, young people who could not access university education.

We do not, as a society, value our young people. You may think we’re sexy (the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied ones, anyway), you might love it when we spend money on your products, you might love having a few of us at your events to make them seem hip and cool, but you do not value us.

Now for the most difficult and painful part, and that is this: when we do not value young people’s voices and experiences, we create a culture where child abuse is rampant.

This is always the hardest point to defend because adults immediately start telling me all about how they abhor child abuse and how dare I suggest otherwise.

Of course you abhor it. I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. I am confident that if you believe that a child is being abused, you would do the right thing and notify the authorities.

But would you believe that the child is being abused?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their mom (your friend from the PTA, who’s always so friendly and nice) couldn’t possibly do such a thing?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their coach, who always finds you after the game and tells you what a great team player your son is, would never do that?

If we tell children that their experiences don’t matter and adults are always right, why would they even bother to accuse an adult of doing something so wrong?

If we tell children that they’ll understand when they’re older, why wouldn’t they just shrug and try to cope until it stops?

If we tell children that they are not mature enough to be granted one of their constitutional rights, which they learn about in school, which other rights will they assume they don’t deserve?

When will we start to matter? When we turn 18? When we turn 21? When we get married and have kids? When we pass your mandatory maturity exam? When we have stable jobs with benefits and 401(k)s? When we’ve paid off all our loans? (That day may never come for me, thanks to people who are much older and wiser than me.) When a neurological test shows that our brain is no longer developing? (You realize that brains continue to grow and change for our whole lives, right?)

Do any of these sound like rational, just standards by which to judge whether or not someone’s opinions matter?

I commit to doing a better job of listening to children, starting with the ones in my house. Their intellectual and moral development is more important than me getting to feel superior about myself.

~~~

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

 

Big Life Changes + A Cool Way to Support My Writing

Screenshot of my Patreon page.

So, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. I finished my internship, graduated with my masters in social work, and (hopefully temporarily) moved back to Ohio to be with my family while I decide what to do next and look for jobs.

[Please note that although I am about to discuss job hunting, I am not looking for advice at this time.]

To be honest, I’m not optimistic. It’s not really in my nature to be optimistic about things that seem to have more to do with random chance than with actual skills or effort, and almost everyone I know is struggling to find a job, keep a job, or survive financially with the job they do have. Although I’m privileged in many ways, my family immigrated relatively recently and we just don’t have the massive network of connections that many non-immigrants have. So, we’ll see. Meanwhile, I miss my city terribly and I’m not happy about being in a state where you can’t go five miles down the interstate without a huge billboard telling you you’re going to hell for your sins.

There are a few roses amid these thorns, however. One is that I’m getting to see my family a lot and that’s great. Another is that I know lots of cool people in Columbus and I can go there often to have a social life. (I went to a Columbus Rationality meeting last night and was super impressed. It’s a subset of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, if you’re interested in finding out more about that.) Another is that I finally get to relax, sit by the pool, and read a few of those books I’ve been desperate to read.

And another is that I can focus on writing more than I did before, and while inspiration may be difficult to come by when I’m so hopeless and sad a lot of the time, all this time to read and think will hopefully prove useful.

So! A number of people suggested that I start a Patreon for my writing because there are people who’d be willing to support me. I decided to give it a shot, because it seemed fun and potentially helpful.

I’m not going to try to talk anyone into supporting my writing if they’re not already interested in doing so, because honestly that feels weird and icky to me. Spend your money however you think you should spend it. But, even a dollar per post would help me out a lot (and could make the difference in coming back to New York sooner rather than later), and you get perks!

Screenshot of some of the rewards from my Patreon page.

Just a few of the perks.

As much as I want to keep writing, it’s sort of difficult to justify the time I spend on it given that I feel like every spare minute should go towards the project of Getting A Job ASAP So That I’m Not Broke Forever. That’s why your support would actually make a huge difference right now, even if it’s not a lot.

The really fun thing about starting a Patreon has been the opportunity to clarify what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my writing, and what my principles are. Here’s what I wrote:

My blog, Brute Reason, covers social justice, psychology, mental health, sexuality, and other stuff I care about. Most of my writing touches on issues like consent and autonomy, direct communication, community building, and rational thinking. Although my writing often persuades people, I’m more interested in giving people tools to live more happily, think more clearly, and act more ethically. I aspire to be compassionate, charitable, reasonable, nuanced, and honest in my writing. Integrity and accountability are very important to me. My writing is often personal, because I want to remind others who struggle with the things I do that they’re not alone.

It should be obvious that just because I aspire to something doesn’t necessarily mean I always succeed, but it does mean that I always have a way to evaluate whether or not I’m doing what I want to be doing.

Anyway, I hope that if you follow this blog and it’s important to you, you’ll contribute what you can, or share it with others. I’m really excited to see where this goes.

 

“Educate Me!” “Go Google It!”

A common dynamic online:

  • Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions, perhaps on Twitter or Tumblr, and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things–sometimes the particular ones under discussion here, or maybe just something else that Person A might know about.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, hoping to learn more about the topic.
  • Person A is annoyed at the request and responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A doesn’t really care whether Person B understands Social Justice Things or not. Person B may develop a very negative opinion about Social Justice People and Social Justice Things, because that’s how cognitive bias works.

Here’s another common dynamic, perhaps an even more common one:

  • Person A has a blog or a Twitter account that they use to discuss Social Justice Things with like-minded folks. Person A posts something.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions. Person B is privileged relative to Person A on the issues being discussed–gender, race, class, etc. Person B feels annoyed at this discussion. They find all this Social Justice Stuff to be whiny and irritating and they don’t understand why people keep making such a big deal over such little things.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, perhaps worded in a way that reveals their irritation (“Yeah well, how are men supposed to meet women if we can’t even compliment a cute girl on the train?” “Okay so are you suggesting that white people just stop accepting job offers because a Black person should get them instead?”).
  • Person A is annoyed. They were just trying to discuss Social Justice Things with people they trust. They have answered these exact questions on their blog or Twitter dozens of times, as have many other writers. Maybe right now they don’t want to discuss basics like why street harassment is street harassment, or what affirmative action actually is. They are irritated at Person B’s entitled-sounding tone and the fact that Person B doesn’t seem to have done even the bare minimum to teach themselves about these issues.
  • Person A responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B’s confirmation bias leads them to view this as yet another example of Social Justice People being awful rather than viewing this slightly rude response in the context in which it happened.

Here’s the problem: in practice, these dynamics can be almost indistinguishable.

I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind for a while, trying to keep my own privilege in mind but also trying to understand the perspectives of everyone in this situation–the person who innocently asks a 101-level question hoping to learn more, the person who asks a 101-level question hoping to derail the conversation, the Social Justice Person tired of being expected to serve as a free tutor for anyone who asks, the other Social Justice People who feel that we have a responsibility to be kind to newbies, the people who are observing this dynamic from the outside and, more often than not, handing down edicts that they want the Social Justice People to follow without necessarily understanding our perspectives and situations.

Thinking about all this has led me to make a number of observations, some of which contradict each other, and none of which are going to please everyone.

  • Not everyone who talks about Social Justice Things online is doing it for the purpose of educating others.

A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions if that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate. Here’s the thing, though–for some of us, it’s just our daily lives, and we share them with each other because it brings us comfort and connection. If I post a tweet about how I’m really shaken up after a guy followed me down the block screaming sexual obscenities, some men may see this as an invitation to ask me why this is harassment or what the guy should’ve done instead or how exactly I suggest we fix this problem, just throw all the men in jail or what? But I wasn’t posting to educate. I was posting because I’d just gone through a traumatic experience and wanted people to know what I was dealing with and support me.

  • Not all online public spaces actually function as public spaces.

Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about this. For example, one thread of the conversation concerns the use of people’s tweets in news stories without their permission. After a controversial Buzzfeed story collected sexual assault survivors’ tweets without asking the person who has started and was leading the conversation (though the journalist did ask the authors of the individual tweets), media types all over the internet insisted that “Yeah, well, Twitter is public.” Technically, yes, but what does this mean in practice?

In practice, many people use Twitter to connect with others that they might not know in person. That’s the power of Twitter. Making our accounts private wouldn’t do the trick. In a recent Pacific Standard interview, Mikki Kendall discusses the “fetishization” of Black Twitter, which is exactly what it sounds like–Black people on Twitter connecting with each other and discussing things that are relevant to them, whether it’s the Eric Garner shooting or the latest episode of Scandal. Sometimes, clueless white people stumble onto Black Twitter discussions and expect the participants of those discussions to educate them about racism. They don’t understand that those people are there mainly to interact with each other, not to teach white people.

Twitter and Tumblr are public, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is invited to the table–just like if you see a group of friends talking at a restaurant, that is not an invitation to barge in and ask them questions, even though you are able to see them and hear their conversation.

  • Even discussions meant to be educational happen on different levels.

If I’m trying to explain to someone how the fight for same-sex marriage is actually marginalizing more urgent queer causes and essentially demanding that queer folks assimilate and act as straight as possible in order to receive their rights, that may not be the time to show up and ask how I presume same-sex couples could possibly instill good morals in their children. If someone is discussing how laws and police officers and incarceration is not a good solution for street harassment because it doesn’t get at the underlying problem and will only serve to further oppress men of color, that may not be the time to demand to know what’s wrong with telling a hot girl that she’s hot.

To do so would be the equivalent of bursting into a Physics 301 classroom and demanding to be taught basic mechanics. But people don’t realize this because they don’t see social justice as a discipline, a method, a field of inquiry that has many levels and layers of knowledge.

This is why some people refer to basic-question-asking as a form of derailment. The folks who get told they’re derailing often find this difficult to understand–how can just asking questions possibly be derailing? It’s derailing in the sense that you’re trying to get the person to stop talking about what they want to talk about and instead talk about what you want to talk about.

  • The reason many marginalized people don’t want to answer basic questions is because those situations often turn confrontational and nasty.

Yes, it always starts the same–someone asking a basic question. Sometimes I answer and they say, “You’re right.” Sometimes I answer and they say, “I don’t agree, but thanks for taking the time to explain your view.” Sometimes they say, “Huh, I’ll think about that, thanks.” But a disturbingly large percentage of the time, instead, I get drawn into a horrid gaslighting argument that may or may not include the use of personal insults and slurs, or even threats of violence.

I explain this the same way I explain street harassment. If you’re a nice guy who just wants to tell me I’m pretty, you don’t understand–because you have the privilege of not dealing with this on the regular–that so many of the guys who came before you followed that up with FUCK YOU, YOU UGLY SLUTTY CUNT. (Or worse.) If you’re a nice person who just wants to get some answers about some stuff you don’t understand, you may not realize that a bunch of the people who asked me those questions before have turned out truly nasty. And I can’t tell from reading a single typed sentence from you which of those you are.

  • However, people who don’t know much about social justice are unlikely to know/understand much of what I just wrote.

In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.

So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.

  • Meanness to newbies isn’t a Social Justice Problem. It’s a Human Problem.

Perhaps it’s people with an overinflated opinion of Social Justice People who assume that we are somehow magically immune to the flaws that plague the rest of humanity. But every bad thing you find in any group of people–sloppy thinking, meanness, tribalism, abuse, self-centeredness, sexism, racism, any other -ism–also exists among Social Justice People. Maybe slightly less for some of those, maybe slightly more for others–but it’s our virtually-universal human flaws that contribute to all of these issues.

Have you ever tried to post a basic question on a tech or gaming forum? Ever got told to “go read the fucking manual, idiot”? I have! That’s why I don’t post on tech forums when I need help with Python or HTML. Ever asked a professor a basic question and gotten snarked at? I have! I asked a psychology professor in college–a respected expert in her field–a question about APA citations, and got in response, “Are you even a psych major?” Ever posted a question on Facebook or Twitter and had your own friends condescendingly tell you to Google it? I have! And so it goes.

Are you also upset about tech forum admins telling newbies to “go read the fucking manual”? If so, great. If not, you are being hypocritical. And keep in mind that tech forums, unlike someone’s random Tumblr, often are explicitly meant for teaching and learning.

Anyway, I don’t think that being mean to newbies is a Tech Problem or a Gaming Problem or a Psychology Problem or a College Problem or a Miri’s Friends Problem; I think it’s just a problem. I think the irritation we feel when someone wants basic answers is understandable; I also think we should try to think rationally about whether or not it’ll help anyone–our own selves included–to express it.

That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of Human Problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard. (The phrase “get your own house in order,” while admittedly unkind, comes to mind.) And while some might argue that we have some sort of “responsibility” to be better than others–well, I think we try. I think we often fail, because being a human is hard.

  • Googling is unlikely to yield a good social justice education.

That, I think, is the central problem of telling people to “go Google it.” The social justice information that is easily found through Googling is likely to be written by and for straight white able-bodied American middle-class people. We, as Social Justice People, know this and understand why it’s a problem; Hypothetical Newbie does not. Unless you want Hypothetical Newbie to receive their entire social justice education through Jezebel and white male writers, I’d advise against telling them to Google their question. (Remember, too, that Googling certain issues is also likely to land them on MRA sites. Nobody wants that.)

If you don’t know what you’re missing anything, you won’t know to look for what you’re missing.

  • Unfortunately, the response to being angrily told to educate yourself will rarely be to educate yourself.

(With the huuuuge caveat that a lot of what gets interpreted as “anger” when coming from women or people of color or women of color in particular is not actually anger, or wouldn’t be interpreted as anger when coming from white men. It would be considered being direct. But sometimes it really is.)

Anger can be absolutely 100% justified and still cause people to shrink and shut down and go away. That is, in fact, one of its purposes. For most people, getting yelled at is not conducive to the sort of mood–hopeful, curious, alert–that is conducive to learning. Many of us have had awful grade school teachers who yelled at us; some of us might still remember what that was like. I do. I didn’t learn squat-diddly-doo in that class, so focused was I on making myself small and unnoticeable and calming myself down.

(That class, by the way? It was English. The grade? Seventh. That was the year I started getting really, really into writing. I am thankful every day that out of all the ways that teacher wrecked me, destroying my love of writing wasn’t one of them.)

So there’s sometimes a difference between behaving in ways that are absolutely understandable and justifiable, and behaving in ways that are likeliest to get us the results we want to see. When I think about how to respond to someone online, I think about what I want to happen here, and how I can best make that happen. It sucks that we can’t always express ourselves fully if we are to achieve certain goals, but that’s part of being realistic and goal-oriented.

Where do we go from here? How do we resolve these tensions? If educating others is important to us, how do we do it without burning out, giving in to entitled expectations from others, or demanding that Social Justice People be stronger and smarter and better and kinder than everyone else at all times?

My only two suggestions are that if you ever feel like yelling at someone for asking you a question, first consider one of these alternatives: 1) ignoring the message, or 2) linking them to a good resource that might answer it for them.

To that end, it might help to start amassing a database of links for common questions. One incredible example is Aida Manduley’s Ferguson masterpost. Shakesville’s Feminism 101 is also great, though perhaps not entirely 101. Another, much more general one is my own. If you know of others, please link to them.

I try to encourage people to have compassion for each other. This means, fellow Social Justice People: I know it feels impossible, but we need to try to remember that not everyone who cannot be discerned from an asshole is an asshole. Not being willing to take the risk is perfectly okay, but I think it’s better to not take that risk in a way that minimizes hurt to people who did nothing wrong. For instance: ignoring/blocking. And, not-Social Justice People: try to remember that when we’re hurting and angry, it’s because of lifetimes of death by a thousand cuts that you can’t see because you haven’t learned to see them yet. I hope you find a way to learn, but in the meantime, try to cut us some slack for being upset.

To close, I’ll link to Ozy Frantz’s excellent post, “Certain Propositions Concerning Callout Culture.” Their piece is sort of about the general case of what I’ve discussed here, and I echo many of their views, caveats, and recommendations.

~~~

Here is a great article about a very similar problem plaguing another great community: Wikipedia. Although the situation is not analogous in many ways, hopefully it will serve as an example of both the harms and the occasional inevitability of Newbie Hate/Fear.

Official policies tell editors to tolerate newcomers’ innocent mistakes (“Please do not bite the newcomers”), but active editors often reverse newbies’ contributions without explanation. “Activists have been at it five and 10 years and don’t tolerate little mistakes,” says Jensen, an editor since 2005. He recalls running a workshop in which a well-known expert on Montana history tried to add a paragraph to the site, only to see it immediately erased.

Editors distrust newcomers for a reason: bitter experience. “Trolls come,” Jemielniak tells me in an interview. “If you spend time reviewing recent changes, after an hour or two you will have a feeling that the world is composed mostly of primary school students and cranks.” Some vandals simply replace an article’s text with random characters: destruction for its own sake. Instead of improving article content, editing often means acting as a human spam filter. Jemielniak and others may decry Wikipedians’ emphasis on edit numbers, but valuing lots of small changes, even out of testosterone-fueled competitiveness, has an unsung benefit: It encourages editors to discover and repair damage. Eternal vigilance keeps the site’s contents from decaying.

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.

In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing

This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

Capital-W Writers and lowercase-w writers

A conversation with a friend has me thinking about how I still, despite everything, don’t consider myself a capital-W Writer, just a lowercase-W writer.

I wonder what it would take.

I wasn’t a Writer when I wrote poems and short stories just for fun.

I wasn’t a Writer when they got published in my high school literary magazine.

I wasn’t a Writer when I became that magazine’s editor.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started writing for a small local newspaper at age 17.

I wasn’t a Writer when I got some pieces published in some small national magazines at age 18.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started a blog.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started studying journalism, and was expected to go out into the world and report like a professional.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started getting introduced to people as one.

I wasn’t a Writer when I wrote a weekly column for my campus newspaper.

I wasn’t a Writer when people started telling me that reading my writing had made all the difference.

I wasn’t a Writer when I got published on websites much better-known than mine.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started getting paid just to blog.

I wasn’t a Writer when I started speaking at conferences because of that blog.

I wasn’t a Writer even when I put it on my business card to hand out at those conferences.

I wasn’t a Writer when people started telling me that I should write a book.

I wasn’t a Writer when I knew that writing is the only thing that has been with me since early childhood, that will be with me forever, that keeps me going when nothing else feels good anymore.

I wonder sometimes what it’ll take. It seems so easy to answer that question now: well, it would take getting published in a major online outlet like Slate or Jezebel. It would take writing a book and self-publishing it. Or it would take writing a book and legit-publishing it. Or it would take getting published in a major print publication. Or it would take getting invited onto a show. Or it would take writing a bestseller. Or it would take making enough money through writing to quit my real job. Or…

I don’t even want all that stuff, because I probably couldn’t handle it. But I do wonder when I get to be a Writer and not just a writer.

Yes, Activists Have Doubts Too, And Also Criticism Is A Process (A Rant About Two Kinda Different Things)

I was avoiding my statistics homework today and found this comic on Tumblr, by an art student named Alyssa Korea:

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo2_500

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo3_500

This really resonated with me, for various reasons. First of all, it really captures that feeling of Am I doing it wrong am I saying something problematic am I exactly what I’m fighting against that many of us experience as a constant low hum but never talk enough about. Activism of all kinds–not just social justice–has a high barrier to entry because you sort of have to learn a certain language, to talk the talk. You also have to learn to walk the walk and exemplify the ideals you’re fighting for in your everyday life, which is why many feminist women agonize over things like wearing makeup, wanting to be pretty, getting married, and having children–they fear that it makes them “Bad Feminists.”

This is, of course, not unique to activists. Communities define themselves both proactively and also in opposition to those they seek to exclude (and seeking to exclude people isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). As the furor over “Fake Geek Girls” shows, geek/nerd/fandom communities are struggling with this too. And not just that–perhaps you have reaped the shame of being a Star Wars fan who enjoys the prequel trilogy, or a Harry Potter fan who prefers the movies to the books. (Only one of these two applies to me; I’ll let you guess which.)

But the stakes are higher with social justice. If you say the wrong thing, you risk more than just annoying people who think the prequel trilogy is totally the stupidest shit ever. You risk seriously hurting someone you’re trying to work with and exposing your own unexamined prejudice–which all of us have, believe me–to people you respect and want to gain the respect of.

It’s not just a social thing, though. We want to be right, not just for selfish egotistical reasons but also because we’re invested in the concept of being able to change things. If you’re wrong about what causes X Problem or how to fix it, then, at least in this particular instance, you’re not helping. And you really want to help. We all do.

That’s the other reason the particular sort of angst in this comic is something I can really relate to. I have a moment at least once a day when I’m like WHAT IF EVERYTHING I BELIEVE AND THINK I KNOW IS ACTUALLY WRONG. There are probably a few reasons for this: 1) impostor syndrome, 2) having always had plenty of people tell me that everything I believe and think I know is actually wrong, 3) having been raised a skeptic.

That third one is why I ultimately think that, no matter how unpleasant it is to do what the woman in the comic is doing–what I do every day–that is actually a feature, not a bug. Questioning yourself is good. It makes you better. Questioning your beliefs and opinions also doesn’t mean you have to question your worth as a person. You can be wrong about something–many things, even–and still be a decent, worthy human being.

Nonetheless, activism is contingent on getting people’s attention and making strong statements. I wish it weren’t, but it is. If I wrote a blog post like this comic, it probably wouldn’t have much of an influence because I’d sound wishy-washy and uncertain of my own positions. People wouldn’t feel compelled to think about what I wrote and to take action on it.

On the other hand, maybe it would do some good. Opinionated people are often accused of being “dogmatic” or “intolerant” of other opinions, but that’s partially because nobody hears or reads all the inner monologues and debates we have. There have been times when I’ve written entire blog posts, realized I disagreed with them, and deleted them without publishing. You’ve never read those blog posts. There are huge swaths of fascinating subjects that I’ve never written about–racial preferences in dating, whether or not religious belief is a choice, why boys are falling behind in schools, the usefulness of the DSM, whether or not we should abandon the label “feminist”–because I just haven’t made up my mind!

By the time I do write something, I’ve generally read a ton of articles about it (or even books in some cases), pushed it around in my mind like a picky eater pushes food around on a plate, discussed it with a few people, and debated myself extensively. Sure, sometimes I change my mind later, but by the time a blog post appears, hours and hours of preparation have gone into it. So you can imagine it’s a little annoying to be told that perhaps I just haven’t “considered” other opinions.

I like this method. It works for me. But I sometimes worry that if I reveal it to people, they will lose respect for me as an activist because they’ll see that I’m not always as firm in my convictions as I appear to me. I struggle with doubt. I wonder sometimes if we’re not just making mountains out of molehills or being “too sensitive.” (I wonder, of course, but you know how I really feel about that.) Maybe that’s an irrational fear. Maybe all of you feel the same way as the woman in the comic.

And that’s why I think the comic is so important, especially when it comes to feminist media criticism. People often try to play “Gotcha!” with feminists who criticize media, hoping to catch them in an act of hypocrisy. For instance, if a feminist says something like, “It’s kinda fucked up that all the female characters on this show are always dressed so revealingly,” a decidedly-not-feminist will be like “OH SO ARE YOU SAYING THAT WOMEN SHOULDN’T DRESS REVEALINGLY? HUH?”

Of course, these arguments are usually made in bad faith. I have been accused of “perpetuating patriarchy” by people who previously commented that they refuse to believe that patriarchy even exists. So when conversations like this happen, it’s generally pretty clear that the person isn’t actually super concerned with women’s right to wear as much or as little as they want; they’re just trying to force me into a corner in which I look like a hypocrite.

But this comic shows that 1) we do not have easy answers to this, and 2) criticism is a process, not a product. One doesn’t produce criticism and then go “Alright here’s my criticism! Here’s my Ultimate Answer To The Problem of Objectification of Women In The Media!” Feminist criticism is, rather, a process in which we think critically about the images and scripts with which we are constantly presented, picking them apart and figuring out why they’re so common and compelling, trying to design slightly better (but still wildly imperfect) ones instead.

And that, really, is what all activism is.

[interview] Greta Christina on Writing Dirty Stories

[Content note: BDSM]

Greta Christina has a new book of kinky erotic stories out. It’s called Bending and I read it and it’s great. So I interviewed her about the book and the process and ethics of writing porn.

If you’re curious why I refer to them as “dirty stories” and not “erotica,” Greta herself explains in the introduction:

These are not ‘erotica’ — except in the sense that ‘erotica’ has become the term of art in publishing for ‘dirty stories with some vaguely serious literary intent.’ These are not tender stories about couples in love making love. (Except for that one that is.” These are not sweet, gentle, happy stories about unicorns fucking rainbows. (Except for the one about the unicorn fucking the rainbow.)

Here’s the interview!

Greta Christina's Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

Greta Christina’s Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

1. What’s your favorite thing about writing dirty stories? What’s the most challenging thing about it?

I have two favorite things. The first is the challenge as a writer. Can I shape my sexual fantasies into writing, in a way that other people find compelling? Sexuality can be so personal: our own fantasies are so exciting to us, but just describing them doesn’t automatically make them exciting to other people. Even if our fantasies overlap with other people’s fantasies, even if what pushes our buttons pushes other people’s buttons — just a description of what happens in the fantasy isn’t enough to make it exciting. Not to me, anyway. I have to find the real core, what exactly it is about this fantasy that makes it hot for me. That’s really interesting. It’s like therapy.

The other favorite thing is that it gets me off. Sinking deep into a sex fantasy, spending hours with it, closely examining it to find out what makes it hot… it makes my clit hard just thinking about it.

The most challenging things are very closely related to my favorite things. It’s very difficult to write porn that really captures the essence of what makes a fantasy exciting. Often, when I first flesh out a dirty story, I find writing it totally exciting and compelling… and then when I come back to it later for revisions, it just seems flat. I could feel the emotional and psychological resonance myself when I was first writing it, but I didn’t get it onto the page. So I have to look at how the characters are feeling about the sex they’re having, what it means to them, whether their lives will be any different because of this sex. I have to find a way to convey what it feels to be this person, or these people, having this sex.

Plus I have this thing about wanting my porn to be interesting and exciting… even for readers who don’t share my kinks. That’s one of my favorite things as a reader/ viewer of porn: if porn can get me off even when it doesn’t push my particular buttons, if it get show me what’s exciting and intriguing about sexual acts that don’t normally interest me, that is pure win. I want to give that to other readers. But it’s hard.

Also, getting back to how writing porn gets me off: If I whack off too early in the process of writing a story, I lose my momentum, and have to come back to it later. It’s a challenge to hold off on masturbating long enough to get a good chunk of the story out.

2. That story about the unicorn and the rainbow. What inspired it?

“The Unicorn and the Rainbow” was totally written on a dare. I perform in this regular erotic reading series in San Francisco, “Perverts Put Out,” and a couple of years ago I read a fiction piece, which I prefaced by warning the audience: “This is something of a disturbing story, it has elements of borderline consent and other content that some people may find unsettling.” And then I added, “But when do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and *not* say that? When do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and say, ‘This is a really sweet story, this is a gentle, happy, loving story about unicorns fucking rainbows?'”

And at the break, about a dozen people came up to me and said, “I really want you to write the story about unicorns fucking rainbows.”

Challenge accepted!

3. Do you believe that writers of erotica have any ethical obligation to encourage consensual sex and to discourage sexual assault? If so, what is the extent of this obligation? How can writers balance it with their desire to write stories that express fantasies that many people have, including fantasies about non-consent and manipulation?

That’s a very large question, and a tricky one. I don’t think I can give a complete answer to it in a brief interview. But I’ll do my best.

I’m not sure if I think other writers have that ethical obligation. But I certainly feel it myself. Especially since so much of my porn fiction is about non-consent, borderline consent, manipulation, abuse of power. I actually wrote an entire blog post about this, while I was first putting the book together: On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture. do think artists — and not just creators of erotica, all artists — have a responsibility to try to avoid contributing to culture in a toxic way. But I don’t think that all art has to represent a Utopian ideal. Bor-ing!

Here’s how I dealt with this in Bending. I talked in the introduction about the difference between fantasies of non-consent and the reality of non-consent. I put a consensual SM resource guide at the end of the book, reiterating that these stories are meant to be fantasies and not a how-to guide, and directing people towards actual how-to guides. And I made the non-consensual content very clear, in the description of the book and in the introduction and in all the promotional materials… so people who don’t want to read about that stuff know to avoid it.

As for other writers… I don’t know. Did the creators of Ocean’s Eleven have an obligation to open the movie with, “This is just a fantasy, we do not recommend that you knock over casinos in real life”? That seems silly. But then again, rape and sexual abuse of power is very widespread in our world. Knocking over casinos isn’t.

4. Has writing dirty stories changed how you think about sexuality, kink, consent, etc? What have you learned from the process?

Again — large question! I could talk about that for pages. I promise I won’t, though. I’m just going to pick out one thing.

Before I started writing dirty stories, I was very interested in acting out non-consent fantasies in real life. (With consenting partners, obviously!) I was pretty blithe about it, actually — “la la la, I have fantasies about this all the time, why wouldn’t I want to act it out?” — and it was one of the great frustrations of my sex life that I hadn’t found a partner who was willing to do that with me. But writing kinky fiction has given me a lot more respect for the potential landmines in acting this stuff out. It’s important to me that my porn be believable, that it feel like it could be really happening with real people… but it’s extremely hard to write non-consent porn that’s realistic and believable, and that isn’t a horror show. Struggling with that made me realize how hard it is to translate some fantasies into reality — even just in the form of fiction. And that made me more cautious about venturing into those waters in my sex play, and gave me more respect for my partners who didn’t want to go there. I’m not saying I never would do that — but I would go in very slowly, and tread very cautiously, if I did.

5. Do you think stories like yours have the power to destigmatize kink and BDSM? How so?

I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. And I would hope that these stories might also help destigmatize porn/ erotica as well. I would hope that people reading these stories would recognize that smart, thoughtful, insightful, non-fucked-up people can be into this stuff. But I suspect that people who stigmatize kink — or porn, for that matter — aren’t going to read these stories.

6. One of the sections of Bending has stories in which religion is used to manipulate and coerce someone sexually. How did your own views on religion shape these stories, if at all?

Again — a very large question! I’m actually doing an entire guest post on this topic on JT Eberhard’s WWJTD? blog later on in the blog tour, on June 10. The tl;dr: I didn’t write religious porn at all until I became an atheist. Being an atheist writer and activist put religion much more on my radar — including the darker, more fucked-up elements of religion, and its huge potential for abuse of power. Which, of course, I passionately oppose in real life… and which, of course, my fantasies and my sexual imagination immediately began lapping up.

7. Which story is your favorite? Yes, you have to pick one!

“Bending.” No question. “Bending” is the novella that makes the foundation of this collection — and I worked harder on it than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life. (With the exception of Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Funny thing, how hard work pays off. Not always, of course — there are writers who have struggled for years over work that never came out right — but often.

And I think the length made a difference as well. Having the space, in the novella length of “Bending,” to really get into the depths and the details and the richness of my characters’ sex lives and sexual feelings, I think made it more powerful. Plus, in a novella, there’s space for the characters to really change and evolve. In many of my short stories, the stories end when the main character is about to make a change in her life. They end when the main character is about to open a new door, or close one behind her. In “Bending,” I was able to take the main character, Dallas, through that change. I think that gives it a richness, an extra dimension, that’s hard to get across in a shorter piece.

8. Which one was the most difficult to write?

And again — “Bending.” For all the same reasons that it’s my favorite. I worked harder on that piece than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life.

If your interest has been sufficiently piqued, Bending is available for purchase on Amazon, Smashwords, and Nook, and will soon be available as an audiobook and a paperback!

Also, if you want to see the other stops on Greta’s blog tour, here’s the ongoing list.

[meta] On Tone, the Policing Thereof, and What It Is I Do Here

So my “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot” post went a little bit viral and I’m still responding to comments on it. One thing that has come up a lot are guys telling me that they basically agree with me, but that they are very concerned that the tone with which I delivered that message will keep other guys from agreeing with what they do earnestly believe is a very important message.

I ended up responding to one such comment with such a long rebuttal that I thought I’d repost it as a regular post and perhaps clarify some things for people who don’t understand why I dislike the tone argument* so much, and what I’m actually doing with this blog anyway.

~~~

Here’s the thing with concern/tone trolling and telling writers/activists how to be writers/activists.

Actually, here are the multiple things.

1. The fact that a given rhetorical approach does not work on you is not, in and of itself, evidence that it shouldn’t be used because it doesn’t work on anyone. Different people respond best to different argumentation styles. Some people need more hand-holding that they’re going to get here. That’s fine; there are other spaces where there is more hand-holding. Some people respond well to much harsher tactics than I ever use here–for instance, PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula. Someone once told me that it was PZ and his harsh commentariat that made him abandon his anti-feminist beliefs. Yup! Different strokes for different folks.

I’ve convinced many people of many things in the short few years I’ve been blogging. I’ve also failed to convince many people of many things. That’s okay. Either those people are best convinced by a different strategy, which I’m sure they’ll find their way to eventually, or those people are just too set in their views to be convinced. Yes, that’s a possibility, and I fully accept it.

If you are not satisfied with the style used in this space because you think it’s too harsh, you are welcome to start your own space, whether it be a blog, a forum, a subreddit, a meatspace discussion group, you name it. I will warn you, though, that hand-holdey spaces for anti-feminist men can go very, very, rape-apologetically wrong, à la the Good Men Project. But if that’s your passion, give it a shot.

Regardless, what is under discussion in this post and its comments are the ideas I’ve laid out in the post–not my writing style, not my tone, not anything else related to how I do what I do. Not only is that simply off-topic, but also, I did not ask you for advice on my writing style and tone and activism. That’s not to say that I never solicit or accept such advice–I do, but from fellow writers and activists who know what they’re doing. I promise you that there is plenty of discussion going on inside feminist spaces on how to reach men/non-feminists and all sorts of other issues that we face as a movement.

One reason you may have received such a hostile response from my commenters is because you don’t seem to realize that 1) we discuss and debate this issue vigorously on our own, and 2) you are not the first person to come in here and offer us unsolicited advice on something we have more experience with than you. I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but that’s how it is. You are not the first person to do it on this post, you are not the first person to do it on this blog, you are not the first person to do this on ANY online feminist space, you are not the first person to do this in the history of the movement. And, by the way, if you look at the history of the feminist movement, you’ll see that it’s been massively successful despite people from the very beginning being all like “BUT HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO CONVINCE MEN IF YOU ARE SO ANGRY.” Somehow, we did it. We got the right to vote. We got anti-employment discrimination laws passed. We made marital rape a crime. We made abortion and birth control legal. We got Title IX. We will end street harassment, too. Maybe not this year. Maybe not even this decade. But we will end this shit. Promise!

2. You may be misunderstanding what it is I do here. My aim with this blog is not to convince every single viciously anti-feminist man to be a feminist. In fact, it’s not to convince any viciously anti-feminist men to be feminists, although if I get a few then that’s great. If that were my goal, though, I would’ve burned out years ago, because it’s very rare that that happens. Not because I have the “wrong” style or techniques, but because that depends mostly on the person being convinced and not on the person trying to convince them.

And, yes, the title of this post literally addressed men; that is, it was written in second-person. That’s because I would like men to read this post and think about it. But also, because it’s a good rhetorical strategy that gets attention. A post titled “Why I Personally Believe Men Shouldn’t Tell Random Girls On The Street That They’re Hot” is clunkier and less attention-grabbing, and also sounds kind of dumb. That’s all there is to it.

So, if I don’t write in order to convert people who vehemently disagree with me, why do I write? To give people things to think about. To provide people who agree with me but lack the words to express it with arguments they can take away and use elsewhere. To show people who struggle with the same things I struggle with that they are accepted, understood, not alone. To tip the people on the fence over to my side. To inform people of things they didn’t know about before. To have fun.

Accordingly, the way I judge my own writing is not, How many people did I convert?

It’s, Have I expressed myself clearly and eloquently? Have I stayed true to my own values and opinions? Have I given people things to think about? Have I made people who are struggling feel a bit better? Have I taught them something? Did I have a good time writing this, and did people have a good time reading it?

So, not only are you giving me advice that I did not ask for, but you’re also giving me advice that I don’t actually need.

3. You, and many other commenters, claim that I and those who agree with me don’t “understand” the male perspective or don’t “take it into account.” Oh, but we do. It is impossible to be a woman in this world and not “understand” the male perspective. The male perspective is on TV. It’s in the papers. It’s the professors giving our lectures at school. It’s our fathers, and our mothers who echo our fathers. It’s shouted at us on the streets. It’s provided without solicitation in every space we ever enter, including the online spaces we try to create for ourselves.

You cannot be a woman in a patriarchal society and not understand men. But you can be a man in a patriarchal society and not understand women.

This blog is not a space where I have to provide anyone’s perspective but my own. While there’s much more to me than being a woman, one thing that I’m definitely not is a man. You will not see the “male perspective” in my writing, and nor should you.

~~~

Some excellent resources:
A Few Things To Stop Doing When You Find a Feminist Blog

Derailing For Dummies

Geek Feminism on the tone argument

Geek Feminism on concern trolls

Greta Christina on arguing effectively on the Internet

~~~

*It is not, by the way, that I think tone doesn’t or shouldn’t matter, or that there are never important considerations to be made about tone. I just don’t think this is one of them.

[blogathon] What I’ve Learned From Blogging

This is the fourth post in my SSA blogathon, and another reader request. Don’t forget to donate!

I’ve been blogging in some form or another for ten years. Since I was 12. Did they even have blogs back then? Apparently!

But I only started this blog a little less than four years ago, and it took about a year or two for it to really start to pick up readers. I’ve always written primarily for myself–because it’s fun, because I wanted to work out my ideas–otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for 7 or 8 years before starting to really get readers. But having an audience and interacting with it is a big part of what blogging’s all about, or else there would be a lot fewer blogs in the world.

That makes blogging very different from other kinds of writing, and even though I’ve been writing and one way or another since early childhood, blogging has taught me a few unique lessons.

1. Do it for yourself.

I mentioned this already, but I’ll expand on it. Blogging and writing in general can be very thankless things to do. While I get plenty of lovely comments and emails from people about how my blog has helped them and influenced their opinions, most people who read this blog and like it will not tell me so. And nor should they feel obligated to. But that means that in order for someone to keep up blogging and not get burned out, they have to do it primarily for themselves–because it’s good for them, because they love it. The feeling I get from finally working out in writing an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for hours or days doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever done.

But this is important because it applies to many things one does in life. I learned to love working out because I learned to do it for me, not for the approval of people who tell me I need to work out. I learned to love going to parties because I found a way to do it in a way that I actually enjoyed rather than doing it because it’s what college students “ought” to do (and I avoid the kinds of parties that I would not enjoy). And I predict that I’ll love my career not (just) because I want to “help people,” but because I enjoy the process of working through someone’s patterns of thinking with them.

Of course, sometimes you have to do things for other people and not for yourself. That’s a fact of life. But it’ll go better if you find a way to do it for yourself, too.

2. Your worth is not based on how many people agree with you.

Let me tell you this: no matter how confident you are, no matter how many compliments you’ve gotten, even the kindest and most polite criticism will sting. (And when it’s not polite at all, it stings even more.) I’ve come to realize that feeling stung by criticism is not a bad thing in and of itself; once the feeling passes, you can evaluate the criticism on its own merits and hopefully improve and clarify your own position.

But regardless of whether criticism is fair or not, it doesn’t have anything to do with one’s worth as a person. I could write something that every single person who reads it disagrees with and I’d still be a generally decent person who tries to be a good friend and partner and who tries to contribute to the causes and communities I care about. Even if I happen to write the stupidest fucking post that has ever graced this blog, those things are still true.

3. Don’t expect to make a huge difference immediately (or ever).

This also comes back to doing it for yourself. But I think that the more you expect your blogging/activism to Change All The Things!, the easier it’ll be for you to get burned out when you inevitably find that you’re not living up to your own expectations.

Blogging is even less likely to make Big Concrete Change than other forms of activism. If you participate in a march or rally, you’ll get a huge amount of visibility for your cause. If you lobby your congressperson, they may vote the way you wanted them to and help pass important legislation or block terrible legislation. If you participate in a boycott of a company, the company may cave and stop doing whatever shitty thing it was doing.

What does blogging do? Someone, somewhere out there, might read a post and feel like they’re not alone. They may write to you and tell you, but they may not. Someone, somewhere out there, might start questioning beliefs they’d previously held sacred. Someone, somewhere out there, might find a good new argument to use next time they have to debate with someone about religion or politics or social justice.

Sometimes blogging does make a huge visible difference. A good example is something Jessica Valenti discusses in her book The Purity Myth–in 2005, a Virginia lawmaker named John Cosgrove proposed a bill that would’ve made it illegal for a woman to fail to report a miscarriage to the police within 12 hours. But citing Internet backlash, he later withdrew the bill.

But I think that’s rare. Most of the time you will not see huge changes from your blogging, though you may occasionally see small ones. They still matter.

4. You get to decide how to blog. Not your commenters. You.

I have a pretty detailed and specific comment policy. Some of it’s the usual stuff, but some of it is pretty specific to my style of blogging and moderating. For instance, if you use a nasty tone, I get to respond to you with a nasty tone. If you disagree and don’t back up your disagreement with any evidence or reasoning, you’ll get deleted. If you’re a bigot, you get deleted. Plenty of people dislike my style of moderation, and I frankly don’t care.

I decided early on that what would be up for debate on this blog would be ideas, not how I choose to blog. Nobody gets to tell me they don’t like my tone. Nobody gets to tell me not to feed the trolls if that’s what I want to do. Nobody gets to tell me to write about something other than what I want to write about. Nobody gets to tell me that FREEZE PEEEEACH.

My blog, my rules!

5. People will assume that who you are when you’re blogging is Who You Are.

This is one I’ve had a lot of trouble with. To some extent, my blog is a good approximation of who I am and what I care about. But to some extent it’s not. My response to commenters prattling on about false rape accusations is not the same as my response to people in meatspace prattling on about false rape accusations. My argumentation online is not the same as my argumentation in meatspace. Having now met many bloggers I follow offline, I know I’m far from alone in this.

But people don’t always know or consider this, so I think people often assume I’m really snarky and argumentative in meatspace, too. I’m actually not. I much prefer listening to talking, and in fact, I read a lot more than I write. I read dozens of articles a day and dozens of books a year. What I write is a fraction of what I think about as I read all these things.

Sometimes this means I make an effort to be extra friendly, smiley, and easy-going in public. But I think the most important thing for me is to remember that my personality, like everyone else’s, has multiple facets, and that I make good decisions about which sides to deploy in given situations.

Actually, I have a lot more to say about things I’ve learned from blogging, so I’ll probably have to write a follow-up post since this one’s super-long. Stay tuned!

~~~

Liked this post? Why not donate to the SSA?