tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I request that you read my comment policy before commenting, especially if you don't know me offline.

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Edited to add as of February 26, 2013: There have been intermittent problems with using OpenID to log in to Dreamwidth. The most reliable way to comment is to create a Dreamwidth account, which is free.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
[CW: rape] I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention, by Nicole Silverberg for Reductress (2016-08-17). See, you can write humor that deals with rape and that's actually funny.

The Blood-bag: Co-narcissists and Narcissists in Tech, by Marlena Compton and Valerie Aurora (2016-08-22). On people who enable narcissists (i.e. most people who work in the tech industry.) The "blood bag" metaphor is so good.

How To Make a Real Commitment to Diversity, by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (2016-08-17). The description of professors who give lip service to diversity in their programs but refuse to take the slightest risk to encourage it (or even to, you know, discipline predatory people) is so familiar.

“You Do Not Exist To Be Used”: Dismantling Ideas of Productivity in Life Purpose, by Gillian Giles for The Body Is Not an Apology (2016-08-17). "You do not exist to be used."

Shameless plug: buy a "San Fran Trans Co" shirt from my friend's collective!

What It's Like to Have 'High-Functioning' Anxiety, by Sarah Schuster for The Mighty (2016-06-27). In general I don't find "high-functioning"/"low-functioning" typologies to be useful, and I don't find everything in this article rings true for me, but some of it does.

Meeting the Free Speech Crusaders Who Want to End Political Correctness, by Sam Kriss for Vice (2016-08-17). This line is brilliant, about why Internet trolls love citing the notion of "debate": "It's not hard to see why: only in a formal debate do you have to give stupid and boring ideas a hearing they don't deserve."

The Troubling Trendiness Of Poverty Appropriation, by July Westhale for The Establishment (2015-11-23). "It’s likely, from where I sit, that this back-to-nature and boxed-up simplicity is not being marketed to people like me, who come from simplicity and heightened knowledge of poverty, but to people who have not wanted for creature comforts. For them to try on, glamorize, identify with. "

I, Racist by John Metta (2015-07-06). "But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings."

Activism, Language, and Differences of Opinion, by Julia Serano (2016-07-19) -- links to some of Serano's greatest hits re: language, politics, and social justice.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
Clean Eating and Dirty Women, by Flavia Dzodan (2016-08-03). "...the marketing of 'clean eating' is an extension of historical associations of womanhood with dirt, fear of female sexuality and a desire to control it."

Worthless Intent, by Cate Huston (2016-06-23). "The thing about intentions is that they are the start of conflict resolution, but we often talk like they are the end of conflict resolution. This is completely wrong. Believing that someone means well might get you to the table to talk to them, but it does not get you to agree with them."

“A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment, by Charlie Warzel for Buzzfeed (2016-08-11). "On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but — to use the Silicon Valley term of art — a fundamental feature."

A massive new study debunks a widespread theory for Donald Trump’s success, by Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo for the Washington Post (2016-08-12). Suggests Trump's popularity is due to racism more than economic insecurity.

Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation (a follow up), by Julia Serano (2016-08-11). Followup to Serano's essay on trans kids and "desistance" from last week.

[CW: pregnancy, childbirth, blood/gore] Monstrous Births, by Sarah Blackwood for The Hairpin (2016-08-10). "Fuck empowerment! Children are little death machines, they rip through your body. They chew on you. They are animals. We are animals, left bloody and with vulnerable bellies sliced after a good fight."

Fascinating Photos from the Secret Trash Collection in a New York Sanitation Garage, by Dylan Thuras (2016-03-17). Lovely pictures of well-organized things.

How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia, by Anna Maria Barry-Jester for FiveThirtyEight (2016-01-08). I share this every time it comes around. MSG sensitivity doesn't exist, yet even doctors believed it did for a long time because of racism.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[CW: Discussion of child abuse.]

We all know about the distinction between ask culture and guess culture, right? If we've read about the difference between these two approaches to communication, we've probably read that ask culture is better, whether the writer phrases it subtly or not-so-subtly. Jonathan Chait, a guy who's wrong like it's his job, does his job here by saying:

"This is actually pretty simple: Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. What's more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us...


Lots of people agree with Chait. It's best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games, right? If you wait for your roommate to notice that you end up with flies in the kitchen when they put the compost bin lid on loosely rather than just emptying the compost, for example, you're just going to get frustrated and treat them negatively because of your bottled-up resentment, right? And it'll all be your fault: if you had just said, "Hey, I prefer it if you take out the compost when it gets full," they would have known what you needed and probably would have done it; then your need would have been met. Isn't it best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games? It's bad to be passive-aggressive. It's a sin.

Maybe you've read about learned helplessness. If you have, you've probably come away with a lot of value judgments about people who experience it, too. They just sabotage themselves. They just stand in their own way. If your friend says, "I'm not going to ask my manager for help because he's just going to tell me I'm stupid," you should tell your friend, "You'll never get what you want if you don't ask for it, right?"

When it comes to school projects, open-source projects, or that job you get paid to do, it's best to collaborate, right? Nobody ever accomplished anything big by working on their own, so if somebody is more comfortable working alone, they just need to get over it, right? It's nobody else's responsibility to make them feel comfortable reaching out to others -- rather, they need to get over themselves and reach out. If you prefer to work alone, or you don't feel comfortable working with others, you must not want to be productive, and in a capitalist society, we know that it's bad to be unproductive.

In the valuation of ask culture over guess culture, of pulling yourself up by your emotional bootstraps over learned helplessness, of collaboration over solo working, there's a common pattern: the attachment of moral virtue to personality traits. In all three cases, the personality traits that get imbued with negative moral value are the ones that people who have survived trauma tend to have. (If you're a survivor and you don't feel that you're a guesser, that you experience learned helplessness, or you're a lone wolf on the job, great! That doesn't mean your trauma isn't real, too. It might mean that you've had some counterbalancing experience that helped you trust people more than your traumatic experiences would have taught you to do.)

Personality as Survival Strategy

"Personality is a strategy for getting out of childhood alive." -- Frank Sulloway
People who grow up in environments where it's not okay to express their feelings or needs, where they're punished for asking for things or where they just don't bother asking because they know that if they do, they won't be heard, learn that they need to take on all the emotional labor themselves. They learn that to ask explicitly for what they need is to step out of line, to do something incredibly dangerous. Other people operate by mysterious rules, and the only way to survive is to work as hard as possible to infer those rules based on what you can observe, because asking will just lead to the humiliation of being ignored altogether or worse, given an answer that shows that the person you thought you could rely on actually isn't listening.

For example, maybe you're a child with sensory sensitivity that causes most foods to taste overwhelmingly bitter or otherwise unpleasant to you, and when you tell your parents that you don't like the food you're being given, they just tell you that you have to eat it anyway. You've just learned that what you want doesn't matter -- there's no point in asking for food you can eat without experiencing intense discomfort, because when you say what you need, you'll be ignored. If you're raised by people who consistently respond this way, you learn pretty fast that the way to survive is to suck it up, perhaps to dissociate from discomfort rather than doing something to stop the discomfort. And that lesson will manifest itself when you're older in situations that seem very different, and which no one coerces you into: maybe you'll do a form of exercise that you think is good for you even if it's physically painful, or continue wearing clothing that no longer fits you because you feel buying new clothes would be un-frugal.

"Guess culture" is just the aftermath of being a child who's punished for asking things, or who grow up in environments where they can't rely on other people to be responsive to their feelings (whether because no one expresses feelings, or because when they do, they're ignored). Similarly, passive-aggressive people are those who feel they're not allowed to say outright when someone hurt them. If your parents hit you, for example, and when you say you don't like being hit, you're told that they're "spanking" you, which everybody says is normal, and it's for your own good, then you learn that coping with other people violating your boundaries has to be done in any way other than directly defending your boundaries. To suppress all communication when you're being hurt is highly self-destructive, so when saying it explicitly is forbidden (either because you fear retaliation for doing so, or when you've internalized those rules so well that nobody needs to retaliate), you have to let it out somehow.

And lone wolves are just people who haven't had trustworthy people in their lives. Even if you desperately want to connect with other people, if your experience is that close relationships are dangerous -- that people who you need to rely on are likely to violate your boundaries and use you as if you're an object (say, by demanding physical affection that you don't want to give) -- then you'll do anything to avoid close relationships. That includes working relationships, since intellectual intimacy is still intimacy. To admit you don't know something, or to express a half-formed idea, or to rely on somebody else to carry out a commitment they've made to you: these all require the ability to be vulnerable without experiencing intense fear that you will be destroyed. If you grow up getting laughed at for not knowing the things other people know, or if people shame you for saying things they don't understand, or if they don't follow through when they say they're going to do something, that stays with you for the rest of your life. Better to do things for yourself. You might let yourself down, but at least in that case you experience famiiar shame -- rather than the feeling of disappointment in somebody else, something you've spent your life so far protecting yourself from.

Survivors survive. We "guess" because guessing allows us to survive an environment where it's not safe to ask for anything, and where we have to intuit others' emotional states in order to avoid physical or emotional violence and can't just ask people how they feel. We are passive-aggressive to preserve our autonomy in an environment where we can't express ourselves directly. And we are lone wolves because we've learned that intimacy is dangerous and likely to be disappointing. In many cases, we've been punished when we tentatively try to interact with people a different way. We learn that by punishing ourselves with isolation, we avoid a worse form of punishment.

So when you expect somebody to just ask their roommate to take out the compost, or to ask their co-worker for a review of some half-finished code, or to tell their partner they like this thing and not that thing sexually, you're expecting a person to change behavior patterns that have made their survival possible. Letting go of a survival mechanism is risky, and can rarely be done individually, but rather, sometimes happens when other people have established themselves as trustworthy.

Shame is Not a Motivator

My friends and I live in a culture where shame is considered a motivator. For example, we suppose that being thin is healthy (a questionable assumption on its own) and conclude from there that the way to make fat people healthier is to make them feel ashamed about their bodies. Likewise, people like Jonathan Chait shame those of us who don't ask; lots of people shame loners and passive-aggressive folks. Learned helplessness is considered shameful, without regard to how you might have learned that. But shame doesn't change behavior. Perhaps paradoxically, shame locks you into maintaining the exact behavior patterns you're being shamed about: if you are inherently broken, then why should you change how you act? You're just bad, or broken, or unwanted, or unlikeable.

The relentless insistence on labeling character traits as "good" or "bad" is useful for making people feel inadequate, but not useful for helping people be everything they could be. What if we stopped judging people for being passive-aggressive, or for being guessers, and asked ourselves how we can understand the circumstances that lead somebody to be the way they are? It's scary to admit that "character" counts, in fact, for very little, and that we are largely the product of our experiences. To admit that we're strongly shaped by our experiences, especially childhood experiences, means admitting dependence on other people. We live in a culture that expects people to be able to collaborate, to make friends, to make small talk, but also expects people to be equally happy if they're denied social connections, as encapsulated in the pop-psychology lie "You have to love yourself before you can expect anybody else to love you." (This isn't true.) It's an impossible set of demands -- useful if you're trying to get people to channel their feelings of shame and inadequacy into buying lots of consumer goods, but not so much otherwise.

We also need to stop expecting trust as a given. When you say, "I say what I mean, and I expect you to say what you mean, or else I won't make any effort to understand you," you're demanding trust without necessarily having done anything to prove that you deserve trust. When you say, "Why don't you assume good faith? It seems like you're taking the worst possible interpretation of what I'm saying," you're talking to somebody who has had to figure out the worst-case scenario in every interaction in order to defend themselves, somebody who has never had anybody to step in and defend them -- how can you expect them to assume, without proof, that you're different from the others? Sure, it's not fair that you might have to do more work to earn the trust of somebody who's survived trauma -- it isn't your fault that that happened to them. But it's not their fault, either.

And when you're a manager and you tell your employees that it's their responsibility to ask for help when they get stuck trying to solve a problem -- and then assess their performance negatively when those who have learned that asking for help is a trap -- you're setting trauma survivors up for failure. I guess you could take the approach of weeding out everybody who hasn't always been treated as if they were welcome in the world, but why would you do that when we have things to offer, too? Why not take on some of the work of communicating that your team is someplace where no one will be punished for not knowing? This goes against the "RTFM" attitude that's so popular in technical scenes particularly, but rarely do we benefit by picking an arbitrary group of people and deciding we're only interested in working with them.

In her article "Nurturance is About More Than 'Tasks'", Nora Samaran addresses the dismissal of survivors -- specifically women who've survived abuse -- as crazy or broken:
Rather than blame women who have had early trust bonds break (for instance by complaining about how ‘women like jerks,’ or attachment-shaming anxious, disorganized, or insecure attachers) feminist men can put the pieces together. Want to be a feminist man? Contextualize, don’t stigmatize, the insecure attachment that may show up in your romantic relationships, including short term ones.
While contextualizing insecure attachment styles is particularly important for men in romantic relationships with women, it's important in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. When someone behaves in a way that confuses or frustrates you, you have a choice: you can treat the other person as disposable, you can give up -- break up with them, fire them, or do all the work on the group project yourself instead of talking with them. Or you can try to figure out what you can to show that you're a safe person. In Samaran's words:
If you find yourself involved with women who don’t seem secure with you, consider the effects of patriarchy and misogyny across the lifespan, and ask yourself if perhaps you need to be more securitizing: available, responsive, and attuned.
When Samaran refers to "attachment-shaming", she's talking about the stigmatization of behavioral traits shown by people who have attachment styles other than secure attachment. What popular culture calls guessers, loners, and passive-aggressive people tend to be, in psychological terms, people with insecure, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles. But every attachment style is a completely sensible adaptation to the circumstances that a young child finds themselves in. A person's attachment style isn't an indicator of their inherent virtue, or their merit, but rather, how people treated them when they were helpless. You can demand that people with a different attachment style change to suit your needs, or you can recognize that people with different attachment styles exist in the world and that it's everybody's responsibility to figure out how to live with each other. If you're privileged enough to have been raised in circumstances that resulted in having a secure attachment style, you have the option of using that privilege to create safer spaces.

It might be difficult to confront the reality and pervasiveness of child abuse and trauma -- it might be easier to dismiss survivors as flawed, lazy or broken rather than people doing the best they can with what they were given. It's easier to believe in a just world than to accept that good people experience pain and suffering for no good reason, that in fact everyone is born good. It's easier to blame individuals for their adverse experiences than to recognize how we all benefit from social structures of domination, from institutional sexism to domestic violence. Recognizing that personality differences aren't character flaws also puts you at odds with a criminal justice system centered around punishment, indeed, with a society fundamentally structured around discipline and punishment: when you start asking what you can do to make it easier for other people to do the right thing, rather than how you can coerce them into doing it, you become an outsider.

I can't convince you that the reward of challenging conventional wisdom about character, trust, and punishment is worth the cost. It's more comfortable to make fun of passive-aggressive people, to sneer at your frenemy who always seems to be fucking up their own life, than to create relationships and communities where it's safe to express feelings. The reason it's uncomfortable to try to understand why people do things you find shameful is that it forces you to admit that it could have been you -- that you don't carry any protective crystals inside you that gives you the strength to ask, "hey, could I have some plain noodles instead?" no matter how many times you get ignored. It's easier to say, "No, I'm not like that -- I'm direct, I say what's on my mind, that could never have been me."

So when you react to someone's personality, consider: are you actually horrified at the circumstances that must have caused them to adapt in the way that they have? Are you redirecting your anger at what you know they must have gone through onto them, because they're an easier target?

The cost of living comfortably is cognitive dissonance. If you believe that no child deserves abuse, how do you reconcile that with blaming and shaming adults with non-secure attachment styles? If you believe that guessers are just lazy and could be askers like you if they just pulled up their socks and dealt with it, aren't you saying it's fair that people who have survived abuse ought to have to do more emotional labor than those who haven't? And if you think having to do more emotional labor just to exist in the world is a suitable punishment for surviving abuse, doesn't that amount to saying that abuse only happens to people who deserve it? Every abuse survivor was an abused child once, and you can't consistently say that no child deserves abuse while rejecting adults for once having been those children. You can't claim you think all children deserve to be safe if your belief in our safety ends at the point when we become your co-workers, classmates, or friends.
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tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
[CW: description of experiences with childhood trauma and transmisogyny] Lack of abuse isn't enough, by Amy Dentata (2016-08-08). This quote stood out to me: "Now I feel more real when my girlfriend is around than when I’m by myself. I realize my life is full of negativity and emptiness. The war is over, but that’s not the same thing as being at peace." When abuse ends, that doesn't redress the void that comes from the absence of memories of being seen and heard.

Trust Yourself Despite Everyday Gaslighting, by [personal profile] sonia (2016-08-01). Not just how to deal with gaslighting, but how to support people who are targeted by it.

The Abuse of 'Feel-Good' Cop Videos, by Ijeoma Oluo for The Establishment (2016-08-02). Speaking of gaslighting: 'Watching this video I understood what these “feel-good” video and picture campaigns put on by police departments really are—abuse. They are designed to remind us that they are in charge, and that they are capable of taking our lives in an instant—but if we are good and they are feeling benevolent, they won’t.'

Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates, by Julia Serano (2016-08-02). The definitive debunking of arguments for withholding medical care from trans kids.

"Normal America" Is Not A Small Town Of White People, by Jed Kolko for FiveThirtyEight (2016-04-28). It turns out that the towns white people think of as being representative of the US are more like those that would have been representative 50 years ago, and the most representative cities given current American demographics are coastal urban areas. Who knew?

How Trump Happened, by Jamelle Bouie for Slate (2016-03-13). How white fragility, and backlash against President Obama, brought us the nomination of Donald Trump. Obama's election didn't end racism, but rather, sparked a reactionary resurgence of it.

Telling white people the criminal justice system is racist just makes them like it more, by Dara Lind for Vox (2014-08-07). From two years ago, but I doubt anything's changed.

How We Pronounce Student Names, and Why it Matters, by Jennifer Gonzalez (2014-04-14). I know from a lifetime of experience that somebody refusing to pronounce your name right is an act of bigotry. Try not to be a bigot.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
People resort to violence because their moral codes demand it, by Tage Rai for Aeon (2015-06-18): Violence isn't the product of mental illness. It's the result of the same, very mainstream belief system that frames morality in terms of coercion and punishment, from parenting to prisons. So long as we keep teaching people that violence is what must be done to people who transgress social norms, supposedly-senseless (but actually quite explicable) mass shootings and terrorist acts will continue. Tage Rai explains in detail how violence serves to "regulate social relationships":
Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.


Internet trolls are even more hostile when they’re using their real names, a study finds, by Michael J. Coren for Quartz (2016-07-27). A good companion piece to Rai's article, this one about online violence. Coren writes, "People are actually trying to enforce social norms against a perceived violation by a public figure or group," and they are so eager to enforce social norms that anonymity or lack thereof has little if any modulating effect on the desire to regulate others' behavior.

Donald Trump Is a Republican, by Tom Scocca for Gawker (2016-07-29). Trump isn't an anomaly, but rather, the logical conclusion of the past four decades of Republican politics:
Donald Trump is the product of half a century of Republican strategy and ideology. Republican voters nominated him because he’s what generations of Republicans have been guided by and encouraged to vote for.

Nothing about Trump is outside Republican mainstream precedent. It’s just that it’s never all been assembled so blatantly in one package before.


[CW: suicide, ableism] The Effects of Stigmatizing Language on Suicidal Autistics, by M. Kelter (2016-07-30). When you talk about people as if they're burdens, or if people like them should be wiped off the face of the earth, or as if they have no empathy, it turns out that that has an emotional effect on them: "I don't buy that the topic of autism compels us to denigrate autistics. You can tell your story ... and you can refrain from using stigmatizing language. Both of those things are possible, at the same time."

[Content seems to have been removed] It looks like Russia hired Internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans, by Natasha Bertrand for Business Inside (2016-07-27). Ever wondered how some Internet trolls could be that awful? Maybe they're getting paid to be.

"i was asked by @misfitreindeer to make a post about skeletons and debunk a lot of typical transphobic myths about how, y’know, females look like X and males look like Y and that everything works in 100% black in white but it doesn’t actually...", by [tumblr.com profile] werewolfxo on Tumblr (2016-01): turns out that you can't ascertain how somebody would have been placed in sexed or gendered categories based on their skeleton.

A poem about Silicon Valley, assembled from Quora questions about Silicon Valley, by Jason O. Gilbert for Fusion (2016-04-28)

Dog Whistles and Insults, by zvi LikesTV (2007-07-30). Yup, this is nine years old, but every word of it still applies as far as language and power: "Sometimes people have a problem when it comes to stopping using offensive language. They think that once they explain that they didn't mean to use the word 'that way' the offended party should change their feelings instead of trying to get the white person to change their behavior."
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
On a technicality, by Eevee (2016-07-22). About the need for both rules and trusted leadership in communities.

Firing Roger Ailes and exiling Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t going to fix much of anything, by Sady Doyle for Quartz (2016-07-22). "The truth is that harassment and abuse are never about individual people; they’re about structures. When we help the victims of harassment, the solution should not be to deal with a single offender; it should be to deal with all the people who enabled the problem to exist and refused to solve it until it reached a critical mass."

Reddit is still in turmoil, by Kate Conger and Megan Rose Dickey for Techcrunch (2016-07-21). Reddit is a trash fire, as a business and not just as a community.

What Science Says To Do If Your Loved One Has An Opioid Addiction, by Maia Szalavitz for FiveThirtyEight (2016-07-19), and for a somewhat different take, a Tumblr post: "...drug addiction, across the board, actually has the best prognosis of any mental illness without any treatment whatsoever."

How about some mixed corgi puppies? The Australian shepherd and golden retriever mixes are my faves.

How ‘Political Correctness’ Went From Punch Line to Panic, by Amanda Hess for the New York Times Magazine (2016-07-19). "In [Trump's] campaign, 'P.C.' is no longer just a joke, or a slick rhetorical tool for riling the base. It’s the shrewd recognition of a dark aspect of white American psychology: That many experience being told not to use certain words as a kind of violence."

I’m With The Banned, by Laurie Penny (2016-07-21). On Internet trolls and "weaponized insincerity": "Milo is the best player here. Like Trump, and like a lot of successful politicians in this postmodern circus, they channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind. They offer new win conditions for the humiliated masses. Welcome to the scream room. There’s a cheese plate."

Your pipeline problem is that you’re not doing anything to reach the pipeline., by Kieran Snyder (2016-07-21). "If you’re looking in the same places, sourcing and talking to candidates the same way year after year, and not getting the results you want, it doesn’t mean that there’s a pipeline problem. However, it does unequivocally mean that your particular approach has roundly failed at tapping into whatever pipeline exists."

The Coming War on ‘Black Nationalists’, by Yohuru Williams for The Nation (2016-07-20). Everything old is new again: "To be clear: The black lives movement unapologetically focuses on the dignity and worth of black lives. The careless and dishonest way Duffy, Giuliani, Clarke and others chose to frame that movement creates a context that shifts attention away from the very police practices that nonviolent protesters are demonstrating against. "

Republican Convention 2016 Attendees Are Searching for Hot Gay Sex on Craigslist, by Nicolas DiDomizio for mic.com (2016-07-19). Of course, eh?
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It's a popular thing to say that abortion is a complicated issue, or a moral gray area, or that there's room for lots of different opinions on it because it's so nuanced. It's popular in general to take this kind of mealymouthed non-position, because it makes you sound thoughtful without requiring any moral effort or stamina.

When it comes to reproductive rights, even liberals are likely to hesitate, to cite bioethics, or to say that abortion is a necessary evil. They're likely to say that it should be safe, legal and rare.

But here's the thing about abortion: the only way you could possibly have doubts as to whether everyone should have completely unfettered access to it is if you're either uncertain about bodily autonomy as a right everybody has, or if you're uncertain about whether it's something people other than cis men should have.

I don't think anyone is really uncertain about bodily autonomy. At least for cis men, we're generally in agreement that one of the rights that all human beings have is to not have any other person in their body without consent.

One of the times when we decide to suspend personhood is when somebody is imprisoned. The widespread acceptability of prison rape jokes shows that the one situation when we consider suspending bodily autonomy okay is when we think somebody deserves to be punished.

So there are really only two reasons for thinking abortion is a moral gray area:
  • You don't think women are really people.
  • You think women should be punished for having sex.

Of course, cis men don't get punished for having sex with other consenting adults, because having sex with other consenting adults is something that human adults get to do. So it comes down to whether or not you're sure women are really people.

(While the effect of forced pregnancy is that everyone with a uterus, including cis women and trans men like me, as well as genderqueer people who have uteruses, the intent behind the pro-forced-pregnancy movement is to control women and punish them for existing as sexual beings. We need to be aware of both effects and intent here.)

Are you sure that women are people? Then surely you believe that nobody has a right to be in a woman's body without her consent.

Do you think that having sex grants implicit consent to pregnancy? Then you don't really think women are people, because we're all fine with men having consensual sex and don't, as a rule, believe they waive any of their basic human rights by doing so. Thinking women waive their bodily autonomy by choosing to have sex really just amounts to treating pregnancy as a punishment for sex.

I'm assuming that people who have doubts about abortion believe that fetuses and embryos are people. If they don't think that, then I really don't know what they're on about (although there is plenty of evidence they don't really think that -- ask a pro-forced-pregnancy person whether they favor punishing somebody who has an abortion in the same way that people who commit murder are punished.) Believing that fetuses are people poses no threat to my believe in the fundamental right to an abortion. Like all people, fetuses have no right to be in any other person's body without that person's consent.[*]

And yet, in 2016, I still live in a country where people considered liberal, progressive, in favor of civil liberties, and so on can still say abortion is a moral gray area with a straight face. I still live in a country where even liberals, even people who support personal freedom, haven't made up their mind about whether women are people.

[*] In answer to the question, raised elsewhere, of what we say if we believe fetuses are people and recognize that they didn't consent to be in the body of their gestational parent: I'd say three things to that. First, the concept that you have the right to self-defense isn't too controversial. You can come up with plenty of reasons why an adult person who is posing a threat to you might not be a totally free agent, but ultimately, your right to defend your body against invasion by them is considered sacrosanct. Second, fetuses don't have the ability to defend themselves, and I'm happy to defer that particular what-if to the time when that changes. And third, being in a situation you didn't consent to doesn't generally confer the right to use somebody else's body -- for example, if you would die without a kidney transplant, and if you didn't consent to have kidney failure, that still doesn't give you the right to force someone to donate their kidney to you if they don't want to.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
An open letter to the author of the "I'm a closeted trans woman and I'm not coming out" essay, by Katelyn Burns (2016-07-13). "How many times will a closeted trans person read your essay and convince themselves again that not transitioning is the correct move?"

Not your feminist dream girl, by Raquel Rosario Sanchez (2016-07-13). "Like men, women are multifaceted people who can simultaneously support terrible policies and empowering ones. They are political candidates whose personal and political lives may make us cringe at points and cry with emotion at others. Feminists have pushed for more strong, complex, imperfect female characters on TV and in film, in order to get away from the one-dimensional women we are usually presented with in media. In Hillary, we have an influential woman who is just that: she is not the easy-to-figure out stereotype we expect women to be."

Invisible Talent, by Kaya Thomas (2016-07-14). On the frustrations of being a Black female computer science major and being told by an industry desperate to pretend its cultural failure is a "pipeline problem" that you don't exist.

Evidence, by feministkilljoys (2016-07-12). "My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism." Long, meaty article about the function of demands for evidence of racism and sexism.

"The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard of Slavoj Žižek", by Rosa Lyster (2016-07-14):
My advice is intended only for special occasions. It is for when you have an itch to scratch, and that itch is called, “a puerile desire to get on other people’s nerves.” All you do is stonily deny any knowledge of a person or cultural touchstone that you should, by virtue of your other cultural reference points, be aware of. These will of course be different for everyone, but my favorites include:

Žižek, John Updike, MORRISSEY (only for experts), Radiohead, Twin Peaks, David Lynch in general, Banksy (only for streetfighters), Withnail and I, Bauhaus (movement), Bauhaus (band), Afrika Burn, the expression “garbage person,” A Clockwork Orange, Steampunk (this one is really good), Jack Kerouac, “Gilmore Girls,” Woody Allen, the expression “grammar nerd,” the expression “grammar Nazi,” cocktails, bongs, magical realism, millennials, Cards Against Humanity, trance parties, bunting, many comedians, William Gibson, burlesque, the Beats, The God Delusion, sloths, anarchism, Joy Division, CrossFit, “The Mighty Boosh,” and Fight Club.


A White Male Led Revolution Against American Inequality, You Say?, by D Frederick Sparks (2016-05-22). "This blind spot, not being able to see these things because they don’t have to, is why I find it highly unlikely that white male left progressives are going to be the ones who identify and anoint the messianic figure in American politics who will lead the revolution against inequality. And if I had to wager, I wouldn’t put my money on said messianic figure being a privileged white male from the Northeast. I’d put my money on a black woman from the south or a Latina from the Southwest, someone who on an ontological and inter-sectional level understands the various power paradigms that contribute to unfairness in this country and can competently speak to and address all of them, and not just get fixated on one."

Dissociation is scary. Dissociation is safety, by Sarah Gailey for the Boston Globe (2016-05-08). CW: firsthand discussion of having PTSD and being triggered. This article describes what it's like for one person to have PTSD -- it's only somewhat close to my own experience, and if it isn't like this for you then you shouldn't assume it means you don't have PTSD, but more stories are always useful.

Martin Luther King’s hate mail eerily resembles criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, by David Matthews (2015-08-18). Title says it all.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[CW: Brief discussion of rape]

Alice: "You stepped on my foot! Ow!"

Bob: "It hurts my feelings when you say I hurt you by stepping on your foot. I'm a good person, and you're attacking me."

I hope we all agree that in this interaction, Bob is wrong. He's treating Alice as if she said that he stepped on her foot for the sole purpose of hurting him -- as if all her actions revolve around him, erasing her desire and need to protect herself.

But what about this interaction?

Carol: "Hey, guys, does anybody know the phone number for CVS?"

Eve: "Not all of us in the group you're addressing are guys. It would help if you used gender-neutral language."

Carol: "Stop attacking me! I'm not some kind of sexist asshole, and anyway, 'guys' is gender-neutral."

In this interaction, as in the first one, Carol is being narcissistic. She is treating Eve as if all of Eve's actions center around Carol: as if anything that Eve does that has the effect of hurting Carol must be done with the sole purpose of hurting Carol. Carol can't conceive that Eve might be asking Carol to use gender-neutral language because Eve doesn't like being misgendered (or because Eve doesn't mind, but knows other people in the group who aren't guys don't like it). She can't conceive that something might hurt her feelings, but not be done in order to hurt her feelings. So Carol changes the subject from Eve's feelings of hurt (or desire to protect others) at the misgendering use of "guys" to her own feelings of narcissistic injury over having her behavior corrected.

Now how about this example?

Faith: "I think you should know that Oscar is a rapist."

Grace: "I hate call-out culture so much. You're just trying to ruin Oscar's reputation. It's so mean of you to try to exile him from the community."

Grace's response reflects a similar misconception (perhaps accidental, perhaps deliberate): she hears Faith's damaging statement about Oscar, and she assumes that Faith only said it in order to harm Oscar. Perhaps Faith wishes Oscar no harm, but also wants to protect her friends from being raped. To keep her friends safe, it's necessary for her to say something that reflects poorly on Oscar. Grace assumes that because Faith says something negative about her friend Oscar that she's only doing it to hurt Oscar. Again, it's apparently inconceivable to her that Faith might value Oscar's well-being, but not enough to put her friends in danger by keeping quiet about Oscar's behavior of raping people.

When someone says you did something hurtful and you change the subject to how you're actually a good person, how your interlocutor doesn't really know you, and how you feel attacked, you're behaving like a narcissist. And you're committing a logical error: the assumption that nobody would act in a way that's disadvantageous to you unless they did it in order to hurt you. (This is also true when the person you're defending is a friend rather than yourself -- in that case you're still defending yourself, since you're attempting to protect yourself from the pain of having to admit someone you like and trust did something wrong.)
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
Baby Storm five years later: Preschooler on top of the world, by Jessica Botelho-Urbanski for the Toronto Star (2016-07-11). Remember the news story from five years ago about the Canadian family who declined to assign a gender to their newborn? Storm is five now and she's doing great.

Processing, by Erica Joy (2016-07-06). About the alienation of being Black and working in a white-dominated workplace with people who don't seem aware of what you have to be aware of.

"my best employee quit on the spot because I wouldn’t let her go to her college graduation", by Alison Green (Ask a Manager) (2016-07-05). Look, who knows if this letter is real or not, but bosses are scum and it well could be.

Is The New York Times Collaborating With Anti-Trans Lawmakers?, Chase Strangio (2016-05-22). When all the media coverage of an issue uses the same tropes, you have to start asking questions.

Stop Talking about Men in Women's Restrooms, Chase Strangio (2016-05-17). 'You might believe that a person’s genitals define their “biological” sex but that does not make it so and continuing to put forth that narrative without challenging it as an ideological position as opposed to a fact is extremely harmful.'

What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process, by Aaron Rose. A compilation of links on that subject, which I plan to work my way through.

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston, by Jon Greenberg (2015-07-10). Likewise.

If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention, by Rachel Thomas (2015-07-27). Seriously, stop blaming "the pipeline" for your inaction.
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
"Sex is just what cis people call 'gender' when they want to misgender you." I've said this many times and I'll keep saying it as many times as I need to. If people remember one thing I've said, I hope it's that.

Why do cis people need the concept of "biological sex" so much? Why do they have such a strong need to put trans people in their place by saying, "Sure, you identify as a woman. But your biological sex is male"?

At the root of cisnormativity, like all other harmful normativities, is a desire to control. To exercise power over somebody else. And telling somebody, "You aren't really who you say you are -- I can invoke some greater authority that says you're lying about who you are" is a way of controlling somebody else. It frames that person as an unreliable narrator of their own experience, and reinforces the cis person's greater power to name, to identify, to categorize.

It doesn't help that the watered-down liberal version of trans education that has been promoted for a long time emphasizes the difference between "sex" and "gender," making cis people feel like they can evade criticism as long as they memorize that talking point. It also doesn't help that anyone who challenges the simplistic sex/gender binary gets accused of wanting to alienate allies or wanting to make it harder for them to understand us.

That didn't cause the problem, though.

"Sure, you identify as a man, but you'll always be truly biologically female" ultimately means, "What you identify as doesn't matter. It's not real; it's all in your head. My objective observation of your body is that you are female, and that's scientific."

There is no rule of science that says we must use terms for other people that they wouldn't use for themselves. That's social and political.

So the attachment to "biological sex" is really about saying this: "There is something other than your own self-description that I can use to classify and categorize you without your consent. I can categorize and label you based on externally observing your body, without asking you what categories you belong in." The power to name is the power to control. And cis people react badly when we try to take this power from them by saying that "sex" is just another name for gender.

It's easy to see what purpose "biological sex" serves structurally: gender-based oppression would no longer be possible if gender categories were entered into consensually. To oppress somebody, you need the ability to place them in an oppressed class in a way that others will generally recognize as valid.

But on an individual, psychological level, I wonder what purpose it serves. Why is there such a strong need in so many cis people to tell somebody else they're wrong about their own sex?

One answer is that cis people don't like admitting mistakes, and that most cis people learned as children that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. When faced with a choice between recognizing trans people as fully human, or maintaining their own omniscience, they go for the narcissistic choice of refusing to admit that what they learned early on was incorrect.

But I don't think that's the whole story. People make all kinds of mistakes, but admitting that they were taught something incorrect about sex categories seems uniquely difficult.

So I'm leaving it here as a question. Why does any individual cis person feel such a strong need to tell a trans person, "You are truly biologically male," or, "You are truly biologically female" when that isn't how the trans person would describe themself? The answer isn't "science", since science doesn't require anybody to place others in particular political categories; as well, very few cis people saying this have any understanding of science. I don't know the answer to this question, but I think the only way to begin finding it is to reject the pseudo-scientific notion of biological sex as objective truth rather than socially and politically motivated narrative. We have to stop asking what biological sex is, and start asking what work the concept of "biological sex" does and what needs it satisfies.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
"Managing Assholes", by Jess Rose (2016-06-27). "I don’t care what kind of skills your toxic team member brings with them, you can afford to remove them from your team. "

"Euthanasia as a Dutch Neoliberal Success Story", by Flavia Dzodan (2016-06-29). Raises some troubling questions about what it means to choose to end your life in a capitalist society where few people actually get to make free choices.

"The Puzzle Box of Shame", by [personal profile] sonia (2016-06-01). "If the adults around us do not provide soothing touch and welcoming delight, we learn instead that we have to earn our place in the world by being quiet enough, or strong enough, or unemotional enough. We believe, before we have words, that there is something terribly wrong with us. We question our right to exist. We feel ashamed to the core."

"Buying Coffee Every Day Isn’t Why You’re in Debt", by Helaine Olen for Slate (2016-05-26). Speaking of shame, we all get taught to feel ashamed of not having any money and taught that it's our fault for wasting it on things we enjoy. The article debunks that pernicious lie.

"Killing Dylann Roof", by Ta-Nehisi Coates for the Atlantic (2016-05-26). A look at which people are socially pressured into forgiving, and which ones are socially sanctioned for committing violence.

"US nuclear force still uses floppy disks", BBC News (2016-05-26). Title says it all.

"This may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest", by Jill Abramson for The Guardian (2016-03-28). Criticize Clinton for her policies, but most of what she's actually getting criticized for is baseless.

"Hillary Clinton isn't progressive. She's just the lesser evil in the general election", by Kiese Laymon for the Guardian (2016-04-27). The best piece I've read about the election so far.

"There's a gender divide on nuclear power, but it doesn't mean what you think it means", by David Roberts for Vox (2015-05-27). 'What looked like a gender divide on nuclear power is in fact mostly a function of the "extreme risk skepticism" of "white hierarchical and individualistic" males. (In the US, "white hierarchical and individualistic" males generally go by the more economical "conservatives.")' If you want to claim that everyone who opposes nuclear energy is just unscientific and stupid, then you need to be prepared to argue that white men are more likely to be scientifically educated and smart than everybody else is. (Spoiler alert: there's no evidence for that.)

"White Supremacy and Magic Paper", by The Rancid Honeytrap (2015-03-27). "My main objection is to the doctrine of free speech absolutism. In addition to directing the attention, resources and goodwill of decent people to organizations and individuals that would imprison and murder them if they could, it perniciously minimizes the genocidal and avaricious politics with which it makes common cause; it promotes a view of power and social change so ahistoric and infantile it qualifies as magical thinking; and it promotes libertarian as opposed to communitarian values and politics. "

"The Self-Storage Self", by Jon Mooallem for the New York Times Magazine (2009-06-06). Storage units as "our last national commons — places where nearly every conceivable kind of American still goes." (I find storage units endlessly fascinating, and this article feeds my love for the topic.)
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
First of all, some shameless bragging: my friends Jamie and Marley were on the front page of Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle, making out at Trans March!

I was also proud to witness Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Scott Wiener getting booed off the stage at Trans March. You can't support trans people while supporting police and criminalizing homelessness.

Unrelatedly, here's an adult capybara booping a baby capybara.

Orlando shooting: It’s different now, but Muslims have a long history of accepting homosexuality, by Shoaib Daniyal for scroll.in (2016-06-27). A cool trick that Western white supremacists pull is to attribute blame for homophobia exported by Western countries onto the Asian and African countries into which they exported it. You don't have to fall for it.

"No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities", by Valerie Aurora, Mary Gardiner, and Leigh Honeywell (2016-06-21). I'm very proud to call the authors of this article my friends; they offer a comprehensive analysis of tech communities' handling of abuse and harassment, as well as many actionable suggestions.

"Patching exploitable communities", by Tom Lowenthal (2016-06-21). A great, succinct summary of the aforementioned article.

KatieConf - if you can write an entire conference lineup consisting only of women named various forms of "Katherine"/"Catherine"/"Katie", then what's your excuse for not being able to find women speakers?

"Who Gets To Be The 'Good Schizophrenic'?", by Esmé Weijun Wang for Buzzfeed (2016-04-07). When we talk about mental illness in an attempt to destigmatize it, we need to go further than drawing a line between nice, friendly mentally ill people who are "only" anxious and depressed, and scary, dangerous mentally ill people who are schizophrenic.

Lecture by John Darnielle at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing (audio, 2016-04-14). I would listen to John Darnielle talk about pretty much anything for 47 minutes, so I don't really know how to sell you on this if you wouldn't.
tim: A bright orange fish. (fish)
I'm going to try doing a weekly linkspam post, because why not? Maybe it'll motivate me to get through my Pinboard backlog.

  • "Parents, right? Psh, who needs em!", by Talia Jane (2016-06-20). A hot personal take on the silencing of people who were parented incompetently. "Why would you care about the rocky nature of my personal life? Well, why do you think I’d care about how healthy your personal life is? Why would you think I’d enjoy seeing happy photos of you with your parents, outside of the fact that I might be happy you’re not curled up in a ball crying for six hours?"
  • Unsuck It: A bullshit-business-jargon-to-English translator (occasional ableism but on the whole pretty on-the-mark). "wellness: A notional substitute for a decent health insurance plan. Frequently includes chipper admonishments to do obvious things, such as get off your ass and walk or eat more vegetables."
  • "creativity and responsibility", by [personal profile] graydon2 (2016-06-17). On "creativity" as applied to software development: "I think 'creative' also serves as a rhetorical dodge about expectations, or perhaps more bluntly: responsibilities." Tangentially, this post reminds me of a quote from Samuel Delany that I love:
    The sad truth is, there’s very little that’s creative in creativity. The vast majority is submission – submission to the laws of grammar, to the possibilities of rhetoric, to the grammar of narrative, to narrative’s various and possible restructurings. In a society that privileges individuality, self-reliance, and mastery, submission is a frightening thing.

    (I think the software industry could do with a bit more submission to models, and there's probably something to be teased out here about why some people are so resistant to type systems and other forms of static verification.)
  • "To Keep The Blood Supply Safe, Screening Blood Is More Important Than Banning Donors", by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight (2016-06-18). We've all known for a long time that the ban on MSM donating blood is based in homophobia and not science, but it's always nice to see more evidence of that.
  • "The Myth of the Violent, Self-Hating Gay Homophobe", by Cari Romm for New York magazine (2016-06-16). No, homophobes aren't all (or even mostly) closeted self-hating queers. Hetero people really do hate us that much.
  • Interview With a Woman Who Recently Had an Abortion at 32 Weeks, by Jia Tolentino for Jezebel (2016-06-15). Long, harrowing interview with a woman who had a very late-term abortion. Makes me feel glad that there are still a few doctors courageous enough to provide this care, and sad that so many have been terrorized out of doing it.
  • "How Bernie Sanders Exposed the Democrats’ Racial Rift", by Issac J. Bailey for Politico (2016-06-08). "To minority voters, Trump’s candidacy feels like an existential threat. It’s one thing for Republicans to either ignore or embrace his racism; the party already seems unwilling or incapable of making the kinds of adjustments it must to attract more non-white voters. It’s quite another for white Democrats to not appreciate how liberal minorities feel about the possibility of a Trump presidency and what that would say about the state of racial progress in America. It would be a slap in the face, the latest sign that a kind of white privilege—throwing a temper tantrum because they don’t get their way despite how much it hurts people of color—is deeply rooted within liberal, Democratic ranks as well."
  • "The Ethics of Mob Justice", by Sady Doyle for In These Times (2013-11-08). Unfortunately, relevant again. "So we’re left with upholding structural principles, and this brings me to the Internet’s other poisoned gift to social justice: Even as it enhances our ability to censure those who violate the social contract, it makes the individual members of that society more visible, warts and all. Where the radicals of previous generations could spout high-minded rhetoric about the Common Man, Womankind or the Human Spirit while interacting mainly with the limited circle of people they found tolerable, we contemporary activists have to uphold our principles while dealing with the fact that actual common men, women and human spirits are continually being presented to us in harshly lit, unflattering close-up..." (I don't read this article as being opposed to public shaming, and I'm certainly not. Just as taking a skeptical eye to the targeting of women for having unacceptable feelings in public.)
tim: Solid black square (black)
CW: violence, homophobia, victim-blaming

Read more... )


"I am so tired of waiting.
Aren’t you,
for the world to become good
and beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
and cut the world in two —
and see what worms are eating
at the rind."
-- Langston Hughes

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Language affects thought, and part of why science isn't objective is that communicating scientific knowledge relies on language, which is always imprecise and governed by politics and culture.

In "The Egg and the Sperm", Emily Martin wrote about how the language used to describe human reproduction distorted the truth. Scientists, mostly cis men, were biased towards seeing sperm as active penetrators as the passive egg. In fact, as Martin detailed, eggs do a lot of active work to reject weak sperm and entice strong sperm. (Of course, even the metaphor of "weak" or "strong" sperm reflects socially mediated beliefs.)

Another example from reproduction is the misunderstanding of the biological function of menstruation that also arose from sociopolitical biases about gender. In a 2012 journal article, Emera, Romero and Wagner posited that the function of menstruation has been misunderstood due to sexist beliefs that bodies coded as female are intrinsically nurturing: the endometrial lining was previously construed as the uterus creating a nurturing environment for a potential embryo, where in fact, it might be more accurate to view it as a hostile environment that only the strongest embryos can survive (there's that "strong/weak" political language again.) I'm not qualified to assess on the accuracy of Emera et al.'s idea, but I am qualified to observe that assessing its validity has been so far hindered by the misapplication of gender stereotypes to biology.

Yet another example is that of same-sex sexual behavior in non-human animals; Bruce Bagemihl's book Biological Exuberance details the history of (again, mostly heterosexual cis male) scientists getting itgrievously wrong about the nature and function of sexual behavior. It would be funny if it wasn't so harmful. Just one example is the publication of a paper, in 1981, entitled "Abnormal Sexual Behavior of Confined Female Hemichienus auritus syriacus [Long-eared Hedgehogs]". It's not objective, rational, or scientific to label hedgehog sex as "abnormal" -- rather, it reflects social and political biases. And in that case (and many similar cases), politics kept scientists from understanding animal behavior.

In all of these cases, bad metaphors kept us from seeing the truth. We used these metaphors not because they helped us understand reality, but because they were lazily borrowed from the society as it was at the time and its prejudices. This is why scientific research can never be fully understood outside the context of the people who produced it and the culture they lived in.

Master/Slave: a Case Study

In computer science and electrical engineering, the term "master/slave" has been used in a variety of loosely related ways. A representative example is that of distributed databases: if you want to implement a database system that can scale up to handling a lot of queries, it might occur to you to put many servers around the world that have copies of the same data, instead of relying on just one server (which could fail, or could become slow if a lot of people start querying it all at once) in one physical location. But then how do you make sure that the data on all of the servers are consistent? Imagine two different whiteboards, one in the computer science building at Berkeley and one in the computer science building at MIT: there's no reason to assume that whatever is written on the two whiteboards is going to be the same unless people adopt a mechanism for communicating with each other so that one whiteboard gets updated every time the other does. In the context of databases, one mechanism for consistency is the "master/slave" paradigm: one copy of the database gets designated as the authoritative one, and all the other copies -- "slaves" -- continuously ask the master for updates that they apply to themselves (or alternately, the master publishes changes to the slaves -- that's an implementation detail).

A lot of the historical background behind the use of "master/slave" in a technical context already got covered by Ron Eglash in his 2007 article "Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature". Unfortunately, you won't be able to read the article (easily) unless you have access to JSTOR. Eglash examined early uses of "master/slave" terminology carefully and pointed out that "master/slave" entered common use in engineering long after the abolition of slavery in the US. Thus it can't be defended as "a product of its time." He also points out that "master/slave" is also an inaccurate metaphor in many of the technical contexts where it's used: for example, for a system with multiple hard drives where the "master" and "slave" drives merely occupy different places in the boot sequence, rather than having a control or power relationships.

But I think the most interesting point Eglash makes is about the difference between power as embodied in mechanical systems versus electrical systems:

A second issue, closely related, is the difference that electrical signals make. Consider what it meant to drive a car before power steering. You wrestled with the wheel; the vehicle did not slavishly carry out your whims, and steering was more like a negotiation between manager and employee. Hence the appropriateness of terms such as "servo-motor" (coined in 1872) and "servomechanism" (1930s): both suggest "servant," someone subordinate but also in some sense autonomous. These precybernetic systems, often mechanically linked, did not highlight the division of control and power. But electrical systems did. Engineers found that by using an electromagnetic relay or vacuum tube, a powerful mechanical apparatus could be slaved to a tiny electronic signal. Here we have a much sharper disjunction between the informational and material domains. And with the introduction of the transistor in the 1950s and the integrated circuit in the 1960s, the split became even more stark.

This coupling of immense material power with a relatively feeble informational signal became a fundamental aspect of control mechanisms and automation at all scales...

In light of Eglash's observation, it's worth looking harder at why some engineers are so attached to the "master/slave" terminology, aside from fear of change. The "immense material power" of an electronic signal can't be observed directly. Do engineers in a white-male-dominated field like talking about their systems in terms of masters and slaves because they need to feel like they're somebody's master? Does it make them feel powerful? Given that engineering has become increasingly hostile to people who aren't white and male as it has become more dependent on leveraging smaller and smaller amounts of (physical) power to do more and more, I think it's worth asking what work metaphors like "master/slave" do to make white male engineers feel like they're doing a man's job.

Bad Metaphors

"Master/slave" both serves a psychological function and reflects authoritarian politics, even if the person using that term is not an authoritarian. No one needs to consciously be an authoritarian, though, for authoritarianism to distort our thinking. Language derived from societies organized around a few people controlling many others will affect how systems get designed.

A master/slave system has a single point of failure: what if the master fails? Then there's no longer any mechanism for the slaves to keep each other consistent. There are better solutions, which constitute an open research topic in distributed systems -- discussing them is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I just want to point out that the authoritarian imagination behind both societies organized around slavery (we still live in one of those societies, by the way, given the degree to which the economy depends on the prison industry and on labor performed by prisoners) impoverishes our thinking about systems design. It turns out that single points of failure are bad news for both computer systems, and societies.

I conjecture that the master-slave metaphor encourages us to design systems that have single points of failure, and that the metaphor is so compelling because of its relationship with the continued legacy of slavery. I don't claim to be certain. People who design decentralized, peer-to-peer systems may not be any more likely to have egalitarian politics, for all I know. So I'm asking a question, rather than answering one: do fascists, or people who haven't examined their latent fascism, build fragile systems?

Names are important. Lazy evaluation, for example, wasn't too popular when it was only known by the name of "cons should not allocate." So master/slave is worth abandoning not just because the words "master" and "slave" evoke trauma for Black Americans, but also because flawed thinking about societies and flawed thinking about technology are mutually self-reinforcing.

Good metaphors have the power to help us think better, just as bad ones can limit our imagination. Let's be aware of what shapes our imagination. It's not "only words" -- it's all words, and people who write software should understand that as well as anyone. Metaphors are powerful. Let's try to be aware of how they affect us, and not suppose that the power relationship between people and words only goes one way.


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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Arguing over the terms of reform means trying to get people to understand complexity. It violates the old adage that in politics when you are explaining you are losing. Better to let the other side explain complex formulae while you line up behind an easily articulated view.
-- Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth
"Transphobia comes from ignorance. Cis people treat trans people badly because they just don't understand gender. If we take the time to educate them, it'll pay off in respect."

That's my impression of the premise behind most "trans 101" workshops, handouts, and books that I've seen. I think the premise is flawed, because asserting boundaries is incompatible with education. This is not to say that education is never necessary, just that exchange of ideas and boundary-setting shouldn't be intermingled freely, much as developing software and doing code review -- or writing a book and editing it -- are different activities. While I suspect what I'm about to say applies to other social power gradients besides just trans/cis, I'm going to focus here on "trans 101" education.

I believe education is extremely oversold as a means for effecting change. You cannot convince people that you are in possession of facts and truths (borrowing Rebecca Solnit's words) while you are educating them. And in the case of "trans 101" education, what we need to teach people is exactly that: that trans people are reliable narrators of our own life stories. But in order for us to teach people what they need to know, they have to believe it already! This is why the ubiquitous advice to "educate people before you get angry at them" is as ineffective as it is smarmy: you can't educate someone into treating you as a person.

"Trans 101" workshops, on the other hand, are situations where someone or a group of people (sometimes a trans person, sometimes a cis person, sometimes a mixed group) has volunteered to do the work of educating in a structured and planned way. This isn't like randomly telling people on the Internet that they should educate strangers for free -- there's a better return on investment, and it's not something people are coerced into doing.

In practice, though, most "trans 101" content I've seen, well-intentioned as it is, is fundamentally flawed. "Trans 101" materials often rely on infographics like various versions of the "Genderbread Person" diagram, and these pictures illustrate the fundamental flaws of the educational approach. Rather than embedding any version of that diagram in this post (bad publicity is still publicity, after all), I'll defer to an illustrated critique of the 'Genderbread Person' trope that articulates why all of the diagrams are reductive and misleading.

Rather than teaching cis people what sex is, or what gender is, or about the difference between gender identity, expression, and role (I can never remember what those all mean anyway), or what "performativity" means, you could save everybody a lot of time and set a boundary, specifically: "Everyone has the right to have their sex and gender, as self-defined at a given moment in time, recognized as valid. If you are a respectful person, you will respect that right and not cross a boundary by denying the validity of someone else's self-defined sex or gender." Here's how.

Tell, Don't Ask

A hidden assumption behind most "trans 101" content is that the educator's job is to persuade. It goes without saying in much trans 101 content that the speaker (if trans) is asking the audience for permission to be a person, or that the speaker (if cis) is trying to explain to the audience why they should treat trans people as people. No matter who's saying it, it's self-undermining. If you expect to be treated as a person, you don't ask for permission to be one.

"Meeting people where they are" is a commonly cited reason to tone down or simplify discussion of boundaries and self-determination in "trans 101" content. I think most people grasp the basic concept of boundaries, at least those who are old enough to have learned to not grab the other kids' toys and that you don't get to pull your mom's hair just because you want to. So if we "meet people where they are" on the common ground of boundaries, we'll share the understanding that boundaries are not negotiable and require no justification. Justifying a statement implies it's not a boundary -- it implies that you can negotiate or debate with me on whether or not I'm a person. Actually, I know more than you do about what my subjective experience is; your opinion isn't equally valid there.

I think the premise that "meeting people where they are" requires a great deal of explanation arises partially from the difficulty of functioning in a system where it's still not widely accepted that everyone gets to have bodily autonomy. Disability, children's rights, the right to an abortion, sexual assault, or consent to being assigned a sex/gender, are all examples where the conditional or contingent granting of bodily autonomy causes significant pain.

So stating boundaries isn't easy. But piling on the explanations and justifications doesn't help either. You don't take power by asking for permission. You don't demand respect by asking for permission. And there's no "please" in "I am a human being, and you had better treat me as one."

Eschew Obfuscation

You know those people who ask for a checklist, right? "Give me a list of words I should avoid using, so that I can be sure that no one will ever get mad at me again. If they get mad, I'll tell them you gave me the list and they should get mad at you instead." A lot of "trans 101" content panders to the desire to avoid doing hard interpersonal work yourself -- to formalize and automate empathy. Unfortunately, that is also self-defeating. Ideally, a "trans 101" talk should provide as few rules as possible, because checklists, flowcharts, and other rule-based approaches to respecting other people are just another site for people to exploit and search for loopholes.

The flowchart approach goes hand-in-hand with the peddling of various oversimplified models of sex and gender that have the supposed benefit from being different from the one that white American children were taught in elementary school in the fifties (that boys have a penis and grow up to be men, girls have a vagina and grow up to be women, and there's nobody else.) But trans people don't get oppressed because cis people don't sufficiently understand the nuances of sex and gender. Rather, cis people construct models of sex and gender that justify past oppression and make it easier for that oppression to continue. For example, teaching people that sex is "biological" and gender is in your mind doesn't make them any more likely to treat trans people as real people. We see this in the ongoing legislative attacks on trans people's right to use public accommodations: cis people who have learned that "gender identity" is self-determined while other people determine what your biological sex is have adapted to that knowledge by framing their hateful legislation in terms of "biological sex."

Remodeling sex and gender doesn't fix transphobia because a flawed model didn't cause it. You can't address fear with facts. Models are interesting and potentially useful to trans people, people who are questioning whether they're trans, and people who study science, culture, and the intersections between them. Everybody else really doesn't need to know.

Compare how pro-choice rhetoric fails when it revolves around enumerating reasons why someone should be allowed to have an abortion: what if you were a victim of rape or incest, or young, or sick, or you can't afford to raise a child, what if, indeed. What if nobody has the right to be in somebody else's body without that person's consent? You don't need a reason or an explanation for wanting to keep somebody else out of your body -- dwelling in your body is reason itself. Likewise, we don't need to furnish reasons or explanations for why you need to use the names and pronouns for someone that are theirs. We just need to say you must.

Know Your Audience

In "The Culture of Coercion", I drew a line between people who relate to others through coercion and those who build relationships based on trust:
  • A person operating on trust wants to be respectful, even if they don't always know how. These people are who "Trans 101" workshops try to reach. They are the majority. You don't need to give them reams of scientific evidence to convince them to be -- they decided to be respectful a long time ago. You don't have to bring reams of scientific evidence to convince them to respect. It muddies the waters when you do.
  • A person who operates on coercion isn't really sold on that whole "everyone is human" concept. Workshops cannot persuade these people. If someone doesn't accept the reality of others' personal boundaries, no amount of evidence or civil discussion will change that. Firmer enforcement of those boundaries will, and an educational workshop is not the tool for enforcing those boundaries.

Education requires being really, really clear on who you're trying to reach. And unfortunately, even trust-based people are likely to try to game the system when given a flowchart on how to be respectful -- well-intentioned people still look for ways to avoid feeling like they did something wrong, because because narcissistic injury is uncomfortable. The only circumstance under which you can teach is when your audience wants to know what your boundaries are, so they can respect them. So tell them!

Against Education?

I'm not really against education. Consciousness-raising, cognitive liberation, freeing your mind, getting woke, or whatever you want to call it is a prerequisite for organizing for change, especially when you're trans and are systematically denied language for describing who you are. But that is self-directed education, and I think that intentionally directing your education inwards -- in the company of like-minded people, with the goal of discovering the power you already have -- is the only way education changes the world.

In any case, education can't take place without boundaries -- classrooms have ground rules. Ask any teacher.


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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
[twitter.com profile] moscaddie once wrote, "Dick is abundant and low-value." As she acknowledged later, this statement is cissexist, but I can borrow the phrasing without endorsing the cissexism:

Opinions are abundant and low-value.

[twitter.com profile] _danilo summarizes the co-optation of "diversity" in this Twitter thread: he observes that those who feel "marginalized by those who live in reality" demand inclusion because of "diversity of opinion."

Contorting "diversity" to demand more airtime for already-well-known beliefs relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of diversity. Diversity is a well-intentioned (if flawed) intellectual framework for bringing marginalized beliefs to the center. "Diversity of opinion" is a perversion of these good intentions to reiterate the centering of beliefs that are already centered.

Failure to explicitly define and enforce boundaries about which opinions a community values has the effect of tacitly silencing all but a very narrow range of opinions. That's because speech has effects: voicing an opinion does things to other people, or else you wouldn't bother using your time and voice to do so. (Stanley Fish made this point in his essay "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too" [PDF link].) Everybody thinks some opinions are harmful and should be suppressed -- invoking "diversity of opinion" is a derailing tactic for disagreements about which opinions those are.

We do not need more opinions. We need more nuanced, empathetic conversations; more explicit distinguishing between fact and opinion; and more respect for everyone's expert status on their own lived experience. People who say they want more opinions actually want fewer opinions, because they are invariably arguing for already-privileged opinions to receive even more exposure. We do not need to value diversity of opinion; there are other values we can center to guide us closer to truth.
Read more... )


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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Edited to add: The quote turns out to be from a fake news site, but calling the governor's office can't hurt!

At a press conference today, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took further steps to ensure that his controversial bill, HB2, will be upheld when it comes to law enforcement. McCrory announced that his office has setup a 24-hour hotline for individuals to call if they witness someone not abiding by the new law.

“If you see a woman, who doesn’t look like a woman, using the woman’s restroom, be vigilant, call the hotline, and report that individual.” McCrory told reporters. “We need our state to unite as one if we’re going to keep our children safe from all the sexual predators and other aberrant behavior that is out there.”

Tom Downey, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office, explained the new hotline to reporters.

“Beginning today, individuals that notice any kind of gender-suspicious activity in the men’s or women’s restrooms are encouraged to call the new ‘HB2 Offender Hotline’,” Horner said. “We encourage North Carolina’s residents to take photographs and report as much detail as possible when calling. With the information gathered from this hotline, we’ll be working closely with local law enforcement agencies to make sure this law is enforced and those who break the law see jail bars. We are sending a clear message to all the transsexuals out there; their illegal actions and deviant behavior will no longer be tolerated in the state of North Carolina."

[...]
To report suspicious bathroom activity, North Carolina residents can call the ‘HB2 Offender Hotline’ at 1-800-662-7952. For individuals living outside of North Carolina, please call (919) 814-2000. To file a complaint after normal business hours, call (919) 814-2050 and press option 3.


-- ABC News report


(Note: I struck out the 919-814-2000 number. It doesn't accept voicemail and when I called during East Coast business hours, I got a recording saying to call back during business hours. The 800 number appears to reject calls from non-North-Carolina area codes.)

I encourage you to use your own words, but if you don't know what to say, here's a script you can use when leaving a message at the 919 number, or both numbers if you have a North Carolina phone number you can call from. I adapted this script from a post on Tumblr by [tumblr.com profile] lemonsharks.

I am calling to report suspicious activity.

It is very suspicious that the state of North Carolina is spending money enforcing a law whose sole purpose is to harass trans people and stop them from participating in public life. This would be suspicious even if North Carolina didn’t have a child poverty rate of over 25%. 

It’s suspicious that people who are not trans are enacting this kind of legislative violence against trans people. It’s suspicious that they have not reflected on their own fear, asked themselves what they are so afraid of, rather than projecting their unexamined fear outward onto vulnerable people.

I think you need to investigate this immediately. Thanks for your attention. Goodbye.

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Tim Chevalier

August 2016

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