tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here is a cat (credit: [tumblr.com profile] cybergata on Tumblr)

I don't know what this cat's opinion about reproductive choice is. But I know what mine is! It's that I want you to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my birthday. 5 down, 35 to go!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here's a cat who adopted four baby hedgehogs.



If you think everyone has the right to choose to either be a parent or not be a parent, then please donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my birthday! 2 down, 38 to go 4 down, 36 to go, 13 days left :)
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Update: I've reached my goal, but don't let that stop you from donating to NNAF!

I'll be turning 35 on December 18. If you would like to celebrate with me, please make a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and let me know. Since I'm turning 35, I suggest a $35 donation if you can afford it, but any amount matters, even $1.

NNAF is a network of local, grassroots organizations that provide direct financial aid to people who need abortions but can't afford to pay for the costs (which often include the costs of traveling to a remote location, since in many parts of the US, the closest facility that performs abortions is hundreds of miles away). Local abortion funds exist in 42 states of the US, and you're welcome to donate directly to your local fund, but NNAF helps get the money to where it's most needed.

Right now, why NNAF's work is necessary should need no explanation. Outright violence against clinics, with the goal of scaring people who provide abortions into stopping, has been happening consistently for the past 40 years. This campaign has been accompanied by a more respectable campaign of legislative violence aimed at making abortion as hard to obtain as possible, including but not limited to the Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid from covering abortions and effectively prevents low-income people from getting abortions except with the help of nonprofit groups like abortion funds.

I agree with NNAF's statement: "every woman needs to have the ability to make her own decision about having a child, no matter what her income is." I would go further and say that the same is true about every person who may become pregnant, no matter what their gender.

My goal for this year is for 40 people to donate; in 2013, 36 people donated to the Ada Initiative (which has since shut down) for my birthday, so I think I should be able to get 4 more donations this year! So, if you donate, please let me know. If you don't let me know, I won't be able to know if I reached my goal, and I'll be sad. You can let me know by commenting on this post, tweeting at me or commenting on my Facebook wall, or -- if you prefer to be private -- emailing me (catamorphism at gmail.com) or sending me a private message on any of the services I use. Also, I will assume it's okay to thank you in a public post by the name or pseudonym that I know you by unless you tell me otherwise. You don't have to tell me the amount that you donated.

By donating you'll make me happy, piss off the religious right, but most importantly, help make sure nobody has to go through a pregnancy and give birth because they're short $100. So do it now! NNAF is a nonprofit 501c3 organization, so if your US employer matches funds, please request a matching donation from them so that your money goes even further.

Thanks to the following people for donating:

  1. [personal profile] emceeaich
  2. Les
  3. [twitter.com profile] bcjbcjbcj
  4. [anonymous]
  5. [twitter.com profile] puzzlement
  6. Kerry
  7. Laura
  8. Becka
  9. [personal profile] gfish
  10. [anonymous]
  11. Ming
  12. [twitter.com profile] aeolianharp
  13. Zoe
  14. Lance
  15. Chung-chieh Shan, [twitter.com profile] ccshan
  16. Conrad
  17. [personal profile] katarik
  18. [personal profile] yatima
  19. [personal profile] miang
  20. [personal profile] andrewt
  21. Aaron
  22. Daniel
  23. [twitter.com profile] jessamynsmith
  24. [anonymous]
  25. [personal profile] sathari
  26. [twitter.com profile] vaurorapub
  27. [twitter.com profile] wilkieii
  28. [personal profile] sonia
  29. [twitter.com profile] yayzerbeam
  30. [anonymous]
  31. Tinny
  32. [twitter.com profile] joshbohde
  33. [personal profile] mjg59
  34. Summer
  35. Kenny
  36. [twitter.com profile] AaronM
  37. [twitter.com profile] lindseybieda
  38. [twitter.com profile] CoralineAda
  39. [twitter.com profile] jpetazzo
  40. [twitter.com profile] ms_headdesk
  41. [anonymous]
  42. Amy
  43. [livejournal.com profile] anemone

If you donated, your name isn't on this list, and you would like it to be, let me know!
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
This post is the last in a 3-part series. The previous parts were "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist" and "Jesus as 10x Engineer".

Elitism as Insecurity



The preoccupation with hacker-as-identity sets the field of engineering back. It's also anti-meritocratic: preserving the quasi-religious or homosocial-bonding-based cult of the hacker doesn't do much to advance the field of software development. Being able to be chummy or weird with your bros doesn't have much to do with getting work done. (I like to make in-jokes with my friends too, but I don't carry with me a feeling of entitlement to make those in-jokes a union card for my profession.) Homogeneity makes people work worse, not better.

The idea of escape from adulthood, with its relationships and feelings and messy truths, is a strong temptation for many engineers, including me. Don't we all want to be the king, the one who is revered above all others? As I wrote about in "Killing the Messenger at Mozilla", the "lone genius" story appeals to Archetypal Engineers; they enjoy talking about how one person developed JavaScript in ten days more than they enjoy showing how many, many people working together over years to make incremental additions to it made it as useful as it is.

The primacy of this temptation is why the anti-SJW moral panic is the face of fascism in technology. It's about the fear that if nobody can be the king, then you never can either. It's about the fear that if you're not worshipped like a quasi-deity, you are nothing. If you think "fascism" is taking it too far, then I recommend [personal profile] graydon2's article "The EntitleMen: techno-libertarian right wing sockpuppets of silicon valley".


"Elitism grows out of arrogance mixed with insecurity. Elitists aren’t interested in sharing knowledge, they’re interested in being the source of the knowledge. Elitists are only interested in disseminating their knowledge to the larger population if they are the authority."
-- Cahlan Sharp, "Software Developers’ Growing Elitism Problem"


The group that Sharp calls "elitists" and that I've been calling "J. Random Hackers" are anti-SJW because they are insecure about their own lack of understanding of people, social groups, and cultures that they regard as unimportant (but fear might be important). When an elitist says "SJW", they mean someone whose knowledge makes them feel threatened. Elitists attempt to respond to this threat by devaluing knowledge possessed by SJWs and by discrediting SJWs as engineers. After all, if you could be both a good SJW and a good engineer, and if to be an SJW means to be in possession of facts and truths that could be useful, what room would be left for the elitists? They could learn more, but as Sharp wrote, they don't want to learn -- they want to be the source of knowledge for other learners.

Against Pollution of Agency



As I wrote in "The church of the hacker, or fake geek girls and outside agitators", "To say, 'It doesn't have to be this way' is to expose yourself and your reputation and credibility to every kind of attack possible, because 'it doesn't have to be this way' are dangerous words." The danger that elitists perceive from SJWs is that elitists will both lose their comforting, safe space built in apparent absolute truths and formal systems and lose their socioeconomic status if forced to compete with people who don't match the Archetype.

When ESR writes that SJWs must be expelled from tech, he is polluting the agency of people he feels threatened by. In fact, pollution of agency is the primary, perhaps the only function of the term "SJW".

This is what “SJW” means. Everything, nothing. A bogeyman, a strawman. And so the only thing it can really mean is an adamant refusal to consider a certain kind of idea — a staunch emphasis that a certain kind of idea is not even worth consideration. It’s a kind of shorthand for loudly and proudly sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears. It exists to save people the trouble of thinking; it exists to give people something to stay angry at.

“SJW” is the ink used to draw lines through which a distasteful ideology need not pass. To put it bluntly, it defines the boundary of a safe space.
-- [twitter.com profile] eevee, "Words mean things, unfortunately"


J. Random Hacker says he's apolitical, but uses his social capital in order to weaken the cognitive authority of ideas that threaten his interests. He says he's non-ideological, but he's so worried that his ideology can't succeed without the use of force that he cannot fathom it succeeding on its own merits. He says he rejects safe spaces, but he uses words like "hacker", "SJW", and "meritocracy" to demarcate a space in which he and his friends can feel safe. He says he believes in evaluating contributions based on merit, but has no definition of or metric for "merit" that doesn't depend on the names and faces of the people making those contributions. He says that his approach results in the highest quality of outcome, but doesn't know how to measure quality. He says he believes in free speech, but uses bullying words like "SJW" to silence people he disagrees with. He says the groups he belongs to comprise the best people, but is terrified of his own mediocrity. He says his claims are backed up by evidence, but asserts without proof that definitionally, SJWs can't also be competent engineers with technical contributions to make. He says SJWs are wasting his time by bringing irrelevant concerns into tech communities, but wastes his own time by patrolling the borders of those communities rather than tending the gardens inside them. He exemplifies what George Orwell wrote about in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language".

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.


We have to recognize and name pollution-of-agency attacks for what they are: on a moral level, in order to protect the truth and defend the use of words to convey meaning rather than to leverage power. And on a practical level, we need to call pollution-of-agency attacks what they are in order to assert our right to use our talents and to work at jobs we can do.

Finally, isn't it more fun to learn and grow than to cling to one's rigidity? While the work of inclusion doesn't happen on its own, including people still takes less effort than fighting off people who want to join the party. The small amount of time it takes to use inclusive language and to consider what you say before you say it is an investment in the future health of your project. The time it takes to fight off SJWs, on the other hand, is time spent self-sabotaging. Why would you even consider forking a project based on fear rather than an irreconcilable technical disagreement?

Isn't it more fun to write code than to guard social borders in the name of Jesus, 10x engineers, or J. Random Hacker? What are you really achieving when you spend your limited time on a witch hunt rather than on reviewing pull requests? I guarantee you that hunting witches won't make your code pass more tests, patch its security vulnerabilities, or help anybody switch from proprietary to open-source software. If all bugs are shallow with enough eyes, encouraging people to turn their eyes away from your code will permit bugs to thrive. If the bazaar model works better than the cathedral model for development, then joining forces with people who share your goals is more effective building a walled garden into which only the ideologically pure can enter. And if the usefulness of code can be measured with no knowledge of its author, then you should be striving to remove barriers of entry into your project that filter out code solely on the basis of who wrote it.

"Where does magic come from?
I think magic's in the learning
'cause now when Christians sit with Pagans
only pumpkin pies are burning."

-- Dar Williams, "The Christians and the Pagans"
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
This post is the second in a 3-part series. The previous part was "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist".

Hackers and Christians



I've so far argued that discourse like ESR's blog post reflects an assumption that no "SJW" can truly be interested in doing engineering work, whereas within the same discourse, it is a given that Christians can be good engineers. I've also argued that the distinction made is a distinction between marked and unmarked ideologies. But I still haven't answered the question of why it is that Christianity (and the set of assumptions that come with the public declaration of oneself as "Christian", distinctly from e.g., "Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", or "Baptist") came to be an unmarked ideology within Anglophone software engineering culture (forthwith, just "tech") whereas the "SJW" label came to be a marked one.

A lot of us SJWs never wanted to be ideological ourselves; we embarked from a place of just wanting to do the work, sincerely believing that we would be seen and judged on the basis of our work output rather than our gender, race, or other identities that aren't strictly relevant to doing work. Or, if we didn't totally believe that was how it was going to go, at least we hoped so. Some of us believed that "show me the code" was sincere and that if we just leaned in, paid our dues, and contributed, we would be recognized and accepted as members of a community of practice.

For many of us, then, our ideological convictions arose out of self-preservation, when we realized that meritocracy was a lie and that in fact, the tech in-group was more interested in maintaining its power than in doing the highest-quality possible work. When you harass people who are trying to do their jobs, or support that harassment, or fail to speak out against it, you're not interested in building the best thing you can, because to build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.

At the risk of stretching a metaphor, then, I posit that Christianity (again, the exercise of publicly self-labeling as Christian rather than a particular set of beliefs, since that exercise tells you nothing about what someone believes or does and everything about how they want to be seen by others) meshes well with the J. Random Hacker archetype because both worldviews are monotheistic. It's just that the deity that J. Random Hacker offers the most praise to is the abstractions of empiricism, rationality, and objectivity, not as tools for thought but as fundamental principles that afford fixed interpretations. Ontologically, Christianity and science -- the version of science that software engineers believe in that mostly involves flagging as a person who "fucking loves science" rather than actually doing science -- are two great tastes that go great together, at least when you define "Christianity" and "science" right. Acolytes of J. Random Hacker impoverish both science and Christianity by casting them as forms of textual literalism that prioritize obedience to a higher authority (whether that's God, or objective truth) ahead of relationships with equals.

Both Christianity and science can mean a lot more than that, and I think that both are better when they aren't reduced to fundamentalism. Myself, I like a rich sauce to season my thinking better than the sticky, burnt residue left when you boil away everything that can't be formulated as a rigid system of rules. The point, though, is that both Christianity and science, when conceived of by J. Random Hacker, have more to do with the burnt residue of absolute truth than with the flavors or nuance of conversation, trade-offs, and conditional truth.

Paganism, then, also at the risk of stretching a metaphor, is the archetype to which haters of "SJWs" truly appeal. (No, the irony of ESR, a self-identified neopagan, calling for an anti-SJW witch hunt isn't lost on me). If somebody calls you an SJW, what they're probably saying is that you think we have to balance multiple concerns in order to lead a good life; that maintaining and nurturing egalitarian relationships comes ahead of adherence to rules and worship of a higher power; and that your mind can admit multiple conflicting truths.

It's tricky to use identities you don't subscribe to as metaphors, and that's what I'm doing. But I think there is something to the tension between focus on private religious practice and personal salvation ("Christianity" as such) and focus on collective action and, indeed, justice ("what love looks like in public", cf. Cornel West), that can be identified with Paganism. Indeed, to rise to power, Christians (historically) had to discredit and threaten Pagans; that's exactly what's happening in the struggle between SJWs and JRHs.

In tech, like "white", "Christian" actually means very little as a label other than "not in the oppressed class". In a white- and Christian-dominated society, to advertise one's pride in either one's whiteness or one's Christianity has nothing to do with pride in a genuine identity and everything to do with contempt for somebody else's identity. "White pride", like the broad concept of Christian identity, is a threat concealed as an identity.

Jesus as 10x Engineer



How does the tension between private and public action, between absolute and relational ethics, reflect other realities about engineering culture? Maybe it explains the currently-fashionable focus on technical skills, so-called "10x engineers", and individual genius and its attendant deprioritization of collaboration, teamwork, and the work it takes to create healthy organizations.

Maybe it explains the attribution of messaianic qualities to "great hackers", something that seduced me when I read the King James Version of the Jargon File (which is to say, the version that ESR edited) as a teen. Keeping the girls out of the treehouse looks childish when 28-year-old senior engineers are doing it, so recasting the struggle as the protection of the temple from invaders lends the scene a nice epic quality, like a popular video game or fantasy movie series.

Maybe it explains hostility to flexibility in process, to moral relativism, to anything that might break the embrace of strict, rigid rules for how things and people do and should behave that makes the tech industry a safe space for J. Random Hacker and his followers.

Maybe fear of SJWs is fear of genuine connection with other people, of interruption of the communion with machines that J. Random Hacker claims to be all about. He says this communion is more important than community, even though the only entities he truly ever communes with are the people, living and dead, who designed and built the machines.

I think "Christians vs. Pagans" maps well onto "Hackers vs. SJWs" because what self-identified Christians and Hackers (even non-Hacker Christians and non-Christian Hackers) share is a desire for absolutes, for unambiguous formal specifications, for clear meaning, for single answers; they share a fear of complicated questions, nuance, emotions, empathy. Of course, formal specifications can be useful tools and some questions do have right answers. Humans really are changing the climate, and vaccinations really don't cause autism. But there's a difference between use of formal specifications as a tool, or as an idol.

Maybe this is also why some people (including myself a few years ago) are so obsessed with preserving the meaning of the word "hacker" as a special kind of engineer. It's not enough just to be an engineer, to have an occupation. "Hacker" goes beyond that, and is an identity, a group you can feel you belong in (if you look like the right kind of person). Sort of like a church.

For "Hacker" to remain special, for that word to retain its mystical or priestly qualities, it is necessary to keep those who are believed to see engineering as "just a job" from claiming it, and also for Hackers (sometimes called "10x engineers") to retain social status that engineers as a group lack.

To be continued!

Edited to add two other perspectives on why ESR is wrong:
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This post is the first in a 3-part series.

When I worked at Mozilla, my co-worker "Bill" (not his real name) emailed me on my personal account to tell me that I would be less angry if I found Jesus like he had. At the same job, when I was on my way out, another co-worker, "Ted" (also not his real name), told me that "people here think you're only interested in politics and not in code."

I thought about Bill and Ted when I saw Eric S. Raymond (ESR)'s latest hot take: "Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs".


What unites Ted and ESR is the belief that interest in "politics" precludes interest in engineering -- or, perhaps, interest in the wrong kind of politics. What unites Bill and Ted is the assumption that there are some outside interests that are acceptable for engineers to have (like being a Christian, and converting others to one's faith) and others that are not (such as social justice).

As per Joanna Russ's system of categorization for tactics used to silence women's writing, the rhetorical strategy that Ted and ESR shared is that of the pollution-of-agency attack:

Pollution of Agency attacks use a woman's character or traits attributed to her considered to be negative to deny the quality or importance of her work. Sex and sexuality, mental health status, or physical attractiveness are common traits or actions used in a pollution of agency attack.

-- "Russ Categories", Geek Feminism Wiki

While pollution-of-agency attacks are disproportionately used against women, they're also used against anyone else who threatens conservative control over a particular domain of cultural production, whether it's science fiction writing or engineering. The script that both Ted and ESR followed is that having the wrong political views (specifically radical or progressive ones) devalues an engineer's work, regardless of any intrinsic properties of the work (indeed, may justify ignoring that work altogether). ESR's attack was particularly effective because it used the term "SJW" ("social justice warrior"), which has become shorthand for that group of people whose work must be either attacked or ignored because they hold political views that challenge your own stronghold on prestige and power.

What unifies all three stories is the question of what it costs to hold a particular ideology in tech. Being seen as an "SJW" has a cost: the effort it takes to contend with pollution-of-agency attacks. Being seen as a Christian engineer does not have this cost; while people may disagree with your views, they won't question your competence or the legitimacy of your work just because you are a Christian.

Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist



The reason why Bill and Ted could coexist at the same organization -- why my right to be there was questioned because of my interest in "politics" while Bill was welcomed despite his constant efforts to use the workplace as a forum for religious evangelism -- lies, I think, in a certain archetype about what it means to be an engineer. ESR himself described one version of this archetype in "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker", an appendix he added to the Jargon File. Subsequently, using ESR's term, I will refer to this archetypal engineer -- a fictional person who many engineers are anxious about emulating as closely as possible -- as "J. Random Hacker", though my characterization of JRH will depart from his.

J. Random Hacker identifies as an apolitical man who also isn't religious in a way that would set him apart from his underlying culture. He could lack religious views altogether, or he could subscribe to the religion that is dominant in his culture. Although I'm going to be using Christianity as a metaphor for monoculture in this essay, I could just as easily have used atheism. The important thing isn't the specifics of the belief system so much as that J. Random Hacker doesn't rock the boat when it comes to views outside a narrow construction of "technical" discourse. Likewise, JRH certainly isn't apolitical, since he participates in society and therefore takes part in power relations -- but he holds a set of political views (such as the view that it's desirable or even possible for a person to be apolitical) that support existing power structures rather than challenging them.

In other words, J. Random Hacker presents himself as non-ideological. Ideology, he says, would only get in the way of getting work done. But without ideology, we wouldn't know what work is worth doing or what methods are acceptable for getting that work done. J. Random Hacker is just as ideological as any SJW; the difference between them is the broad acceptance, or lack thereof, of their ideologies. J. Random Hacker knows that he is ideological, and lives in terror that his secret will get out. He is uncomfortable around SJWs because he fears that any engagement with other ideologies will highlight that his own beliefs are not necessarily normal, natural, logical, or rational, but rather, continge on the needs and desires of the interest groups to which he belongs.

At Mozilla, I saw the Hacker and SJW archetypes clash during the Planet Mozilla Controversy, and later, from a distance, during the Gamergate coordinated harassment campaign when a member of the Mozilla ops team expressed concern about whether Mozilla would appear to be "supporting misguided Social Justice Warriors".

The first debate was about whether hate speech against people in protected classes is a normal, natural thing for J. Random Hacker to engage in, or whether it needed to be highlighted as harmful to the community. Disagreeing that hate speech harms the community amounts to consensus that the community doesn't need people who don't match the J. Random Hacker pattern.

The second conversation reflected the double standard applied to "Social Justice Warriors" vs. harassers: to appear to support "misguided Social Justice Warriors" would contaminate the purity of Mozilla as an engineering organization, whereas supporting harassers of women would not, because, indeed, women themselves are a threat to the purity of the J. Random Hacker archetype, and thus misogynist harassers do the work needed to protect the in-group from contamination. Gamergate strengthens the archetype by continuing to ensure that it won't be spoiled by what women might have to contribute; "SJWs", on the other hand, would harm it with the introduction of ideology (but really, of foreign ideology).

It is a truth universally accepted among some of us who use Twitter that the substring "husband, father" is a red flag in a bio. Sometimes the substring appears as "husband, father, Christian". You might protest that I shouldn't be assuming things about people just because they're husbands and fathers, but that's precisely my point: I'm not. I'm assuming things about people who feel the need to foreground their identity as husbands, fathers, Christians ahead of descriptors that mean something. There is nothing especially unique about being a husband or father; knowing that someone is a husband and father tells you very little about them (for example, it doesn't tell you whether they're a loving or a controlling husband, or whether they're a nurturing or an abusive father). Someone who needs to tell you that he is a husband and father, who describes his identity in terms of the women and children he feels he controls, is doing something more specific: he's flagging the purity of his identity. Which is to say, at least from his point of view, his lack of identity; his lack of ideology. Don't you just hate "identity politics"? It was easier when politics was only about advancing my identity.

Some people would see me as a Christian because of the religion I belong to, and that's fine, although I don't identify as one. I'm also not especially attached to the label "SJW" other than that it's a fun form of alchemy to reclaim terms used to attack and use them as terms of pride. I'm less interested in accepting or rejecting either label for myself than in asking what "SJW" signifies within the cultural context of Anglophone engineering culture, and likewise for "Christian". I think that it's important to some people to identify as "Christian engineers", and important to them to maintain the conditions under which nobody blinks at that, because to identify yourself as Christian (within the scope of the broader interest groups that the tech industry serves) is to unmark yourself, to assert yourself as in the majority or dominant group. "SJW", on the other hand, is a catchall for whatever the in-group doesn't want polluting their air.

Whether somebody is self-identifying as "husband, father, Christian" or declaring that we must eject the SJWs, their concern is with the maintenance of in-group purity and the consolidation of power. Professing disdain for ideology and a preoccupation with the purity of one's identity -- whether it's husband- and fatherhood or fidelity to the J. Random Hacker archetype -- are aspects of fascist ideologies. To declare oneself as a husband, father and Christian reflects fascist-influenced thinking: it is predicated on a choice to distinguish oneself primarily on the basis of a single identity (that of the technically meritorious engineer), and to organize one's other life choices around minimizing the edit distance between oneself and J. Random Hacker. Of course, these choices aren't exactly choices, since we don't choose our genders, among other things. That's the point of the "husband, father, Christian" avowal: it's an avowal that you are a person who has the privilege of opting out of marginalization.

Part 2: Jesus as 10x Engineer
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Content warning: Discussion of abuse, apologism for abuse, abuse culture, rape, rape culture, criticism avoidance.

I was reading a thread on a friend's Facebook profile when I saw a comment on it consisting of an image with the same text as this one. The text is: "I often worry about the safety of my children, especially the one that is rolling their eyes at me & talking back right now."



Somebody made the choice to introduce an image like this one into a space containing people they did not know (our mutual friend's friends-only Facebook post). Let's unpack the assumptions behind this choice -- but first let's try to figure out what the image really means.

The speaker in the image -- along with the person who shares it in order to communicate their feelings -- wants to harm their child, presumably physically, because the child has "talked back". This desire to harm is unmistakable -- whether it will be acted on is unclear, but what is clear is that the speaker wishes to distance themself from their desire through the use of linguistic indirection. It's a verbal trick that furnishes plausible deniability just as it communicates perfectly clearly: "I want to physically assault my child because the child used words that displeased me, and maybe I will... nah, of course I really won't, I'll just think about it! *wink* *nudge*"

Let's talk about the assumptions implicit in a choice to share this image:

Assumption 1: The desire to physically assault a child (as opposed to the actual act) is a plausible or reasonable reaction to the child's verbal insubordination.

All feelings and reactions are real, and sometimes we have feelings we don't like, such as the desire to hurt somebody we love. It's okay for a parent to admit that sometimes they want to hurt their child. It's okay to admit that we feel that way, but honesty and vulnerability are very different from jokes like this one. "It's just a joke" is a defense mechanism and is disingenuous discourse.

Assumption 2: The speaker would, of course, never really hurt their child; they're a good person who wouldn't abuse, and you're supposed to know that.

This assumption is predicated on another assumption, that abuse is a character trait rather than a behavior. Assuming "abuser" is a fixed category, or that in other words, only monsters abuse and good people can never commit harm, is a prerequisite for assuming that it's easy to tell who does or doesn't abuse.

This is part of how jokes create unsafe spaces: Why should we trust you, exactly? This is part of the reason (see assumption 1) why such discussions should perhaps be saved for therapy sessions. If you don't have friends who abuse their kids, you almost certainly have friends whose friends abuse their kids. In a Facebook discussion, you don't know who the real abuser is and who's just joking about it. The presence of these jokes in a group makes it harder to trust people in it. They continually remind group members that there are abusers their midst and some of them will use "I'm only joking" to disclaim responsibility for their actions. It's a reminder to stay on guard, even for adults, because let's be real, people who abuse their kids aren't people who are safe to be around (especially not if you're a survivor of childhood abuse) -- they may not pick on people their own size physically, but they don't usually hesitate to do so emotionally.

Even if you accept this assumption (and why wouldn't you, except for people you know very well?), something else happens if someone who's listening is an abuser: that person will interpret the joke as further evidence that their behavior is acceptable, that it's socially approved of enough to make knowing little jokes about. Just as rape jokes serve the function of telling rapists that their behavior is the norm, that anybody would do it, child abuse jokes serve that same function for abusers.

Assumption 3: "Talking back" (failing to accept a parent's authority unconditionally) is something that should be punished.

Alice Miller has written extensively about the enduring popularity of authoritarian parenting and the intense harm that it does to children, even in the absence of physical violence. I just wonder what kind of child you're trying to raise if you want to teach somebody to accept authority at all times, no matter how arbitrary.

Regardless of whether the speaker actually wants or intends to commit physical violence against a child, the joke doesn't make sense unless you agree that "talking back" by a child (or really, by any subordinated person to their subordinator) is unacceptable.

Assumption 4: Parents need a "coping mechanism" for dealing with their children.

It was suggested to me that jokes like this are a "coping mechanism" to let off steam. But coping is something that you have to do when you're in a situation you can't get out of -- when you're powerless. Parents have near-absolute power over their children. If you are a minor, your parents have the legal right to hit you without your consent. Under some circumstances, they can deny you medical care and education. They're legally entitled to money you earn. You don't have the legal right to run away until you become a legal adult.

Parents, on the other hand, choose every day to continue caring for their children. It may not seem like a choice, but it is. Every parent has the option of abandoning or surrendering their child to someone else's care. These options have serious consequences -- potential emotional ones for the parent, legal ones in the case of abandonment -- but parents have the privilege of choosing between facing these serious consequences, and continuing to accept responsibility for a child. Children don't have the choice to leave; they are subject to the coercive power of the state in returning them to their family of origin, except in cases of very severe abuse that can be substantiated. Even in those cases, the state has the right to place the child with other substitute parents without regard for the child's wishes, so the child still has no power.

Joking about hurting someone you have absolute power over isn't a coping mechanism; it's a threat. Parent/child relationships exist at the pleasure of the parent and without regard to the child's consent. You could hurt your child if you don't like their "talking back". Who's going to stop you? Why stop at joking about it? Why should anybody assume that you will stop at that, if you're joking about that?

A more extreme version of the "coping mechanism" line of reasoning is that autistic children are a burden their parents must cope with. I think there's a continuum between the assumption that a child is something to cope with rather than the result of a constantly-renewed choice to continue being a parent, and the assumption that a disabled child requires extra-strong coping mechanisms.

Assumption 5: Children have power over parents

Similarly to the idea that women really run the world or that married men just do what their wives tell them, the idea that children control parents is a reversal that helps people collectively deny inequality. One hears parents talking about kids manipulating them, about throwing tantrums to get their way, but children don't have total control over their parents' lives and bodies that is reinforced by the state. Parents do, over children.

Assumption 6: Survivors aren't listening

Even ignoring assumptions 1 through 5, I would think that most people would realize it's in bad taste to joke about child abuse when adults who have survived child abuse are listening. So there's an assumption being made that survivors don't participate in society, or at least aren't in your social group, or if they are, they will stay silent in shame about their survivor identity.

This assumption is similar to the widespread contempt shown for the provision of empathetic metadata (aka trigger warnings or content warnings) that's part of the ongoing moral panic about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of trauma resulting from widespread, structural violence. Anti-empathy thinkpieces declare: survivors don't exist, or if they do, what they say about their own experiences is false, or even if it's not, they have no right to complain about not being heard. Stop making the rest of us uncomfortable!

Assumption 7: Of course everyone knows it's just a joke.

Related to assumption 2.

Well... no? I mean, it's like those "ironic racism" jokes where a white person says something racist and you're supposed to know they're saying it "to make fun of racism". Maybe us white people should be working to dismantle racism rather than using it to score laughs, but I digress. In both cases, the jokiness is contingent on child abuse, or racism, not being a thing that really happens anymore. Or maybe being a thing that happens in communities very far away from your own. Another Facebook friend-of-a-friend recently expressed shock about student protests over racism at Ithaca College, stating that Ithaca isn't "Mississippi." In reality, racism is fundamentally woven into the fabric of all of the United States, and child abuse is common everywhere, in every region, in rich families and poor families. Parents of every gender abuse their kids. People with Ph.Ds abuse their kids. Maybe ironic child abuse comments will be funny when all of the abuse has stopped, but that hasn't happened yet. Authoritarian, emotionally violent parenting is even more common than outright abuse. In a way, it's the norm. How often have I read somebody on a "childfree" forum saying the equivalent of, "If I had behaved that way in public [where 'that way' amounts to being a child], my parents would have tanned my hide"?

Interpersonal violence is a thing that has happened to your friends, that is happening to your friends right now, and is something that your friends are doing to other people. It's not something that the Other does in some distant place.

Assumption 8: Joking about beating or killing your child is different from a man joking about beating or killing his wife.

The latter kind of joke was more acceptable at one point but seems to have mostly fallen out of fashion. Given how much more power parents have over children than husbands have over wives, you would think that the former joke would be less acceptable than the latter, not more.
It's interesting that people react differently if you ask them:

"Why is it socially acceptable to joke about hurting your child?"

than if you show them this specific joke. Maybe people assume that it's normal and natural to "worry about your child's safety" when the threat to your child's safety is yourself, or more to the point, that this is funny rather than something to bring up with a professional counselor. People see that the abstract concept of joking about child abuse is disturbing, but fail to recognize concrete instances of the abstract concept for what they are.

As with all jokes, the joke-teller expects to get a laugh. People tell jokes to get approval, validate their beliefs, and increase social cohesion. Jokes make a space less safe when they function to remind people in that space that it's natural, normal or necessary to subjugate others. Child abuse jokes serve the dual function of signalling that a space is already tolerant of abuse, and reinforcing and recreating tolerance of abuse. They're not so much a barometer of emotional danger as a thermostat for it. The audience's reaction to a joke provides feedback that determines what else might be acceptable to say or do; that's how jokes make a space unsafe. It's no different from how sexist jokes in male-dominated professional spaces make a space unsafe for women. In the same way that sexist jokes are primarily signals to other men, simultaneously checking that sexism is still acceptable and reminding men to accept and promote sexism, jokes about harming kids aren't directed directly at kids -- they're reminders to other adults that it's okay to be authoritarian and requests for approval from those adults that your authoritarianism is okay. The approval can be as simple as a laugh.

Next time someone tells a joke like this in your presence, don't laugh. Disapproval can be simple as a raised eyebrow, and it sends the message that jokes like this aren't okay to make around you. Online, disapproval can be as simple as typing the words "not cool" or "that's not funny." Online, the onus is on people who aren't survivors, who don't need to protect themselves by immediately blocking people who make jokes that suggest their lack of safety, to express disapproval. Few people are willing to admit to having been wrong immediately, but saying "not cool" can make an unsafe space a little safer; can let silent onlookers know that not everybody thinks this is okay.

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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
I read Mary Gardiner's memorial post for Telsa Gwynne and was struck by this sentence in it: "Telsa is the direct inspiration for the entire 15 years of content on this website, especially the personal diary."

I would like to acknowledge some of the people who have been major inspirations for my public writing over the past 5 years; I hope they all lead long and happy lives, but I think it's important to thank people while they're still alive if we can.

  • Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora co-founded the Ada Initiative. On an organizational and on a personal level, they both have changed how I see the world in ways I often take for granted now. Mary, in particular, contributed a huge amount of content early on to the Geek Feminism blog and wiki, both of which have influenced me in such deep ways that it's hard to summarize exactly how they've changed me.
  • Skud created the Geek Feminism Wiki (and later handily summarized its history in in a a retrospective talk).
  • Leigh Honeywell has set an example for me with her uncompromising pursuit of justice.
  • Lindsey Kuper has been a colleague and comrade in navigating sexism in the programming language research community.
  • Clarissa Littler has and continues to awe me with her tenacity in the face of adversity. In a very literal way, I would be less happy and more complacent without her.
  • Kake created the original version of the Male Programmer Privilege Checklist in 2006, which opened up for me what it was possible to talk about.
  • The anonymous author of the original version of Derailing for Dummies gave me names for the patterns I'd observed but been unable to articulate in how oppression operates through discourse.

I can't possibly make a complete list, but I can say for certain that without these individuals, my feminist consciousness would be sadly lacking and I would never have thought it important to share what I had to say about social justice in technology. I owe them a debt.
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I'll try not to do this every month, but October marked the first month of my experiment using Patreon. Thanks to the 24 people who supported me! You know who you are, although hopefully you also got a more detailed thank-you from me via Patreon (it's a little hard to tell if a message got sent).

This month, I wrote (here) about emotional labor in tech, and about cognitive liberation and bodily autonomy, thanks to the encouragement I received via your contributions. I'm planning a more ambitious post, or possibly series of posts, for the middle of November.

To everybody else: If you can afford to, and if you think I contribute at least as much to the Internet as ESR does, then how about supporting me in November?
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Based on a (friends-only) poll that [personal profile] amadi posted, I got an idea, and when I get an idea, I have to follow through with it, assuming it's something I can do within 15 minutes while sitting at my computer.

What Would You Eat on a Breakfast Taco?

What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
Early in the morning

Pork, beans, and scrambled eggs
Beef, fish, and pepper jack
Corn salsa, guacamole
Early in the morning
Read more... )
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
alt

As long as I continue to work as a software engineer, I'll have a second job. I can't quit this second job except by quitting the job I get paid for, yet I don't get paid for the second job and I probably never will.

Emotional labor has been a topic of discussion lately, and I actually wrote much of this piece before the MetaFilter discussion on it came out. I hope, though, that I have something to add as it relates to working rather than personal relationships.

As an example of what I mean by teaching people how to take other people's subjective experience into account -- that is, teaching people to practice the skill of empathy, which they usually already have but apply only selectively -- I present some comments from this thread on the Haskell subreddit. I did not participate in it, but since I've spent much of my professional life as part of the Haskell community, it's a good example of what I've had to deal with over the years.

"The gender inequality might be caused by men being socialized to be less risk averse." -- someone who has not bothered to familiarize themself with women's accounts of their subjective experience in male-dominated communities, but nonetheless feels comfortable speculating about the reasons why male domination is self-reinforcing.

"Bits of useful advice used as a vehicle to force through the author's politics..." -- reflecting an assumption that marginalized people's opinions are political whereas one's own opinions are not -- that is to say, that interactions that reinforce existing power dynamics are apolitical, whereas interactions that challenge those power dynamics are political.

Many comments have been deleted by the moderators (to the moderators' credit!), but that doesn't change that as a community, we still consider it up for discussion whether it's worth effort to welcome marginalized people. In fact, we still consider it up for discussion whether the community drives marginalized people away -- hence the speculation here about whether people in gender minorities are "less risk averse", or (elsewhere) just less interested in writing code. The very fact that this is a topic of discussion drives more people away.

Those who aren't driven away are tasked with an unpaid job: teaching people to listen to the views of those whose experience departs from their own; teaching people that experiences they haven't personally lived through can be real. There are two parts to this job: the practical work of teaching people how to take others' subjective experience into account, and the persuasive work of teaching them why it's important and helpful to do so. Both are essential to social change.

A marginalized person in tech who declines to do this job is given a different task: to defend, over and over, their position as an expert on their own lived experience. As Rebecca Solnit put it, "to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I write as someone who has chosen to do the job rather than to internalize a lot of anger and hurt. Either way is a valid choice.

Emotional work steals our time and attention



It's not that privileged people (I'm using this as a shorthand for people with relative privilege -- someone who enjoys privilege along multiple axes, including but not limited to gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, neuro(a)typicality...) can't empathize; it's that they've been taught to empathize with people like themselves, and disbelieve people who are unlike themselves.

I think denial of empathy is so pervasive in software is that it's such a monoculture. It's dominated by men -- relatively privileged men, at that. From early in their lives, white men get taught that they are special and important and deserve to be heard above all else, and that thinking about other people's feelings is a sign of weakness. This is truer the fewer intersecting oppressions a given white man experiences.

It's harder for people experiencing multiple intersecting oppressions to be a software engineer for reasons having nothing to do with our ability to write code. Being a software engineer is about more than just doing work for the company that writes your paychecks. It's also about being part of a community, being visible in a community. If you are going to advance in your career, you generally have to participate in discussions online -- which is where much of the community-of-practice around tech. "Don't read the comments" is not an option. In these discussions, even ones that start out as seemingly something totally esoteric and technical, conflicts arise that essentially come down to who is going to be seen as a person with feelings that are worth respecting, and who is not. The Haskell discussion that I linked to is a relatively mild example of that.

And whenever one of those conflicts happens in my sphere, I have to put down whatever else I wanted to do today and explain to somebody, again, why other people's feelings matter and are real and cannot be made to go away by any amount of talking that he believes is logical and rational. I would rather not be doing this. I chose to become a software engineer because, at least at the time when I made that choice, I liked writing code, not helping people learn to apply interpersonal skills consistently.

I don't want to overstate how hard things are for me, either, because when I write about my experience, people listen. And being treated as a man, while also actually being one, helps. But I want to write about the second job anyway because I think a lot of other people have it too, and are not necessarily believed when they talk about having it.

For example, look at what [twitter.com profile] kf writes in another Haskell Reddit thread -- both in the linked-to comment, and the follow-ups to it. She exhibits an immense amount of patience while explaining things that we adult professionals shouldn't be having to explain to each other. And she shouldn't have to spend her time doing that, ever.

But she does, I'm guessing, for the same reason I do: in the hopes that it will make it easier for her, and her friends, to survive in software, which is one of the few remaining lines of work that has a reasonable chance at eliminating economic insecurity for somebody starting from nothing.

(By the way, I'm picking on the Haskell community in this post not because it's especially bad as far as tech communities go, but because it's my technical home and I have higher expectations for it than for, e.g., the Linux kernel community.)

The rage of the privileged manifests itself in denial of empathy



For me, at least, it's not an option to just put my head down and do the work and leave those explanations to other people. The price of trying to do that would be such intense cognitive dissonance that I wouldn't be able to maintain mental stability. I can't stand by and let the discourse be impoverished by refusal to listen, refusal to believe others' reports of their own experience, refusal to care about whether others' suffering. I can't be in a professional field where that stuff, the narcissistic rage of the white hetero cis male ego -- outraged he might feel shame or doubt and desperate for someone to blame those feelings on, someone he can hurt further in the hopes of destroying those feelings, destroying those unsightly parts of himself -- rages on, unchecked. "White fragility" is one term for this narcissistic rage, but whatever you call it, its existence constitutes violence in defense of the feeling of innocence experienced by those who would rather attribute their unearned privilege to their merit.

I want to emphasize that when I use the term "narcissistic", I'm not referring to a psychological diagnostic term, or to anybody's basic neural wiring. I'm referring to a particular kind of behavior that people are taught and rewarded for; the rewards increase with the number of intersecting privileges someone experiences. You can see the process of people being rewarded for their narcissistic behavior in action by reading those Reddit threads (and, of course, comment threads on many other parts of the Internet.)

So the options for me are exit and voice; loyalty, which is to say silence, isn't an option for me. As you know if you've read my blog post about wanting to leave tech, I've been strongly considering exit. But economics might be ruling out that option for me, leaving the option of continuing to speak out. That is: of doing a second job, unpaid, on top of the job I'll be getting paid for. I wonder about whether I could just switch to a job where it's my explicit task, rather than my tacit one, to teach people to be emotionally competent -- like therapy, or education. I'd get paid less, but at least I'd only have one job. For the time being, though, writing software pays more, and I have student loans. It pays more, but not enough.

False dismissal limits speech



Conversations about diversity in tech, when hosted on technical fora, consistently draw huge numbers of comments compared to technical discussions on the same fora, which some people think are more on-topic. If diversity is off-topic for technical fora, why are forum participants so interested in it, when we measure interest by volume of comments? The Haskell reddit thread about Sarah Sharp's community post had 152 comments. The Haskell reddit thread about functional programming and condescension had 141 comments. When I posted on the Haskell subreddit announcing the ally skills workshop that was held at ICFP this past September, my two posts (several months apart) drew a total of 70 comments. And the Haskell Reddit thread discussing the original version of my blog post "How To Exclude Women From Your Community Without Really Trying" had 342 comments, three years ago. If the Haskell community is a representative example, people want to talk about diversity and inclusion with other people in their technical communities.

So why do people keep saying "this is boring" or "this is off-topic", when the way to discourage discussion of a boring subject is to decline to comment on that discussion? I think it's an example of false dismissal, which I talked about in my Model View Culture article "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?".

What false dismissal looks like: "I would prefer that an OSS community be a discussion about software, not about non-technical issues," from the Haskell thread on "what makes a good community". If "non-technical issues" are what people comment on the most, what conclusion are we to draw?

Undoubtedly, these conversations will continue to flourish. But there is work, genuine work, that needs to happen to make them productive. Some of that work is getting performed, for example, by the moderators of the Haskell subreddit. Yet in the threads I linked to, you can also see commenters devaluating the work that the moderators and others do to try to make those conversations with productive. They are uncomfortable with discussions about feelings, and channel their discomfort outward by shaming others for daring to talk about how they feel. To engage with this type of discomfort is work.

Shouldn't we credit people for the emotional work they do in discussions like this, and make them feel like mentoring others emotionally is an asset and not a liability?

Ideally, learning to empathize with a wider range of people and learning to be more comfortable talking about feelings wouldn't happen in these discussion threads. It would happen in individuals' therapy sessions, or maybe in support groups that don't yet exist. But those therapy sessions aren't happening, so we voluntarily offer help in these threads. It's hard work. People tend to prefer to go on with however they're doing things, even if what they're doing is hurting themselves or others, rather than changing. Encouraging change ought to be acknowledged. False dismissal of emotional or interpersonal subjects contributes to the devaluation of this work.

Community work is technical work



If we can't trust each other, we can't work together. If we can't work together, then I'm sorry to break it to you, but we can't do jack. The "lone male hero" archetype of scientists and engineers, the one that elevates individual male scientists as "legends" and individual male engineers as "rockstars" is a fairy tale. Technical progress is made, awesome new things are invented, by groups of people pooling their resources to build something that's better than anything any one of them could have made on their own.

Trust can't occur without willingness, on everyone's part, to believe others' reporting on their own subjective experience. Teaching people how to do that is technical work, because community work is technical work. It is essential to any technical project or goal that matters. It is not off-topic. It is central to the topic.

How will companies and open-source projects change in order to reward community work the same way they reward code contributions?

Acknowledgments



Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Work that has contributed to my thinking on this topic (not an exhaustive list):


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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)

October 15, 1982

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. -- quoted by Ben Dreyfuss in "Flashback: The Reagan White House Thought AIDS Was Pretty Hilarious In 1982" Mother Jones

October 15, 2015

altI remember the year I began to think for myself. It was 1995, and I was fourteen. 1995 was the year that I started thinking it might be okay to be queer (although I would have said "gay" then) and that maybe abortion should be legal.

Now, it's easy for me to forget that I ever thought otherwise.

But I did. In 1995, I dared for the first time to believe something that the adult authority figures in my life (of whom there was really only one) had not authorized me to believe.

The sacred nature of that moment is not recognizable at the time. At the time it feels uncomfortable, the way many parts of adolescence are uncomfortable. I missed out on a lot of the parts of what's normally constructed as "adolescence" in my culture, but I did get to have that magic moment, or series of moments, where I realized my mind was my own and I could disagree with the person who raised me, which meant that I could be something other than what the people who raised me were. I don't know whether people ten years younger than me, or ten years older, understand the atmosphere of fear that us children of heterosexual parents were breathing during the 1980s. The first time I heard about the existence of queer people, it was because my mother told me that my Girl Scout troop leader, who was rumored to be lesbian, was "trying to have a baby with another woman". I had already been taught how babies are made, so there was some missing piece of information there. A vacuum that contained something frightening. I was told that gay people deserved to get AIDS because "they should know it's not clean to have sex that way", and I didn't have any reason to doubt it. What did I know about sex? I believed what I had received: that gay people weren't quite people. In 1994, I wouldn't have seen too much wrong with what Larry Speakes said in 1982.

I went to college instead of high school, and when I was 14, and taking a sociology class called "Social Movements, Democracy, and the State", I read AIDS DemoGraphics by Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston; we also watched the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk". I was uncomfortable -- I was experiencing cognitive dissonance between what I had been taught and what the beginnings of my own independent moral sensibility were telling me. It wasn't just that I was rejecting something I had been taught, but something that had been glued down in my mind with the adhesives of shame and silence. "It's not clean to have sex that way", I was told at the same time I was being told in so many tacit ways that it wasn't okay for me to think or talk about sex at all. Slowly, a light came on, and I saw that the small room constructed by that shame and silence had an exit door.

In the same sociology class, I learned about the concept of "cognitive liberation" from Douglas McAdam's book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. McAdam explained that a prerequisite for organized social change is internal personal change: the process whereby individuals (potentially working together to do so) free themselves from the beliefs that limited them. Without freeing themselves from the beliefs that limit them on the inside, people can't organize to demand change on the outside.

Without knowing it, I was experiencing cognitive liberation myself at the time. I was developing the ability to conceive of bodily autonomy as a fundamental human right. I wasn't raised to believe in bodily autonomy. I had to learn about it as a teenager and as a young adult. I don't remember the moment when I became pro-choice, but that, too, happened around the same time. I couldn't formulate the concept of bodily autonomy then, but I remember deciding that if enough people disagreed about a moral issue, it was better for the government not to legislate one side of it or the other.

To recognize that my body belonged to me, and that other people's bodies belonged to them, I had to take ownership of the inside of my own head first. That wasn't something I could have done at home -- I had to go to college to do it. 14-year-olds today don't have to go to college in order to be exposed to non-family-approved ideas. At least, not if they have access to the Internet.

Maybe this is why it's so popular for adults to dismiss "Tumblr culture", Tumblr being the current chosen stand-in for a forum where young people's voices get heard. As a culture, we haven't really made up our collective minds about whether young people's bodies are their parents' property or not. It's threatening when people you think are your property start getting ideas about autonomy.

That's why it's even more threatening to adults when teenagers get to experiment with ideas, in a space unsupervised by parents or parental proxies, than it is when teens experiment with sex or drugs. On the Internet, teenagers get to talk to each other in a way that isn't constrained by adult rules, or by geographical homogeneity. They get to compare notes. They get to find out firsthand that their parents' beliefs are not always fundamental truths. "Thinking for yourself" sounds so clichéd; it feels inadequate to describe that moment of moral awakening that, for me, was just as powerful as sexual awakening.

Teenagers going through cognitive liberation remind adults that when they were that age, they weren't free. That makes some adults angry and uncomfortable.

All hail the Internet, all hail young people daring to be wrong in public, and all hail all of us stumbling towards freedom in our minds and bodies.


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If you've liked my public writing, and can afford it, you can now sponsor me at $1/month or up, via Patreon. If you can't afford it, no hard feelings, I totally understand! Feel free to spread the word.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
There's a thing that happens sometimes when language changes, which is that people mistake a conditional claim for an absolute one.

For example, a person of color might suggest that the terms "primary/replica" could be used instead of the technical term "master/slave", to avoid trivializing an extended era of structural violence which to this date the United States has never made amends for. A white person might reply indignantly, might condemn "language policing" and say "you can't tell me what words to use!"

Now suppose I make the claim that an adjacency list uses less memory to represent a sparse graph than an adjacency matrix does, at the cost of making edge-existence queries less efficient. Is anybody going to tell me that I'm algorithm-policing or that I can't make them stop using an adjacency matrix? I don't think so, because they would recognize that I'm stating that there's a trade-off implicit in your choice of data structure: make edge-existence queries faster, or use less memory. I'm not telling you how you should resolve that trade-off, just that there is one.

Like engineering, language involves trade-offs. Continuing to use the term "master/slave" in technical contexts where it's historically been used arguably has the advantage of being a well-understood term, as well as saving the time that would be spent explaining and possibly defending the decision to switch to new vocabulary. The disadvantage of continuing to use "master/slave" is that it alienates many Black Americans, among others.

It's up to each individual to decide whether they want to resolve this particular linguistic trade-off on the side of subjective clarity, or of making as many people as possible feel welcome. To point out that a trade-off exists isn't to demand that it be resolved in one particular way. It's just to help people make decisions that reflect their values, just as explaining engineering trade-offs helps people make wise use of the resources available to them.

Another politically loaded technical term is "divide and conquer". Recursive algorithms aren't inherently violent or militaristic -- why not "divide and solve" or "divide and organize"? Again, there's a trade-off: using the historically accepted term "divide and conquer" has the advantage of clarity, while "divide and solve" has the advantage of not normalizing violence or abuse of power. You might choose to accept "primary/replica" but continue saying "divide and conquer", and that's fine. Just realize that there are trade-offs involved in both, and that the choice to continue using an accepted term whose connotations are political is just as political a choice as the choice to adopt a new term.

If I say that QuickSort has better average-case performance while MergeSort has better worst-case performance, I don't think anyone would complain that I'm telling them what sorting algorithm to use, or dictating whether they should care more about average-case performance or about worse-case performance. So why do so many people seem to interpret observations as commands when those observations are about language trade-offs?
tim: Solid black square (black)
I learned today that Nóirín Plunkett died suddenly (Ada Initiative memorial post) (Sumana Harihareswara's memorial post) (geekfeminism.org memorial post). Nóirín was my friend, and was too young.

It's hard to know what to say about a friend's death when you haven't been in close contact with that friend for some time. Internet-based relationships tend to ebb and flow, but you always assume that there's going to be another flow. I met Nóirín at least once but maybe not more than three times offline -- I always took it for granted that of course I'd see them at a conference again someday. The online community in which we interacted the most ceased to exist in its current form sometime last year, and as a result, the only notable exchange we had recently was an email I sent to Nóirín last fall, in which I introduced them to a college friend of mine who was starting a tech nonprofit. Nóirín became the operations manager for that nonprofit, Simply Secure, and my friend wrote today, "they consistently impressed me with their wisdom, kindness, pragmatic capacity, and intricate vision for what our organization could become. They were not just a colleague but a professional partner & a rapidly-growing friend. I learned much from them, and will always treasure time we got to spend together."

Nóirín made the world a better place by being in it, both locally and globally. They were enthusiastic about technology and about social justice. In a short lifetime, they repeatedly demonstrated acts of courage, calling out oppressive acts at great personal cost.

I will miss them.
tim: Solid black square (black)
Last night, one of the worst domestic terrorism attacks in recent history happened in Charleston, South Carolina. A man acting in the name of white supremacy murdered nine Black people, most of whom were women, while they prayed at the Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South.

These are the names of the people who he murdered:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

DePayne Middleton Doctor

Cynthia Hurd

Susie Jackson

Ethel Lance

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney

Tywanza Sanders

Daniel Simmons

Myra Thompson

Please read more about their lives.

If you're a white American and have an income, I strongly suggest donating to organizations that fight white supremacy. Here are some suggestions from Valerie Aurora:

Equal Justice Initiative

Representative John Conyers, who has introduced legislation every year to make reparations for slavery to Black Americans.

We the Protestors

You can also donate directly to the Emanuel AME Church.

tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
I wrote this as a comment to a friends-only post and decided to rewrite it as a post on my own journal and elaborate on it.

I was responding to a post from a survivor who expressed a belief that trigger warnings[*] are a threat to their ability to recover and that writers or editors shouldn't be too sensitive.

Content warning: discussion of the effects of early childhood trauma in re: ability to trust.
On staying sick and not getting well )
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
After years of grumbling, I finally gave in and created a Tumblr account; I'm [tumblr.com profile] emotionallaborunion there.

As an experiment, I'm going to try posting some writing over there, since I like Tumblr's tagging and reblogging capabilities. I don't intend to abandon Dreamwidth.

Accordingly, go over to Tumblr if you want to read my thoughts on the Mountain Goats show in Dallas last night and the end of just-short-of-two weeks of following them on tour.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Content note: In this post I discuss a particular form of emotionally abusive behavior called "criticism avoidance", and directly quote from criticism-avoidant discourse. Read with care if you find narcissistic behavior to be triggering. I also describe my own experience of being triggered and reacting with dissociation.

When you're a survivor of complex trauma in childhood, one of the things that might happen is that you don't experience triggers in the way that people who developed PTSD in adulthood do. In fact, you might get triggered all the time, without being aware that that's what you're experiencing, because habits developed when you're very young -- of not paying attention to what you're experiencing, because it isn't safe to pay attention to what you're experiencing -- persist.

While I am very much in favor of the widespread adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings (I prefer "content warning" since it's more inclusive of those of us who may not always be aware that we're triggered or may not be able to articulate what triggers us) I feel a little strange about arguing for them from the perspective of someone with CPTSD, but not from the perspective of someone who finds much utility in content warnings for common triggers.


I can tell you one thing that triggers me for sure, which is narcissistic behavior. Not everybody who's ever related to XKCD 386 is traumatized, but when you were raised by a narcissist and you experience the drive to re-enact, the Internet is a really great place for that.

The thing is that nobody can give me a content warning for the narcissistic behavior they're about to engage in, because if they were self-aware enough to do that, they wouldn't be behaving narcissistically. The type of behavior I'm talking about has been characterized by Issendai as "criticism avoidance" (content warning for extensive discussion of abusive, narcissistic parents) and by Patricia J. Williams as anxiety over loss of self-image (in contrast with loss of self). It's also been called "inquiry-resistant dialogue", and many specific examples of it have been catalogued on the Geek Feminism wiki, under the name "silencing tactics".

It is compelling to re-enact one's past conflicts with a narcissist, for a couple of reasons:

  1. The people on the Internet you're arguing with are probably not actually narcissists (if they really were, arguing with them would be like telling your cat to stop meowing), but are emulating narcissism due to socially learned behavior arising from unchecked privilege. When you directly or indirectly tell someone to check their privilege, you have a chance of getting them to snap out of it.
  2. Whether or not the people you're arguing with actually are narcissists, standing up to them lets bystanders know that people can and do stand up to bullies, and that's important.
  3. On some irrational level, it gives you hope that you can repeat the struggle you had with somebody who was all-powerful over you, the struggle that you perhaps fantasized about winning through the superior power of your persuasive skills (if you were a child who was getting good at intellectualizing), and win this time. This is false hope.


It's also often ill-advised, because sometimes you end up with a rage hangover and nobody learns anything.

But aside from the wisdom or lack thereof of re-enactment, I want to ask why people retreat into criticism avoidance. This is something that we all do to varying degrees. I do it, because it's possible to both experience and re-experience trauma and abuse and to act abusively to others. It's not either/or. There is no clear binary between abusers and abused people, as tempting as it is to believe in one. The binary, if there is one, is between people who are making an attempt to reflect on their own actions while being painfully honest with themselves, and those who are making no such attempt.

I also want to give you an example of what I'm talking about when I say "criticism avoidance", in the form of a quote from Brendan Eich from a 2012 blog post:
Ignoring the abusive comments, I’m left with charges that I hate and I’m a bigot, based solely on the donation. Now “hate” and “bigot” are well-defined words. I say these charges are false and unjust.

First, I have been online for almost 30 years. I’ve led an open source project for 14 years. I speak regularly at conferences around the world, and socialize with members of the Mozilla, JavaScript, and other web developer communities. I challenge anyone to cite an incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.

Second, the donation does not in itself constitute evidence of animosity. Those asserting this are not providing a reasoned argument, rather they are labeling dissenters to cast them out of polite society. To such assertions, I can only respond: “no”.


Since we don't know what Brendan was actually thinking here -- he chose to write in a manner that obscured his actual thoughts and feelings rather than illuminating them -- I'm going to speculate about a fictional character I just invented whose name is Brandon and who fictionally said the same thing quoted above, but to my face instead of in a blog post. Since I'm talking about a fictional character and there's no point in understanding a fictional character's psyche, the goal here is to understand criticism avoidance, not to understand Brendan or Brandon.

Brandon experienced criticism when a series of donations, both to the campaign in favor of California's Proposition 8 and to a number of radical right-wing political candidates, that he made were exposed. The difficult, but more rewarding, thing for Brandon to do would have been to listen to his critics and try to hear what they were saying even if some of the words they were using made him feel upset or attacked.

Brandon chose the easy road, the one many of us choose, especially when we feel we have power. He chose to withdraw from genuine engagement and to use his defense mechanisms. The first defense mechanism he invokes is that he has never displayed open animus to somebody directly because of who they are. The second defense mechanism he invokes is that he has a right to behave as he likes and that, implicitly, he doesn't care if somebody is hurt by his behavior. The third defense mechanism, which he invokes in the first paragraph I quoted, is to defend himself against criticisms of his actions with an appeal to his essential character. This particular defense mechanism is so powerful because we can never know anybody else's essential character. If a person like Brandon is successful in recentering a conversation on who people are rather than what people do, that means the conversation will never lead towards accountability or restorative justice -- or even to so much as a genuine connection between two people with differences -- just to the defense of the egos of the powerful.

I've read Brendan's blog post several times over the years, so I no longer find it triggering as such, although reading it again just now, I still felt some of the same tightness in my throat and jaw that I usually do when I'm exposed to narcissistic behavior. Imagining a fictional conversation with the fictional Brandon that covers the same ground, though, I can imagine that I would be triggered; I would react in one of the two ways I react when triggered, which is dissociation. I used to think that word referred to watching yourself from outside your body, but it turns out that only describes some people's experience of dissociation. For me, it means that my mind and body, for the duration of the event that feels threatening, are no longer on speaking terms, or rather, are on speaking terms just enough for me to pretend that I'm still listening while my mind retreats into safer thoughts unrelated into situation, or just into white noise. In the fight-flight-or-freeze trichotomy, this is an example of freezing. It's like pretending to be dead, except the only person you're pretending to be dead to is yourself. It comes naturally to me because I spent most of my childhood in that state.

(The other way that I react is with anger, but since I've learned it's generally not safe for me to express anger directly, in face-to-face interactions, with someone who has behaved in ways I find triggering, I generally only react that way in a text-mediated interaction.)

In this hypothetical conversation, then, I'm triggered because I don't feel safe, and the way that I automatically protect myself when I don't feel safe is to dissociate. I'm also arguing that in this hypothetical conversation, Brandon is reacting semi-automatically as well: he experiences a threat to his ego (being called a bigot) and because he finds this threat too terrifying to engage with on the level of empathetic, connected conversation, he retreats into accusations ("false and unjust").

So are both of us triggered?

I don't think so, because his and my reactions have different causes. To return to Patricia J. Williams' framing, in this hypothetical situation, I am experiencing a threat to self and Brandon is experiencing a threat to self-image. Both his feelings and mine are genuine. But mine are rooted in re-experiencing of a situation in which my self was genuinely threatened, in which there were no boundaries between myself and somebody who was supposed to be responsible for helping me develop independently but didn't. His feelings, on the other hand, are not rooted in such an early trauma. Caring about what other people think of you is something that people start to do as teenagers. People can experience genuine distress because they are worried that other people think things about them that doesn't match how they think of themselves, but it is not the same as re-experiencing a very early and fundamental existential threat.

Brandon is retreating from connection with other people because he can't bear the risk that he might have to re-examine his self-image as a result of criticism from them. But when I react this way, I'm retreating from connection with both other people and myself. Interactions like this one didn't establish the habit I have of doing that, but it can reinforce that habit, and when people interact with me, they have the choice of reminding me, once again, that I can't trust people, or of acting in a way that might inspire trust.

It's their choice. I can't tell them what to do. One way in which people can act so as to inspire trust, not just in me but in many other people who are trauma survivors, is to think about us as if we're human beings who have thoughts and feelings that are just as complex as theirs. One thing that looks like, concretely, is the use of content warnings and trigger warnings in writing. In a one-to-one conversation, it has to look more like constant and active effort to maintain connection rather than to retreat from potential criticism.

Like love, in other words.

Ideally, we would always be understanding of others even when their behavior is making us angry, upset, or even triggered. In practice, I don't expect myself to be Jesus, at least not most of the time. I don't think it would be desirable, even. To quote Bob Franke's song "Eye of the Serpent", "Sometimes I try to be so good that I murder my holiest self." I think that sometimes, defending myself, taking time that is just for defending myself and not for understanding others, is a way of protecting my holiest self. Besides, people don't always want to be understood, because if other people understood them, they might have to understand themselves and confront some hard truths. This is all advice, by the way, that I have to remember to follow when I'm in the role of someone who may fall into the trap of engaging narcissistic defense mechanisms against somebody else, and I often am in that role.

But I hope I've gotten across one way in which being triggered can be different from just being upset or feeling attacked.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Dropbox, as I documented previously, states that they will permanently lock you out of your account if you have 2-factor authentication enabled and you lose your phone.

This isn't really true, though -- they make an exception if you know somebody who works for Dropbox. I was able to find someone in my social network who does, and was thus able to get all of my files back.

If you don't think it's fair for a company to treat users with friends who know people who work for that company one way, and everybody else a different way, probably don't use Dropbox.
It's interesting to me that the effect of the utter lack of regulation that the software industry suffers is that companies basically act like traumatized kids. As a traumatized kid, I understand (from extensive experience) hypervigilance: when you become focused on one type of threat and obsessive about avoiding it, at the potential expense of being unaware of other types of threats.

Imagine that your bank refused to grant you access to your life savings because you had 2-factor authentication enabled on your account and you lost your phone. Unimaginable, right? But it's only unimaginable because the banking industry is regulated. We consider it normal for cloud software providers to lock customers out of their accounts because the software industry is unregulated.

In the absence of external regulation, children don't learn to develop self-regulation, which is why kids raised in chaotic environments (hi) sometimes have trouble taking care of themselves as adults. Likewise, in the absence of external regulation, businesses can't self-regulate. We see that in software: inappropriate concern for one particular type of threat (a lawsuit due to someone fraudulently accessing account that isn't theirs) outweighs another, just as legitimate threat (the threat of paying customers not being able to access their own data).

The software industry can't regulate itself. In an age where more and more data are getting centralized (what we call "cloud computing" actually refers to the consolidation of power over ownership of information in the hands of just a few big companies -- perhaps, after all the mergers have happened -- just one), it's more and more important for us to organize to stop companies like Dropbox from setting our priorities for us.

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Tim Chevalier

February 2016

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