tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2030-12-18 02:14 pm

How to post comments if you don't have a Dreamwidth account

I request that you read my comment policy before commenting, especially if you don't know me offline.

If you have a LiveJournal account and want to leave comments on my journal, you can do that without giving Dreamwidth a password or any personal information except an email address. You can follow these instructions (with slight modifications) if you have an account on a site that provides OpenID credentials, too. (For example, any Google or Google+ account should work this way.) Here's how:

  1. Go to the main Dreamwidth page
  2. Follow the "Log In with OpenID" link
  3. In the "Your OpenID URL" box, put yourusername.livejournal.com. For example, if I wanted to log in with my LiveJournal account, I would type "catamorphism.livejournal.com".
  4. Click Login.
  5. Click "Yes, just this time" or "Yes, always" when LiveJournal asks if you want to validate your identity.
  6. The first time you log in, you'll see a message "Please set and confirm your email address". Click the "set" link and follow the instructions.
  7. You'll get an email from Dreamwidth containing a link. Follow the link to confirm your email address.
  8. Follow the instructions. You should now be able to leave comments.

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: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-11-14 02:31 pm

I Worry About the Safety of Your Children, Too

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)
2015-11-04 12:03 am

Acknowledging people while they're still alive

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.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2015-11-01 01:07 pm
Entry tags:

Thanks for your support!

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?
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2015-10-25 11:38 pm
Entry tags:

What Would You Eat on a Breakfast Taco?

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)
2015-10-20 04:06 pm

The Second Job, or, Men Feel Entitled To Not Feel Things


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?


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)
2015-10-15 03:32 pm

Cognitive liberation and bodily autonomy

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?
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.

Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2015-10-05 10:36 am
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Want to support my writing?

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)
2015-09-04 10:41 pm

Language and trade-offs

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)
2015-07-29 08:17 pm
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In memory of Nóirín Plunkett

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)
2015-06-18 05:52 pm
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"We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes"

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)
2015-06-13 07:37 am
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Content warnings, protection, compassion

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)
2015-06-09 12:21 pm
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Moving some writing over to Tumblr

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)
2015-06-04 11:27 am
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Criticism avoidance, triggers, and wrong people on the Internet

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)
2015-06-03 01:33 pm
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Your data aren't safe with Dropbox, volume 2

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.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
2015-06-01 01:34 pm
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Recognition and Objectification

This essay is an elaboration of a series of tweets I wrote. The original tweets were compiled by [twitter.com profile] listelian with added commentary that I recommend.

"Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed"

-- Bob Dylan

Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of today's "Vanity Fair". She was not the first trans woman to pose with less than street clothes on in a magazine -- Laverne Cox did that, earlier this year, and Cox deserves praise for that.

So does Jenner. I looked at that magazine cover and, well, as weird as it is to say, I recognized something. There are a lot of differences between Caitlyn Jenner and me. I'm not rich, famous, or Republican. I was coercively assigned female at birth. But I looked at that cover and I saw somebody who's spent decades of her life struggling with the distance between how she looks in the mirror and how she sees herself in her mind's eye, and who has finally been able to look like she needs to, or enough like it to appear confidently on a magazine cover.

Not everybody can afford to look like they need to look, but everybody should be, and when I look at the picture I think that everybody should have access to the same resources that Jenner had access to. I hope it's possible for me to acknowledge massive social inequality and the need to redress it, and, at the same time, find meaning in this photograph.

Finding meaning in things, especially finding reflections of myself in anything or anybody else in the world, can be hard for me. Just seeing my own reflection in the mirror can be hard for me.

For whatever reason, I can look at it right now, and think that I look okay. I didn't think that last year and I might not think it again next year, but it's okay for now.

Part of the reason for that is that I dyed my hair pink again. It's not that my internal image of my true self has pink hair... though maybe it does. To be honest, that image has never fully come into focus for me. It's more that having pink hair makes me like looking at myself, and then I can look at the rest of me, too, not just my hair.

Maybe it's not so important that I dyed my hair pink as it is that I made a choice to change how I look, and carried out that choice. It doesn't matter that I paid somebody else to dye my hair for me, which is what I did this time, it matters that I exercised agency.

To get to a point where what color my hair is could matter, though, I had to do some other things first.

Sculptures and Monsters

When I talk about being able to, or not being able to, look at myself, it's a way for me of talking about something harder to talk about, which is a feeling of not being fully present in or comfortable in my own body. These are different things but it's hard to separate them from each other.

I'm fat, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive or even that I should be looked at at all. (Since I'm a guy, I experience this less harshly than fat women do, but I still experience it.)

I'm trans, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive. Part of it is that I'm too short and fat to look like the gold standard for attractive male guys when I have my clothes on. Part of it is that when I have my clothes off, you can tell I'm hung like a hamster. Part of it is that at least these days, my gender presentation runs more femme than masc, and there is not much room for femme guys in what gets falsely reduced to a zero-sum game of who gets to be attractive. But also, internally, I have trouble occupying my own body. Sometimes, anyway; less than I used to have, partly because of the changes I've been able to make to my body and partly because of harder-to-describe changes.

I'm a survivor of complex trauma in childhood, and I wish I could explain to you more fully what that means but part of being a survivor of complex trauma is having difficulty explaining what it means. Imagine if somebody was running around pulling bricks out of your house while you were building it, and then imagine how much structural integrity your house might have left at the end. That's what trauma does to your ability to describe emotional experiences. The best I can do right now is that when I was growing up, I was not permitted to have the boundaries about what does and doesn't happen in and around my body that even very young children usually get permitted to have. On an emotional level, I never really formed the belief that my body is my own -- something that it seems a lot of people take for granted. So that also makes it hard for me to actually be in my own body, much beyond the baseline difficulty I'd already have with it if I was trans and not a survivor.

It's easy for me to focus on how I look and harder to think about my subjective experience, for reasons that are probably familiar to other survivors. But I think that also reflects widespread confusion about trans experience. Most narratives about trans people tell us that we transition in order to look different to other people. Most of those narratives are written by cis people. The real reasons why we transition, which are different for every person who transition, have more to do (in my opinion) with looking right to ourselves, and also with feeling right to ourselves. Because it's hard to describe subjective experiences, I'm writing about looking at yourself in a mirror as a stand-in for that.

This is the minimal backstory I feel I need to lay down to say this: When you don't feel comfortable with yourself, it is hard to figure out what would make you feel comfortable and harder still to show that to other people. What if they laugh? What if they accuse you of not being really yourself when you actually feel like yourself for the first time ever? Those are things that really happen, especially to trans people, but not just to trans people. Caitlyn Jenner, at 65 years of age, figured it out anyway and showed herself anyway. She didn't, at least in the end, let anybody tell her that it was too late and she should just live out what years she had pretending to be somebody else.

I transitioned when I was 26, which was eight years after I learned that transitioning was possible. It was a long eight years. I can't imagine how long 45 to 65 years is when you know you need to transition but you can't, or don't feel it's possible, or feel that the loss of your dignity and pride will outweigh the benefits of seeing yourself as you are, or have the expectations of family, friends, or even the general public weighing on you, or or or. While recognizing that few people have the privilege to do what she did in the precise way she did it, I still feel glad for Jenner that she was able to do it, because everybody should be able to. Also, because having models helps us figure out our lives even if necessarily, models are often public figures and public figures are almost by definition privileged in some or many ways. (This is not to discount the real danger in visibility and fame for all women, particularly women experiencing one or more types of intersectional oppression, either.)

So the thoughts and feelings I had when I looked at that magazine cover were about my own experiences and about the partial but still real way in which they relate to Caitlyn Jenner's experiences.

The thoughts that some cis people had, though, were more along the lines of: "Wow, she looks good. Her surgeons did a good job."

Let me interject with a couple things here: First, it's okay to say that somebody looks good. You would say that to a friend, so I don't see why you shouldn't say it about someone who chose to appear on a magazine cover. At least it seems fine to me.

Second, I didn't read the article inside the magazine (yet), so I don't know what Jenner has said publicly about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. From the picture alone, I am not going to assume anything about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. It's certainly not uncommon for people who appear on magazine covers, whether or not they're trans, to have surgery. But I do want to call out the assumption that she must have had surgery in order to look as she does. Trans people do a variety of things in order to make our bodies externally look and internally feel different. Surgery is only one of them. The details of any of these things are none of your goddamned business unless you are a trans person, an intimate friend of a trans person, someone who thinks you may be trans (and if you think you may be, I would encourage you not to run from those thoughts), or a medical professional who helps trans people with our body issues.

With those disclaimers in mind, I want to talk about how it felt to me to read the words "Her surgeons did a good job." (I am paraphrasing; those may not have been the exact words.)

There is this thing that can happen when you exercise agency over your own body to reshape it in some way, and that thing is getting demoted from the status of "person" to the status of "sculpture".

Suddenly, you are no longer a human being struggling to make your own body a place you can feel at home in, but rather -- and this is at best (I'll get to what the worst of it can look like) -- a work of art that a cis person made. You are no longer self-made.

"Isn't it a nice thing to say that somebody looks good?" Well, yes. But it's not a nice thing to go from there to congratulating the surgeons. Where does it stop? If I look good, are you going to tell me that my dentist or my hairdresser or the people running the machines that sewed my clothes deserve praise? Well, you might, but not if your conversational objective is to connect with me. Complimenting haircuts is, indeed, within social norms, complimenting surgery isn't... except when the object is trans, or disabled, or fat, or -- you guessed it -- in those social categories whose residents' humanity is contingent.

Do you know what the mirror image of "sculpture" is? It's "monster". When you talk about a trans person as an object of aesthetic appreciation in an immediate context of talking about what surgical interventions that trans person has had, you are steps away from treating that person like Frankenstein's monster. The subtext that's obvious to many of us is how amazing it is that any surgeon could have the technique necessary to make somebody who looks male -- in your eyes -- look female -- in your eyes. (Or vice versa, and it doesn't happen as much in the other direction but I've experienced it firsthand.) The subtext is that we're freaks of science, that we're freaks of nature, that we're objects of curiosity. When trans women talk about how they're made to feel like monsters, or like artificial creations (see Talia Mae Bettcher's "Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion"), I listen. I can relate, but there is a limit to how far my ability to relate goes, because as a trans man I do not experience the same degree of othering, of socially enforced disgust, of structural violence that trans people who were coercively assigned male at birth do.

But I know this much: you cannot talk about a trans woman like she was a sculpture, or an object of art, or a constructed thing without implicitly designating her a monster, a cold creation of technology, not human. Stop it.

Surgery and Dignity

In order to look like myself, or to start to look like myself, I've had five surgeries. The details of four are only relevant to myself, people who see me naked, and a number of people who work for insurance companies.

In 2009 I had radical breast reduction surgery. The result is that my body from neck to waist looks mostly right to me, aside from the scars that still look fresh because I develop hypertrophic scar tissue and aside from how my nipples are a little bit bigger than guys' nipples outside of the Folsom Street Fair are supposed to be. These are details that, on a good day, I can integrate.

What's harder to integrate is the memory of reading the surgeon's post-op report and noticing that in his narrative of performing the surgery, he used the pronouns "she" and "her" to refer to me, despite having correctly gendered me to my face. Dr. Paul Steinwald, if you're reading this, I hope you're not doing that to people anymore. I'm sure that he thought I was never going to read the report, but due to his own unwillingness to bill my insurance, I had to request a copy from the hospital. (And by the way, Aetna Student Health reimbursed me for 80% of my out-of-pocket.)

One of the things you might have to do if you are trans is to trust someone enough to literally cut into your body, knowing that your trust in them may not be justified. In most cases, if you need surgery, you have to trust somebody that much without knowing whether you can trust them to acknowledge your gender, a form of respect that all cis people can take for granted.

When people reduce you to the work that your surgeon did, therefore, they may be reducing you to the work of somebody who cannot even recognize who you are even as they are doing work that helps you recognize yourself as who you are. That's not hurtful because it's going to hurt Caitlyn Jenner, who we know is strong enough because she was strong enough to be on that cover. It's hurtful because it reminds some of us of traumatic experiences. It's also hurtful because it reminds other trans people -- ones who are in a state of knowing they need to transition, but not being sure whether it's safe to -- of why it's not safe.

In case I haven't made myself clear: getting surgery as a trans person is a terrifying, humiliating process. Maybe that's beginning to change somewhat. In 2009 and 2012, it was still terrifying and humiliating, and I say that as a trans person who was coercively assigned female at birth. That is, I say that as someone who is playing "be a trans person" on the easiest setting. When you look at a trans person who has had surgery and you see an object that a surgeon made, rather than another human being, you are making that process more terrifying and humiliating, most of all for people who sense that they may need to go through that same process but are justifiably afraid to. Many of the reasons for this fear -- for the fear that I experienced myself when I was deciding whether to get surgery, in 2007-2009 and again in 2011 -- are internal. But "ooh, nice results" comments and the objectification they stand for don't make it any easier.

The point, the only point, of transitioning for me was so I could be a real person. So I could feel like a real person. The terror of it was the risk I sensed, which is a real risk, that it would make me a less real person in other people's eyes. The reward is the knowledge that I can see myself as real even while other people do not. I'm trying to use my best prose here, but that inevitably simplifies a long, hard, scary, uncomfortable period of emotional labor. If you are not trans, you have the option to make that work harder for other people, or to not make it harder. Try to use your power responsibly.

Trans Empathy and the Cis Gaze

To look at Caitlyn Jenner on the Vanity Fair cover and say "ooh, nice results" is to make her an object rather than a subject. To be a surgeon who operates on a trans man and writes "She tolerated the anesthesia well" in a post-op report is to make him an object rather than a subject.

"But Tim," you might ask, "Isn't the reason why people appear scantily clad on magazine covers is that they want to be objectified?"

Well... no? I mean, no one has ever offered to let me pose for Vanity Fair, so I haven't had to think about whether I would want to and if so, why. But as far as I can tell, what celebrities do is satisfy their own need for attention while also making other people feel good. Attention is something that everybody needs and there's nothing wrong with being very good at getting it. There's nothing in there about being objectified. Being paid attention to doesn't mean being objectified. Being appreciated as a person whose body is attractive isn't the same thing as being objectified. If you can't separate those things, or can't separate them specifically for women whose bodies you find attractive, maybe take a gender studies class.

When you have a pleasant feeling of aesthetic appreciation about somebody else's body, that's a thing to cherish. It is, however, your feeling. Whether you're having a good feeling about somebody else or a bad one, whether it's about how they look or what they do or what they say, your feeling doesn't create an exception to the imperative to respect others and see them as humans like yourself.

My feeling, when I look at the cover, is to appreciate another trans person's struggle -- despite the gulf between what her life is like and what my life is like -- and, by virtue of how the appreciation survives the distance, feel a little less alone. I can't say I know what it's like to channel dysphoria into being an Olympic athlete rather than being a computer programmer, or what it's like to keep your own gender to yourself for more than 50 years, but I do know when to say, "Wow, that woman must be so happy to look in the mirror and see a reflection that finally makes sense." I know that because I've known, at times, what it's like to look in the mirror and see a reflection that makes sense.

I guess you are entitled to feel however you want, but feeling something is different from choosing to say it in public, and when you do choose to say in public that what you feel when you look at the cover is artistic appreciation of surgeons' work, rather than empathy, that harshes my buzz a bit.

Autonomy and Terror

What every person who transitions does, whether or not they are a public figure, is lose autonomy. That's in the short term. The hope is that in the long term we will achieve greater autonomy and a stronger sense of self. But in the short term, there's constant misgendering, there's getting called "it", there's struggling with dehumanizing administrative processes in order to have a valid driver's license and hold a job, there's being rejected for jobs out of hand, there's doctors, there's therapists, some of whom help and some of whom can't see beyond their own fears. I promise you that while this process is easier the more social privilege you have, no trans person has enough privilege to escape it.

Cis people, it's your job to create a world where we as trans people don't have to be afraid of you. We have many reasons to be afraid of you. A relatively minor but important one is this: you have the power to drown out an inner voice inside us that says, "Hey, maybe I could look like me, too!" with your own voice saying "We're always just going to see you as raw material." You have the power to make somebody just that much more afraid to take the steps needed to look like their own self. You can do better: when a famous person or maybe just a person important in your life comes out as trans, ask yourself: "Does the world really need to hear my hot take?" Please try not to drown out trans people's recognition of self with your ogling of the other.

Fellow trans people, it's a valid choice to transition in order to reclaim some dignity, and it is a valid choice to not transition -- to not transition at all or to transition in a way that doesn't follow the coming-out-to-everybody-you-know narrative -- in order to preserve your dignity. It's a valid choice to decide that one of the two binary genders fits you better than the one you were assigned at birth and to let people know that. It's also a valid choice to decide that because your gender matches neither binary option, there is no broadly legible end point for you to transition to.

I want to say that I love you no matter how you choose to navigate and manage being trans, even if I don't even know you're the gender that you are because of how you navigate your experience of gender. I wish it was easier to manage one's own experience of one's body and self without the crushing weight of very justified fears. But I know the way for me to deal with that wish isn't to expect individuals to be more public and be more out. That's just what the oppressor wants me to think. Reading things that cis people say about Caitlyn Jenner, as with the things they've said about every trans public figure who has come out as trans in this century so far, is nothing if not a reminder to myself to treat every other trans person as if they are at least as complex as I am and at least as deserving of space in which to apprehend their own complexity.

"They won't see you
Not until you want them to"

-- the Mountain Goats
tim: Solid black square (black)
2015-05-27 09:47 am
Entry tags:

"Truth is the first casualty of war."

"What artists and prisoners have in common is that both know what it means to be free."
-- James Baldwin

As of today, Chelsea Manning has been in prison for five years for doing right by her country. Freedom isn't free. In the article, she writes that five years ago, she was "considerably less mature". She is a day short of seven years younger than me. Five years ago she was 22 years old, unimaginably young.

Maybe the world needs more young people who don't fully understand "the potential consequences and outcomes of [their] actions". Isn't that what the abstract idea of fighting for your country is about -- the recruitment of people too young to comprehend the consequences of death, or of being alive and unable to forget what you saw? Fully aware of consequences or not, Chelsea Manning did the right thing, knowing at least on some level what the cost could be to her as a trans woman, when so many people with so much less to lose did not do the right thing. I ask myself if I could do what she did, and because the terms and conditions of my life are such that I'll never have as much to lose as she did in 2010 and does now, I don't and won't know the answer.

Maybe it's no surprise, even, that a trans woman gave this gift to us. I know how deep the need to know the truth can go when you're brought up in a world that seems to be built on lies. We as trans people all come from a world like that, even those of us who only have the fuzziest sense early on that we're being lied to about who we are. To paraphrase (IIRC) Katha Pollitt, social change is made by people who can't stand the way things are any more. It's not made by people who are well-served by the world as it is.

Likewise, maybe Manning was better prepared to give up her freedom for the sake of exposing an unjust war because she knew she was never going to be free anyway. They say freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, but maybe those of us who have never felt free, who never had the illusion that the world was going to be full of people who'd walk hand in hand with us on our journey to self-actualization, are actually the most free. We may be afraid of a lot of things, but we do know that freedom -- for us -- won't arise from fear of rattling the cage we were born in.

The world needs people like Manning, but people like her don't need to sacrifice their freedom for a world that is often unworthy. Chelsea Manning made that sacrifice anyway. Let's not forget. Let's hope for her freedom and for all of our freedom from fear, violence, and lies.

standing on the firing line,
leaving all the others behind,
running to the fray,
going where no man will go,
running to confront every foe,
On another good dying day.
-- Bob Franke
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-05-20 07:51 am
Entry tags:

Mountain Goats video of the day

I wrote before about the Mountain Goats' song "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero". The official video for it just got released, starring the members of the band and Chavo Guerrero himself.

I can't stop watching this.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2015-05-19 06:29 pm
Entry tags:

Don't use Dropbox

If Condoleezza Rice being on the board of directors wasn't enough for you, if their employees literally bullying children in San Francisco wasn't enough for you, hear me out here. I'm currently permanently locked out of my Dropbox account containing years' worth of photos because a phone repair place destroyed my phone and I had 2-factor authentication enabled. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess!

Other services, such as pobox.com, will reset 2FA if you send them a notarized letter proving your identity. Not Dropbox, though! Here's the response I received from their support team when I asked the following:
I'm surprised by this response, since pobox.com was able to reset my 2FA when I sent them a notarized letter confirming my identity. Is there a reason that Dropbox wouldn't be able to accept such a letter from me as proof of my identity?

And here's the response I received:

Hello Tim,

Thanks for getting back to me! Apologies for the delay in my response- I had passed along your request to several of my teammates to look into as well. Unfortunately, we have no method to verify your identity and disable two-step verification if you do not have any of the following:

1. a linked computer or mobile device
2. your 16-digit emergency backup code
3. a backup phone number on file that can receive text messages

As noted, for security purposes, if you can't enter the six-digit code from your phone, and you didn't store the 16-digit emergency backup code, we have no way to help you regain access to your Dropbox account. We can't turn off two-step verification for you because email alone is no longer sufficient to prove your identity. The best we can do is help you make a new account and transfer any paid credit and bonus space you've earned. But we can't transfer any files.

If you create a new account, please reply with that account's email address so that I can help you further.

Dropbox doesn't care about your data. They will deny access to your data because they're too lazy to open a letter from a paying customer. If you don't think that's okay, don't use Dropbox. (By the way, can anyone recommend a cloud backup service that cares about customer data?)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2015-05-18 03:34 am
Entry tags:

My only regret is that I don't know where that jacket is

Someone, apparently, found this picture of me from circa 2004 and thought it would be a cool idea to post it to imgur with my full name and common Internet handle attached.

And you know what? They were right. I look fucking hot in it.

That's me. I'm him.