tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[CW: rape]

In my state, California, there's currently a proposition on the ballot to abolish the death penalty: Proposition 62, on which you should vote Yes if you're eligible to do so. You should also vote No on Proposition 66, whose goal is to make the process of state-sponsored murder more efficient. So it seems like it's a good time to think a little bit about the desire for capital punishment as a socially-acceptable response to trauma.

Racism and Capital Punishment

The death penalty persists in the United States is to punish and control people of color, primarily Black people. The legacy of kidnapping and enslaving Black people and using their labor as the foundation of a new state is one of the things that differentiates the United States from almost every other economically powerful nation, and capital punishment is another. Historically, the application of capital punishment to people convicted of rape is one of the most clear-cut instances of the disproportionate application of capital punishment to people of color. The specific case I address here is a case of rape and murder, so keep in mind the history of how capital punishment has been applied to Black men accused of rape even though this particular case was a white-on-white crime. While capital punishment advocates often claim that the death penalty should be reserved for the "worst of the worst" criminals -- and the case I'm about to talk about is just such an example -- in general, the application of capital punishment to white defendants is quite inconsistent, and understanding that helps us understand how "worst of the worst" arguments serve to obfuscate the irreducible racism of capital punishment in the US. While the occasional white death row inmate might help dissemble the racist goals of the death penalty, the thing that predicts where it will be applied most strongly is race, not the severity of the crime.

Of course, people who support capital punishment don't generally try to be overtly racist, so they enlist survivors of violent crime -- generally, white survivors, who other white people sympathize with -- to camouflage their real agenda. Moreover, many survivors of violent crime don't want the people who hurt them to be executed. Nonetheless, there are survivors of violent crime who willingly enlist in the pro-state-sponsored murder campaign, as well as family members of murder victims, and I mean to clear away the cobwebs (well aware as I am that other people have expertly documented the white supremacy that lies beneath.)

Acceptable Trauma Survivors and Revenge

Survivors make good camouflage because most people find it at least somewhat understandable why people would want revenge against people who hurt them or their loved ones in the worst possible ways (sometimes misleadingly called "closure"). The desire for revenge -- specifically the form of revenge that involves having the government murder somebody for you -- is considered within the realm of reasonable responses to trauma, even though there is no consensus among the public on whether or not capital punishment is good public policy (among experts on law and violent crime, of course, consensus exists, and that consensus is that it's bad policy.) And yet we might ask: why?

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Acceptable trauma survivors -- those who are victimized by people unrelated to themselves -- are supported when they wish to deal with their trauma by having the state kill people on their behalf. Unacceptable trauma survivors take violence into their own hands -- frequently against themselves, rarely against others. Honesty about the prevalence of violence and abuse requires empathy for all survivors, without granting any class of survivors special permission to potentiate violence. Breaking the cycle of abuse requires ending capital punishment and confronting our collective desire to punish. We can acknowledge that we are hurting while working as hard as we can to control our natural desire to hurt others in response, to show them what it feels like. We have to confront our collective desire for vengeance in order to be freed from the misguided hope that further bloodshed will heal us.

Thanks to Gwen, Jon and Ken for their comments on a draft of this essay.

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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (not offended)
A road sign that says 'emotion' with a right-pointing arrow'In subcultures like computer science academia and the technology industry that are dominated by white men, self-identification as "rational" is a cornerstone of many members' self-image and social status. In these groups, people who make sincere, vulnerable comments invoking their personal stake in an issue rather than objective, rational truth are often shamed for being "emotional".

All speech is motivated by emotion: we don't speak unless we feel that it's important to us to do so. Cognition is impossible without emotion: emotion directs our attention, tells us what's important and what's not. People who can't experience emotions become completely unable to function. Speaking requires effort, and expending effort requires an emotional reason. If it wasn't important to you to say something, then you would be silent. Derailing comments, too, are motivated by emotions: primarily, fear and insecurity. When people re-center a discussion on themselves, they are motivated by fear. For example, attempting to reframe a sentiment like "Black Lives Matter" as "All lives matter" may appear to be neutral, but it is in fact motivated by fear that valuing Black lives threatens white privilege.

When Alice states her lived experience and Bob says, "Prove it -- give me facts, citations to peer-reviewed studies," when he doesn't normally demand that level of evidence from other men, Bob is being emotional. Like all speech, his response is driven by an emotion: in this case, the desire to silence Alice.

So framing some speech as neutral or unemotional exploits a social loophole that puts an outbound filter of rationality onto whatever privileged people say. If all speech is emotional, then we have to ask what political reasons here are for labeling some speech as emotional and some speech as unemotional, and what political purposes this labeling has.

Cold and detached responses

"To me, all of this seems like typical geek behaviour: something is making them uncomfortable, and so they attack it on "rational" grounds. Most likely, they aren't even aware of the gut reaction fueling their logic." -- Jessamyn Smith
The hallmark of an Trojan horse emotional response -- the kind of words that slap you in the face while telling you that you're unhinged for crying in response -- is its cold and detached vantage point. The people delivering these cold remarks typically position themselves as authority figures, rather than citing lived experience. They're likely to use language that disclaims responsibility ("Some people say..." or "Some people might be alienated by this...") or to employ the word "should" ("You should understand that I have good intentions.")

An example of hidden emotion is the idea of "meritocracy". We all know that meritocracy is a lie, but here I want to call attention to the concealed emotion that the concept is pregnant with. Consider the following dialogue:

Alice: Why is your company 90% male when the population is only 50% male, and 95% white when the general population is only 60% white?
Bob: You see, Alice, we're a meritocracy. I only hire the best people for the job.
Alice: Fuck you, Bob.

Who is being emotional here? Bob is terrified of being found out: he's terrified that other people will believe Alice when she points out his discriminatory hiring practices. He's probably also scared that he, himself, won't measure up -- merit-wise -- in a fair contest that didn't exclude most men of color, women, and non-binary people. Moreover, he's scared of not seeming objective, because to not seem objective and rational is -- in his culture -- to come off as unmasculine. If he can frame himself as making decisions only based on merit, he can conceal the role of personal relationships in who he favors. If he can make other people think he's immune from the human tendency to filter assessments through the lens of how much you like somebody, then they'll treat him as a leader, because we've been taught that leaders are (emotionally) above it all.

So the meritocracy trope is an emotional argument, though it's rarely treated as one. Alice's frustration is nothing compared to Bob's terror of being revealed for who he is. The abuse of the "neutral point of view" concept on Wikipedia -- whose editors and bureaucrats constitute another white- and male-dominated subculture -- is another example. If you can call your own point of view "neutral", you won't have to answer questions about what caused you to have that particular point of view. If you don't have to answer those questions, you can appear as cool, detached, and emotionless as possible.

The emotional content of tone arguments

In general, respectability politics and tone arguments are always emotionally driven:

  • "I agree with what you're trying to accomplish, I just think your tone is unproductive."
  • "If you expect to win allies over, you're going to have to meet them where they are."
  • "If you don't educate me, then how can I learn?"

More important than the specific words are the subtext that all of these remarks share: "I'm cool-headed and thinking rationally about the best tactics for achieving social progress. You're unable to think clearly because of your emotions, and can't liberate yourself without help from somebody like me."

But tone arguments are deeply emotional.

I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. -- Audre Lorde

In response to listening to the anger of somebody whose oppression you benefit from, you might experience guilt (because you've done nothing to effect change) and fear (that your power and privilege will be taken away if enough people listen to and are moved by the message you perceive as angry.) Your feelings of guilt or fear tell you to do one thing: everything you can do to make the pain stop, to silence the speech that is causing you to experience narcissistic injury, to feel guilt and fear -- feelings you don't want to have. Your emotions also tell you that if you feel hurt by somebody else's anger, they must be expressing that anger only to hurt you -- they can't possibly have any other reason for sharing their thoughs. This is a form of narcissism.

As another example, suppose that Alice says, "hey, fuck you if you think women quit jobs in science and technology because they're not interested -- we quit because of harassment." And suppose Bob says, "Stop being emotional. We should study whether women leave because they just have different interests." Bob's detachment from the issue may cause others to perceive his statement as unemotional, where Alice is perceived as emotional. But Bob's statement is motivated by emotion too: the fear that something bad will happen if Alice is allowed to share her personal experience. Terri Oda pointed out that if you think biology explains the low numbers of women in CS, then you're bad at math: the "logic" that leads men to speculate about causes for women's lower participation in science that don't involve men's active efforts to exclude women is actually emotional. Their emotions about their own power and privilege and whether or not a more egalitarian science culture would jeopardize those things stop them from seeing the truth.

False empiricism can be another form of emotional argument. Suppose that Carol says, "hey, it hurts me and makes me feel excluded when you address a mixed-gender group I'm in with, 'guys.'" Don might respond with, "Well, actually, 'guys' is used in a gender-neutral way." This is false, but more important than its truth value is the emotional charge that Don's statement is imbued with. While at first blush, it might seem that he is making a factual point about language usage or descriptive grammar, attempting to shut down Carol's first-person account of how she feels being called a "guy" is an appeal to emotion: it is motivated by Don's discomfort with examining his behavior and with being told that something he didn't intend as harmful is harming people. Don doesn't really care about what the dictionary says "guys" means; he cares about stopping Carol from speaking, and the dictionary argument here is an ex-post-facto justification for Don to try to shut Carol up. Appealing to empiricism is how Don channels his discomfort with hearing Carol be open about how it makes her feel when she's casually misgendered; it's irrelevant, since how common misgendering is doesn't obligate Carol to change how she feels about it, but he knows that accusing her of being factually wrong is likely to create an emotional reaction in her -- or at least in the people observing -- that will silence her, and that's what matters to Don.

Another form of false empiricism comes up in discussions of trans people. The discourse of "biological sex" is something cis people use to derail discussions in order to de-center trans people's lived experience in favor of making trans people seem "unscientific" and therefore crazy, illogical, or emotional. In reality, biologically essentialist narratives have very little to do with biology and a lot to do with cis people's fear of a world where gender and sex are consensual. (I've written about this before, starting with "Chromosomal Politics" and continuing: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6].) Cis people are terrified of the gaping void that opens when it becomes impossible to define your identity solely by appealing to your genitals. So they say things like, "Gender is social, sex is biological," or that sex is determined by someone's assessment of your genitals at birth.

People who say these things don't actually understand biology, so their comments -- sciency-sounding as they might seem -- are based in emotion, not fact. It's emotion that lets them make the leap from "most of the time, men have penises and women have vaginas" (an empirical observation) to "any posited exceptions to this rule are because someone's lying rather than because the rule could be incomplete." Emotion blurs the mind enough to confuse this sloppy thinking with rigorous analysis. But sciency-sounding stuff has cognitive authority. Meanwhile, trans people who state our lived experience of being men or women, as well as non-binary people who state their lived experience of being other genders, are labeled as "emotional", which goes along with the idea that gender is different from sex: gender is said to be all in your head, therefore not as real when it doesn't match your sex, which is real and observable by others. So fake-scientific discourse motivated by fear wins here over honest avowals of lived experience. Borrowing cognitive authority is a tool to avoid addressing how cis people would feel if we accepted both gender and sex as traits that are impossible to determine through objective observation.

Another example is the drive to disbelieve marginalized people who report sexual assault, discrimination, or harassment: common responses from privileged people tend to sound like, "Let's give them the benefit of the doubt" (where "them" always refers to fellow privileged people), "We shouldn't jump to conclusions; not all the facts are in yet", "We should hear both sides", or "There could have been other reasons why she was fired." Privileged people who obsess over proof in these situations tend to be motivated by a need to discredit and invalidate whatever a marginalized person says, especially when it threatens the power of someone they identify with. Their fear drives them to sow doubt about marginalized people's authority to speak about their own life experiences. "We need to hear both sides" may sound logical, but the selectivity with which white men employ their skepticism is guided by emotion: disproportionately, it's used against the people they fear and hate. When somebody only demands extraordinary degrees of evidence in response to claims made by marginalized people, you can be sure that they make these demands for emotional reasons. The end result of a double standard that demands extraordinary evidence to support patriarchal actions (e.g. women being raped, people of color being discriminated against, trans people being harassed) without requiring the same evidence for assertions that don't challenge patriarchy is to uphold patriarchy itself. Patriarchy perpetuates itself through emotions -- fear and insecurity -- rather than logic, and part of how it works is characterizing typically-masculine emotional outbursts -- outbursts that include repressing other people's emotional expressing -- as logical.

Pattern recognition and the paradox of openness

What do all these people have in common: the meritocracy-citers, the pseudo-scientists, the selective skeptics, the phony empiricists? They hope that their fear will look like neutrality when they use magic phrases like "innocent until proven guilty." They don't feel secure letting somebody else who has a different life experience talk -- they fear their privilege won't stand if disprivileged people are heard.

They forget that we are capable of recognizing patterns and that we notice when they reserve all skepticism for claims that threaten the status quo. They think ticking off a list of logical fallacies will fool us, that we won't notice their terror at having to engage with the substance of an argument that poses a threat to their power. Fear doesn't become invisible when concealed by a veneer of faux-rationality and pseudo-logic. When someone says "you're just being emotional," we know to look harder at what they're trying to hide. We can't smell fear, but we can infer it logically from the presence of rhetorical strategies that have the function of guarding privilege.

"Female emotion itself is being portrayed as a destructive force that must be tamped down, contained, and (if at all possible) totally denied, because if it ever breaks through and becomes visible, that woman will become dirty, shameful, and disgusting." -- Sady Doyle, Trainwreck

To a much lesser extent, men expressing emotions that are usually coded as "female" also receive the treatment Doyle describes. Masculinist definitions of "emotion" often construct the anger men often feel and express as non-emotional. Anger is often a veneer for fear, which is also an emotion, as much as gender-conforming men do their best to conceal the fear they experience. Fear of having to compete with women and minorities is emotion too, and drives all manner of behaviors, from enforcing sex segregation in competitive sports to pseudoscientific arguments as to why women are worst at math. Anger is also an emotion: as marginalized people we frequently hear "don't be so angry, you'll scare people," but we rarely hear anyone tell us directly that we scare them. Meanwhile, we are expected to tolerate their anger as they browbeat us about our tone or scold us for believing a woman "before all the facts are in." Privileged men are scared of emotions outside the narrow band that men are allowed to express, and will do pretty much anything to suppress their expression.

There's a paradox that dictates what speech gets labeled as "emotional." Often, it's speech from people who are being open and vulnerable about their emotions (which is a rare thing for people to do, by the way, outside the context of close relationships in private.) But speech doesn't become less emotional when the speaker is frantic to cover up their fear, insecurity and worry with logical-sounding words and phrases. Just because the speaker may not be fully aware of the emotions that underlie their speech doesn't make the speech less emotional.

Ironically, sincerity will get you tagged as "emotional" and not credible; when you conceal your motives, you get tagged as "logical", and the more social status you have, the more logic gets attributed to you.

The drive to side with people who have power and status is also emotionally based: it's grounded in the belief that seeking the protection of people who have power will keep you safe.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm trying to make you feel shame." When you are trying to make someone else feel ashamed, it's a pretty good bet that you are feeling shame or guilt yourself and are trying to displace it onto somebody else, as if shame were a hot potato. in reality, shame is more like a virus: it spreads.

"You're being emotional" means "I have more credibility than you." Most of the time, accusations of "emotional" motivation are driven by the need for power. Fear of powerlessness and helplessness is also an emotion.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm feeling an emotion I would prefer not to feel, and it's your fault." (I wrote about this before in "The Second Job, or, Men Feel Entitled To Not Feel Things".)

"You're being emotional" means "I feel upset because of what you said, so you must have said it because you were upset, too."

"You're being emotional" is a form of false dismissal. The "false dismissal" pattern, which I previously wrote about in "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?" is a sign that someone is being emotional and trying to hide it. We see this in a common class of ad hominem attacks (which are rarely recognized as ad hominem) along the lines of: "You care, so you must be wrong" or "You have strong opinions, so you must be wrong." Beyond the logical flaws inherent in dismissing an argument because the person making the argument cares, bringing up your own assessment of somebody else's emotional state or intensity is generally not conducive to logical argument unless you've been asked for it. I think people who jump to the "you're being emotional" silencing tactic often confuse the absence of emotion with the presence of truth.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm uncomfortable with my own emotions, especially those that are coded as female, and I reject them in you as a way of acting out my rejection of the same emotions in myself."

Maybe we should just retire "you're being emotional" and stop obsessing over eradicating emotion from conversations about social and political issues. What would happen if we treated speech that comes from a place of emotional vulnerability as more compelling, not less? If all speech is motivated by emotion, isn't it better if we state and examine our emotional states in regard to speaking and listening, rather than desperately pretending we don't have emotions -- which in itself is motivated by desire to protect ourselves and our status? Can we view reason and logic as tools for accomplishing goals that our emotions guide us to, rather than letting our emotions govern us by pretending they don't exist?

Further reading

Thanks to Gwen for her comments on a draft of this essay.

Image credit: Creative-Commons-licensed image by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
CW: explicit discussion of sex, rape, and sexualized violence

"The common erotic project of destroying women makes it possible for men to unite into a brotherhood; this project is the only firm and trustworthy groundwork for cooperation among males and all male bonding is based on it." -- Andrea Dworkin

I work at a company that provides its employees with free breakfast and lunch five days out of the week. (Dinner, too, at some of the other offices.) We have a free gym on-site. We get free yoga and meditation classes to ease the stress of getting paid generously to sit at a desk all day (though we also get expensive sit/stand adjustable desks for those who think that sitting will shorten their lives -- not as a disability accommodation, but for everybody) and we don't even have to wipe our own asses, because most of the toilets have built-in push-button-operated bidets.[*] We have on-site haircuts and massages. You can drop off your laundry and dry-cleaning at work and it'll magically re-appear clean. If the coffee from the automated machines in the kitchen on every floor isn't good enough for you, a barista at the free in-office coffee counter will make your drink to order. If you want to take a break and play arcade games, shoot pool, or practice the piano, you can do all those things without leaving the office; our comfort is considered important and valuable because it's supposed that the more comfortable we are, the more work we'll produce.

None of those things are enough for some people, though, without freedom of expression. Specifically, the freedom to create internal URLs with the word "fuck" in them. Somebody was, apparently, asked not to do that, and now everybody else is in a tizzy about this heinous abridgment of their free speech. Of course, it's not like they're going to be thrown in jail for saying "fuck", and nobody is telling us we can't say "fuck" at work at all, just that perhaps it might be a better idea to not use "fuck" in URL shortcuts. We could quit and go work for a startup, but then we might have to leave the office to eat lunch.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

I like getting fucked. I can't talk about that at work, though, and I doubt anybody would argue that I should be free to talk about it at work. I don't have the freedom to talk about fucking as a source of pleasure, but I do have the freedom to talk about fucking as violence, as something that I could do to you. Of course, nobody says that either, we talk about how this or that piece of code is fucked up or about how it's fucking annoying that the kitchens on every floor only have healthy snacks. If something is annoying, then we know it's even more annoying if it's fucking annoying, because "fucking" is an intensifier because we all know being fucked is a terrible fate. Something that's broken is "fucked up" because to be fucked is to be damaged, to lose the asset of your virginity if you're a cis woman, or to lose your masculinity if you're a cis man. While (nominally) you can't directly threaten to fuck a co-worker, but every time someone perceived as a man says it, we're reminded of what he could do to us.

To be a man is to fuck, and to be fucked is to not be a man, or at least, not a man who's doing masculinity the right way. We're reminded of this with every "fuck that" or "fucked up." To be a man is to fuck, but of course you don't get the chance to prove to very many people that you are capable of fucking, so by saying it you get to remind people: "I could fuck you. If you fuck with me, then I'll fuck you up." One of the many ways in which cis men are fragile is that they react to being asked not to say "fuck", even if it's in an extremely limited context, as if they've had their manhood taken away, because if you could only prove that you are a man in front of people you fuck, who would know you're a man? If we stopped using "fuck" as a negative, then people might get the idea that being fucked could be a nice thing, and then cis men would have to find other ways to dominate everybody else.

Women get to join the party too, these days, but to be seen as a woman is to be seen as potentially fuckable; what terrifies heterosexual cis men is the norm that women are assumed to live with. So while you can say "fuck", while you can use the same words the men use, you can't do it without reminding them of your vulnerability. For men who are perceived as trans or queer, it's a reminder of our pitiful fate, to be born this way or to be in thrall to our uncontrollably peculiar sexual desires. We don't gain power by using the word, we just pledge our allegiance to heterosexual cis male power. And white heterosexual cis men react about as well to being asked not to say "fuck" as patriotic Americans react to people who don't want to pledge allegiance to the flag. "Fuck" is liturgy in the secular religion that worships heterosexual, cis, male sexual potency.

I mentioned that I like getting fucked. Every time I say "fuck you" or "that's fucked", I betray myself. It's something that's all but unavoidable if I'm going to fit in. Heterosexual cis men, at least those who don't like getting fucked, don't have to make this choice. They can bring their whole selves to work. I can't bring my whole self anywhere: if I say "fuck", I'm conceding that liking dicks in my ass makes me less of a man. If I don't say it, I'll still be judged as less of a man for my supposed prudishness. The same men who are so attached to their free speech rights would be pretty quick to curtail mine if I talked about what it's like to be a man who has a vagina -- and who likes getting fucked in it -- in front of them, or about what getting fucked in the ass feels like. They get to define the limits of acceptable discourse. Reminding us that they can fuck us is allowed, but reminding them that they, too, could be fucked is not.

One of the things I like to see the most when I watch gay porn is a man who's obviously aroused just by getting fucked in the ass -- knowing that he's not turned on in that moment by anyone doing anything to his cock, just by being penetrated. I think I like seeing that so much because of the alchemy of taking a scenario that terrifies so many het men -- the fear not of being fucked per se, but that they might enjoy it -- is so powerful. And because it reminds me that being fucked defines what it means to be a man more so than fucking does -- fucking is an obligation to prove one's masculinity, while being fucked is an illicit thrill. Does any of this make you uncomfortable to think about? It makes me uncomfortable when people use my sexuality as a threat, a joke, or a warning.

To use "fuck" as an expletive is to participate in a social order that prioritizes hetero cis men's comfort over everybody else's safety. It's to reassure hetero cis men of their power while simultaneously agreeing that their mortal terror of getting fucked is reasonable. To reserve "fuck" for expressions of consensual pleasure, rather than for describing violence or disorder, is to refuse to reassure scared men that they'll always be the fucker, never the fuckee. The use of "fuck" as a swear is part of what keeps fucking as an action violent -- what keeps it something that I do to you instead of something two people do together. Like a barking dog, every man who uses it in this way is signifying both that he's in mortal fear, and that he's dangerous. If a woman says it, it's amusing, since she's presumed to pose no threat. But every "fuck" a man utters is a reminder of what he could do to you, or at least wants you to think he could do to you. Every "fuck" is a threat.

Why else would men get so angry if it's suggested to them that maybe -- at least when constructing shortcut URLs -- they could use some other word? Because there is no other word that carries the power that "fuck" does. If the worst thing that can happen to a man is to lose his masculinity, and if being fucked renders you less-than-a-man, then that's the worst thing you can threaten a man with. No wonder men don't want to give it up so easily. What would they have left? Actually doing it to somebody has consequences, sometimes, anyway. Just threatening to do it doesn't.

If it sounds like I'm conflating fucking with raping, then so is everybody else who uses the word. Andrea Dworkin and other feminists have been mischaracterized as saying that all heterosexual sex is rape -- but the ones who really believe that are hetero cis men, who talk about fucking as if it's something that nobody in their right mind would want done to them. To explain why women might appear to choose to be fucked, they need to say that women consent to it in order to get pregnant or to control men or to get a man to share some money or power. To explain why queer men might seem to choose to be fucked, they need the "born this way" narrative: poor things, we can't help it. To claim power as a man is to claim that sex is intrinsically an act of violence and aggression, and that you will always be the aggressor, never the victim. Our language gives us no other tools to do so.

People care about free speech because their words affect other people -- if they didn't, there would be no reason to care. By saying "fuck" you can evoke all kinds of unconscious fear, insecurity, desire, and accompanying shame. If you can make somebody feel those feelings, then you have power over them. Words can have a lot of power. I don't know if I will ever remove this word from my vocabulary. After all, "fuck" also serves to convey strong emotions or to express and reinforce social bonds. But maybe there are ways to express feelings or get closer to each other without evoking an ever-present specter of violence. I don't really want to participate in social structures that make me inferior because I like to get fucked by men and because I'm a man who has a vagina. But that's exactly what I do when I enact the ritual of renewing "fuck"'s negative connotations. "Fuck" works for cementing social bonds precisely because of what Dworkin wrote about how men bond -- it works so well for that that women can participate in the bonding too, if only as second-class citizens. And it works for expressing feelings because fear of emasculation is one of the strongest feelings men are allowed to have.

I doubt I'll stop saying "fuck" overnight, and maybe I won't at all. I'm much more comfortable using it in an overtly sexual context than at work anyway -- sex is always going to be messy, full of power imbalances, and hard to disentangle from violence, and maybe it always will be. I don't have the patience to save myself for the day when sex becomes completely unproblematic. But unlike in a workplace, sexual situations entered into with consent tend to encourage vulnerability rather than suppress it. (For that matter, unlike work, sex can be consented to.) I would really like "fuck" to be a sexual word, which is to say that I would like sex to be about sex, rather than being a proxy for all of our less thrilling and more petty desires for power and control.

So I don't think I need to be perfectly consistent or pure to say that I want to see the day when liking to get fucked has no more moral or political significance than liking to ride a bicycle or raise tropical fish. And if that day comes, I doubt we'll still be using "fuck" as a dirty word, as an insult, or as a threat.

[*] Paragraph edited for clarity about a tangential point.

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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[CW: Brief discussion of rape]

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

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

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

But what about this interaction?

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

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

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

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

Now how about this example?

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

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

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

When someone says you did something hurtful and you change the subject to how you're actually a good person, how your interlocutor doesn't really know you, and how you feel attacked, you're behaving like a narcissist. And you're committing a logical error: the assumption that nobody would act in a way that's disadvantageous to you unless they did it in order to hurt you. (This is also true when the person you're defending is a friend rather than yourself -- in that case you're still defending yourself, since you're attempting to protect yourself from the pain of having to admit someone you like and trust did something wrong.)
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Language affects thought, and part of why science isn't objective is that communicating scientific knowledge relies on language, which is always imprecise and governed by politics and culture.

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

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

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

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

Master/Slave: a Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell, Don't Ask

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

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

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

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

Eschew Obfuscation

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

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

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

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

Know Your Audience

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

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

Against Education?

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

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

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

Opinions are abundant and low-value.

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

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

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

We do not need more opinions. We need more nuanced, empathetic conversations; more explicit distinguishing between fact and opinion; and more respect for everyone's expert status on their own lived experience. People who say they want more opinions actually want fewer opinions, because they are invariably arguing for already-privileged opinions to receive even more exposure. We do not need to value diversity of opinion; there are other values we can center to guide us closer to truth.
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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Edited to add: The quote turns out to be from a fake news site, but calling the governor's office can't hurt!

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

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

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

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

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

-- ABC News report

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

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

I am calling to report suspicious activity.

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

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

I think you need to investigate this immediately. Thanks for your attention. Goodbye.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Much of the conflict between "social justice warriors" and their antagonists arises from a conflict between mutual trust as a political foundation, and coercion (arising from distrust) as a political tactic. (I previously wrote about this conflict in "The Christians and the Pagans".)

People who are used to operating on coercion assume the worst of others and both expect to be coerced into doing good, and expect that they will have to coerce others in order to get what they want or need. People who are more used to operating on trust assume that others will usually want to help and will act in good faith out of a similar desire for mutual trust.

I want to be clear that when I talk about coercion-based people, I'm not talking about sociopaths or any other category that's constructed based on innate neurological or psychological traits. In fact, people might act coercion-based in one situation, and trust-based in another. For example, a white feminist might act like they're trust-based in a situation that involves gender inequality, but coercion-based when it comes to examining racism. And I'm also not saying people never cross over from one group into another -- I think it can happen in both directions. But to stop relying on coercion requires work, and there are few incentives to do that work. There are, however, a lot of incentives to give up trust in favor of coercion (or at least pretend to) and give up your empathy.

If you assume the worst of other people, of course you won't be able to imagine any way to achieve your goals other than coercion. Assuming the worst isn't a character flaw -- it's taught, and thus, can be unlearned. At the same time, experience isn't an excuse for treating others badly (and people who assume the worst of others will treat others badly, partly because it helps make their assumptions self-fulfilling, removing the need for them to change their assumptions and behavior). We are all obligated to do the work that it takes to live with others while minimizing the harm that we do to them.

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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
The question of whether "male" means something different from "man", and whether "female" means something different from "woman", has come up in two different situations for me in the past few weeks. I like being able to hand people a link rather than restating the same thing over and over, so here's a quick rundown of why I think it's best to treat "male" as the adjectival form of "man" and "female" as the adjectival form of "woman".

I prioritize bodily autonomy and self-definition. Bodily autonomy means people get to relate to their bodies in the way that they choose; if we're to take bodily autonomy seriously, respecting self-definition is imperative. If you use language for someone else's body or parts thereof that that person wouldn't use for themselves, you are saying that you know better than they do how they should relate to their body.

For example: I have a uterus, ovaries, and vagina, and they are male body parts, because I'm male. Having been coercively assigned female at birth doesn't change the fact that I've always been male. Having an XX karyotype doesn't make me female (I'm one of the minority of people that actually knows their karyotype, because I've had my DNA sequenced). Those are male chromosomes for me, because they're part of me and I'm male. If I ever get pregnant and give birth, I'll be doing that as a male gestator.

I don't know too many people who would want to be referred to as a male woman or a female man, so i'm personally going to stick to using language that doesn't define people by parts of their bodies that are private. And no, you can't claim parts of my body are "female" without claiming I am - if they're female, whose are they? Not mine.

If someone does identify as a male woman or as a female man, cool. The important thing is that we use those words to describe them because those are the words they use to describe themself rather than because of what sociopolitical categories we place them in based on their body parts.

For extra credit, explain why the widespread acceptance of the sex-vs.-gender binary is the worst thing that ever happened to transsexual people.

Further reading: [personal profile] kaberett, Terms you don't get to describe me in, #2: female-bodied.
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tim: "Bees may escape" (bees)
"I wish the war was on,
I know this sounds strange to you.
I miss the war-time life,
anything could happen then:
around a corner, behind a door."
-- John Vanderslice, "I Miss the War"

This is the long-form version of a series of tweets that I wrote about resistance to emotional safety. Everything here has been said before by people other than me, but I'm presenting it in the hopes that it may be useful in this form, without attempting to cite sources exhaustively. I probably wouldn't have thought to write it down, though, had I not read this series of tweets from [twitter.com profile] inthesedeserts.

CW: discussion of trauma, emotional abuse, gaslighting, self-harm

There's a thing that can happen when you've spent a lot of time at war. For some of us, it's hard to feel comfortable in safe situations. It's paradoxical, right? I've done my share of writing about codes of conduct and about content warnings (or trigger warnings). I've argued that creating an atmosphere of emotional safety is important, especially for trauma survivors. Because people in marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to be trauma survivors, diversity and inclusion are inextricable from treating survivors like first-class citizens. If safety is so important to me, why would I say that safety also often makes me feel uncomfortable?

It may not make sense, but it's true: safety is both something I seek out and something I often avoid when it's offered to me. In the abstract, it's desirable. But when it starts to seem like a real possibility, it can be super threatening.
Read more... )
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This is the second post in a two-part series. The first part is here.

Shrinking the Social Trusted Computing Base

In a software system, the trusted computing base is that portion of software that hasn't been formally verified as correct. For the purposes of this analogy, it's not important what "formally verified" means, just that there is a way to determine whether something has been verified or not -- often, "verified" means automatically checked by a machine. If you have software that verifies other software, you might ask who verifies the verifier. Ultimately, there's always some piece of code that's at the bottom -- you can't have turtles all the way down. That code has to be reviewed by people to increase the likelihood that it's correct. Of course, people can make mistakes and it's always possible that people will fail to spot errors in it -- but the more people review it carefully, the more confident we can be that it's correct.

Moreover, the smaller the amount of code that has to be verified in this exacting way, the more confidence we can have that the whole system is reliable, even though we can never be totally sure that a system is free of errors. When people interested in software quality talk about making the trusted computing base smaller, this is what they mean. People make mistakes, so it's best to have computers (who don't get bored) do the tedious work of checking for errors, and limit the amount of work that fallible humans have to do.

People who understand the imperative to keep the trusted computing base small nevertheless, sometimes, fail to see that social interactions follow a similar principle. In the absence of a formal code of conduct, when you join a group you have to trust that everybody in that group will respect you and treat you fairly. Codes of conduct don't prevent people from harming you, but they do grant increased assurance that if somebody does, there will be consequences for it, and that if you express your concerns to other people in the group, they will take your concerns seriously. When there is a code of conduct, you still have to trust the people in charge of enforcing it to enforce it fairly and humanely. But if you disagree with their actions, you have a document to point to in order to explain why. In the absence of a code of conduct, you instead have to argue with them about whether somebody was or was not being a dick. Such arguments are subjective and unlikely to generate more light than heat. It saves time and energy to be explicit about what we mean by not being a dick. And that, in turn, minimizes work for people joining the group. They just have to review your code of conduct and determine whether they think you will enforce it, rather than reviewing the character of every single person in the group.

It's clear that nerds don't trust a rule like "don't be a dick" when they think it matters. Open-source or free software project maintainers wouldn't replace the GPL or the BSD license with a text file consisting of the words "Don't be a dick." If "don't be a dick" is a good enough substitute for a code of conduct, why can't we release code under a "be excellent to each other" license? Licenses exist because if someone misuses your software and you want to sue them in order to discourage such behavior in the future, you need a document to show the lawyers to prove that somebody violated a contract. They also exist so that people can write open-source software while feeling confident that their work won't be exploited for purposes they disagree with (producing closed-source software). A "don't be a dick" license wouldn't serve these purposes. And a "don't be a dick" code of conduct doesn't serve the purpose of making people feel safe or comfortable in a particular group.

When do you choose to exercise your freedom to be yourself? When do you choose to exercise your freedom to restrain yourself in order to promote equality for other people? "Don't be a dick" offers no answer to these questions. What guidance does "don't be a dick" give me if I want to make dirty jokes in a group of people I'm not intimate with -- co-workers, perhaps? If I take "don't be a dick" to mean they should trust me that I don't intend to be a dick, then I should go ahead and do it, right? But what if I make somebody uncomfortable? Is it their fault, because they failed to trust me enough to believe that my intent was to have a bit of fun? Or was it my fault, for failing to consider that regardless of my true intent, somebody else might not give me to benefit of the doubt? If, rather than not being a dick, I make a commitment to try as hard as I can to take context into account before speaking, and consider how I sound to other people, I might choose to self-censor. I don't know another way to coexist with other people without constantly violating their boundaries. This requires sensitivity and the ability to treat people as individuals, rather than commitment to a fixed code of behavior whose existence "don't be a dick" implies.

I wrote about the idea of "not censoring yourself" before, and noted how saying everything that comes into your head isn't compatible with respecting other people, in "Self-Censorship". If I censor myself sometimes, in different ways depending on what context I'm in, am I failing to be my entire self? Maybe -- or maybe, as I suggested before, I don't have a single "true self" and who I am is context-dependent. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

Part of what politics are about is who gets accorded the benefit of the doubt and who gets denied it. For example, when a woman accuses a man of raping her, there's an overwhelming tendency to disbelieve her, which is often expressed as "giving the man the benefit of the doubt" or considering him "innocent until proven guilty." But there is really no neutral choice: either one believes the woman who says she was raped is telling the truth, or believes that she is lying. You can give the benefit of the doubt to the accused and assume he's innocent, or give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser and assume that she would only make such a serious accusation if it's true. When you encourage people to accord others the "benefit of the doubt", you're encouraging them to exercise unconscious bias, because according some people the benefit of the doubt means withholding it from others. In many situations, it's not possible for everybody to be acting in good faith.

Resisting Doublespeak

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that in an industry largely built on finding ways to deliver a broader audience to advertisers, which nonetheless bills itself as driven by "innovation" and "making the world a better place", doublespeak is so widespread. And advertising-funded companies are ultimately driven by that -- every thing they do is about delivering more eyeballs to advertisers. If some of the things they do happen to make people's lives better, that's an accident. A company that did otherwise would be breaching their obligations to stockholders or investors.

Likewise, maybe we also shouldn't be surprised that in an industry built on the rhetoric of "rock star" engineers, the baseline assumption is that encouraging everybody to be an individual will result in everybody being able to be their best self. Sometimes, you need choral singers, not rock stars. It might feel good to sing a solo, but often, it's necessary to blend your voice with the rest of the choir. That is, in order to create an environment where it's safe for people to do their best, you need to be attuned to social cues and adjust your behavior to match social norms -- or to consciously act against those norms when it would be better to discard them and build new ones.

Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" smack of "there are rules, but we won't tell you what they are." At work, you probably signed an employment agreement. In life, there are consequences if you violate laws. And there are also consequences if you violate norms. "Being yourself" always has limits, and being told to be your entire self tells you nothing about what those limits are. Likewise, "don't be a dick" and its attendant refusal to codify community standards of behavior signifies unwillingness to help newcomers integrate into a community and to help preserve the good things about its culture while also preserving space to be themselves while respecting others.

When you refuse to tell somebody the rules, you're setting them up for failure, because breaking unwritten news is usually punished quietly, through social isolation or rejection. The absence of rules is effectively a threat that even if you want to do your best, you could be excluded at any time for violating a norm you didn't know existed. (Also see "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman.)

So instead of instructing people to "bring your whole self to work", we could say what is welcome in the office -- ideas, collaboration, respect -- and what should be left at the door -- contempt for other people's chosen programming languages, text editors, belief systems, or dietary habits; exclusive behavior; and marginalizing language. Instead of telling people not to be a dick, we could work together to write down what our communities expect from people. And instead of preaching about changing the world, we could admit that when we work for corporations, we're obligated above all to maximize value for the people who own them.

Saying things you hope are true doesn't make them true. Insisting that your environment is safe for everybody, or that everybody already knows how to not be a dick, doesn't create safety or teach respect, anymore than claiming to be a "10x engineer" makes you one. Inclusion requires showing, not telling.
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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This is the first post in a two-part series.

Creative Commons-licensed image by David Swayze

"Be your entire self at work." You might hear these words during orientation at a new job, if you work for the kind of company that prides itself on its open, informal culture -- a software company in Silicon Valley, perhaps. When you hear that everybody is free to be their entire self at your workplace, do you hear a promise or a threat?

"You're allowed to bring your whole self to work" should be true by default; in an ideal world, it wouldn't need to be said. Repressing essential aspects of your personality is an energy-sapping distraction. At the same time, it's such a broad statement that it denotes nothing -- so we have to ask what it connotes. When your boss (or your boss's boss's boss, or someone acting on that person's behalf) grants you permission to bring your whole self to work, what's the subtext?

Here's another thing you might hear tech people say that's so vague as to be tautological: "We don't need a code of conduct, because all we need to do is be excellent to each other or say 'don't be a dick.'" The tautological part is "don't be a dick", which is an anti-pattern when used as a substitute for clear community expectations. Nobody could reasonably argue against the value of being excellent to other people or in favor of being a dick. As with "be yourself", the vacuity of "don't be a dick" suggests the need to ask what it really means when someone says the only rule we need is "don't be a dick" (or its relative "be excellent to each other".)

"Be yourself" and "don't be a dick" share at least three problems.

  • Unequal distribution of risk: If you're trans, neuroatypical, queer, or poly, you're probably familiar with the risks of disclosing important parts of your life. In the absence of evidence that it's actually safe to be yourself at work, telling people "be yourself" is a request to trust everyone to respond appropriately to you being yourself. That's a lot to ask somebody who is brand-new to a group. Is there a way to show newcomers that it's safe to be who you are here, rather than telling them?
  • Unwritten expectations: "Don't be a dick", when accompanied by unwillingness to codify your community's norms (such as in a written document like a code of conduct), is a request to trust everyone to not be a dick. When norms are codified, you don't have to trust everyone to not be a dick: the document doesn't prevent anyone from being a dick, but it provides a basis for increased trust that if someone is a dick, they will be discouraged from future dickishness and, in the case of repeat offenders, potentially be excluded from interaction.
  • Unhelpful balancing of different goals: Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" (the latter with its implication that you're free to do whatever you want as long as you don't think you're being a dick about it) reflect on apparently arbitrary weighting of personal freedom as more important than fairness.

Different people perceive a statement like "be yourself" differently -- and the same person might perceive it differently depending on who's saying it -- because different people have different levels of trust in each other. Trust is political: marginalized people manage risk in different ways than people in dominant groups, and the more marginalized groups you're in, the subtler it becomes. Likewise, written community norms benefit newcomers and marginalized people, while unwritten norms (such as the ones implied by "don't be a dick" serve to maintain in-group homogeneity. If people who say "don't be a dick" want to keep their communities uniform, it would behoove them to at least say so.

The assumption that mutual trust already exists may lead you to conclude that we'll be equal when everyone gets to act exactly the way they want. But marginalized people have legitimate reasons not to trust people in groups that dominate them -- namely, past experiences. Trust has to be earned; one way to establish it is by being explicit about expectations.

In computer systems, sometimes we use the terms "pulling a thread" or "thread pulling" for the process of finding the root cause of a problem in a complex system, which is often hidden beneath many layers of abstraction. At the same time, sometimes what seems to be a minor problem as observed from the outside can signify deeply rooted flaws in a system, the way that pulling on a loose thread in a knitted garment can unravel the whole thing. In this essay, I want to pull a cultural thread and examine the roots of the assumptions that underlie statements like "just be yourself." Just as problems in large, distributed computer systems often have causes that aren't obvious, the same is true for social problems. While you don't have to agree with my analysis, I hope you agree with me that it's worth asking questions about why people say things that appear to be trivial or obviously true at first glance.

The Risks of Disclosure

Personal disclosure can be risky, and those risks are distributed unevenly through the population. Here are some examples of what can happen when you do take the risk of being your entire self at work -- or anywhere, for that matter, but any of these reactions are more concerning when they happen in the place where you earn your livelihood, and when they're coming from people who can stop you from making a living.

  • Mentioning your membership in a sexual minority group can make other people uncomfortable in the extreme. You could reasonably debate whether that ought to be true when it comes to talking about kinks, but even mentioning that you're gay or trans can become cause for sexual harassment accusations. You say your company isn't like that? Will someone who's experienced this at a previous employer believe you?
  • If you talk about having PTSD, or ADD/ADHD, or being on the autism spectrum, you may be told "don't label yourself, just live!" To not label yourself -- to not seek solidarity and common ground with others who share your life experiences -- is tantamount to not organizing, not being political, not taking power. Maybe you don't want to be told this for the nth time. (Of course, you also risk retaliation by managers or co-workers who may not be thrilled about having disabled or neuroatypical employees or co-workers.)
  • If you disclose that you are trans, you are likely to be misgendered in the future (or worse).
  • If you mention a chronic illness, people are likely to provide unsolicited and unhelpful advice; dealing with their reactions when you say so can be draining, and smiling and nodding can be draining too.

More broadly, disclosing mental health or sexual/gender minority status (as well as, no doubt, many other identities) means managing other people's discomfort and fielding intrusive questions. Maybe it's easier to not disclose those issues, even if it means letting people think you're someone you aren't. And in some cases, disclosure might just not be worth the discomfort it causes to others. Am I being less real when I keep certain aspects of myself private in the interest of social harmony? Does thinking about how others will feel about what I say make me less authentic? Does being real amount to narcissism?

There are always boundaries to what we reveal about ourselves in non-intimate settings: it's why we wear clothes. Telling people to be authentic obscures where those boundaries are rather than clarifying them. And what does "be who you are" or "be your entire self" mean, anyway? Every person I know gets to see a different side of me. Which one is the real me? Is the person I am when I'm with my closest friend more like the real me than who I am at work, or is it just different? The idea that everybody has a single true self rather than multiple selves of equal status is just a way in which some people formulate their identities, not a universal truth.

I think part of the origin of "be your entire self" rhetoric lies in the imperative -- popular among some cis gay and lesbian people and their allies -- to implore all queer people to come out of the closet. Being open about your identity, they say, is essential to helping queer people gain acceptance. There are a lot of problems with coming-out as a categorical imperative. One of them is that closets are safe, and it's easy to sneer at others' desire for safety when you yourself are safe and secure.

I think "be your entire self" comes from the same place as "everyone should come out." Both statements can be made with good intentions, but also, necessarily, naïve ones.

Unwritten Expectations Impede Trust

"Be yourself" may seem harmless, if trite, but I hope I've shown that it relies on assumptions that are problematic at best. It can also conceal failure to make social expectations clear. Unwritten expectations often serve to exclude people socially, since fear of violating rules you don't know can be a reason to avoid entering an unfamiliar space. When that fear means not applying for a job, or not participating in a community of practice that would benefit from your participation and help you grow as a professional, it has concrete consequences in marginalized people's lives.

"As a reviewer of code, please strive to keep things civil and focused on the technical issues involved. We are all humans, and frustrations can be high on both sides of the process. Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other."
-- Linux kernel "Code of Conflict"

When you refuse to say what your community's standards for acceptable behavior are, you're not saying that your community has no standards. You're just saying you're not willing to say what they are. When Linus Torvalds says "be excellent to each other", what do people hear? If you're someone socially similar to him, maybe you hear that the kernel community is a safe place for you. If you're someone who has been historically excluded from tech culture, you might hear something different. You might ask yourself: "Why should I trust you to be excellent to me? What's more, how do I know I can trust everyone in this group to be excellent to me, much less trust that everyone's definition of 'excellent' is compatible with my well-being?"

When you say the only rule is "don't be a dick", or implore people to be themselves, or tell people they don't need to put on a suit to work at your company, what you're really saying is "trust me!" Trust everyone in the group not to be a dick, in the first case. Trust everyone not to judge or belittle you, in the second. Trust them to judge you for who you are and not on what you're wearing, in the third case. When somebody says "trust me!" and your gut feeling is that you shouldn't trust them, that's already a sign you don't belong. It's a grunch. It's a reminder that you don't experience the automatic trust that this person or group seems to expect. Does everybody else experience it? Are you the only distrustful one? Is there something wrong with you, or is your mistrust warranted based on your past experiences? Asking yourself those questions takes up time.

Freedom and Equality

Sometimes, freedoms conflict, which is why freedom is just one value that has to be balanced with others, not an absolute. If your freedom of expression prevents me from being at the table, or making a living, or even beginning to realize my potential at all, then your freedom limits mine and the solution involves considering both of our interests, not concluding in the name of "freedom" that you should be able to exclude me. Inequality isn't compatible with freedom, and boosting your "freedom" at my expense is inherently unfair and unequal.

The bridge between freedom and equality is trust. People who trust each other can be who they are while trusting other people to call them out on it if being who they are infringes on other people's well-being. Likewise, people who trust each other will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good faith when conflicts happen. But in the absence of trust, freedom won't naturally lead to equality, because marginalized people will (rightly) assume that the power dynamics they're used to are still operating, while less-marginalized people will assume that they are free to keep recreating those power dynamics.

In tech, there's a certain kind of person who often champions "freedom" at the expense of others' safety.

"...if you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested. I’m sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords." -- Linus Torvalds, as quoted by Elise Ackerman

There's a lot to unpack in this quote; in it, Torvalds exemplifies a tendency among programmers, especially privileged male programmers, to use having to wear a suit or tie as a proxy for the forms of oppression they fear if their (e.g.) open-source project adopts norms about respect which they associate with big companies that produce proprietary software. Torvalds and his ilk might express contempt for the notion of a "safe space", but they actually care a lot about safe spaces: they want spaces in which it's safe for them to wear their bathrobes and swear. They're afraid that creating a space that's safe for every open-source contributor, not just white cis men in bathrobes, might threaten their own safety.

If having to wear a suit is the worst limitation on your life you can imagine, maybe it's time to take a step back and consider the experiences of people with less privilege. In fact, standardized expectations about dress can be helpful, at least when they aren't based on binary gender. Replacing "everyone has to wear a suit" with "only people in T-shirts and jeans will be taken seriously" doesn't fundamentally reduce the degree to which people get judged on their appearance rather than their abilities -- it just replaces one limiting dress code with another. And maybe suits aren't really that limiting. Uniforms can have an equalizing function. I'm not a particular fan of wearing suits all the time myself, but when abolishing suits doesn't result in the emergence of another sartorial hegemony, it potentially burdens people with decisions that they wouldn't have to make if there weren't clear norms and expectations for dress. As always, there are going to be expectations. I'm not aware of many companies where going to work naked is encouraged. So if suits aren't encouraged, a whole host of decisions have to happen, and guesses have to be made, about what people will think of you based on your clothing. It's a lot of cognitive load. Maybe sometimes, clear expectations about how to dress help people be equal! Who loses when Torvalds and others like him win the ability to work in their bathrobes? Who loses when Torvalds, apparently unable to conceive of sincere politeness and genuine respect, wins the right not to feign regard for others?

"If telling people to be themselves creates unsafe spaces, how can I let people know my space is safe?", you might ask. I'll try to answer that in part 2.
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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"
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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: Solid black square (black)
"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)
This morning I got inspired by [twitter.com profile] mountain_goats yelling at [twitter.com profile] scotte_allen and wrote a song. Scott E. Allen is the mendacious assclown who introduced a bill into the Wisconsin state legislature barring SNAP recipients from using food stamps to pay for dried beans, as well as any other foods he doesn't think are "healthy". (I don't know where he received his doctorate in nutrition.)

Sure, calling politicians "assclowns" doesn't solve any problems, but trying to control what poor people put in their bodies doesn't either. And the latter is pretty fucking personal to me, since I grew up on, and ate food by virtue of, public assistance from birth to age 16.

There are only so many synonyms for "assclown", though, so after joining in the Twitter yelling for a bit, I thought about the bigger picture and wrote this song.

Grazing yogurt pretzels
From the bins at Stop & Shop
I wonder if the creeping feeling's
ever gonna stop
Iran-Contra on TV
every single day
I don't know what's happening but
I know I'm gonna pay
Read more... )
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
There are certain truths that those of us subjected to the education given to the middle class (which is to say: just enough critical thinking to do the rich kids' homework, and not enough to realize the rich kids hate us as much as they hate the poor kids) were taught not to question. Here are some of them; in The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, Jonathan Kozol wrote about others.

We need more research and facts before we make a hasty decision.
There's more than one side to every story.
The only real ethical precept you ever need is politeness.
Objective truth exists, and we should never take decisive action until we find it.

When we present these received truths as vague generalities, it's easier to see that none of them are universally true. Even so, they have such a hold over the liberally (small-l) educated imagination that when made specific, they can be quite compelling. To wit:

We need to do more research about climate change.
Vaccines could cause autism -- who can prove they don't, after all?
Evolution is just a theory, and there are other valid points of view in the controversy.
It's really about ethics in video game journalism.
Call-out culture is an evil comparable in scope and impact to that of the prison-industrial complex.

This is not to say that all or most liberally-educated people doubt that climate change is caused by human activities or that vaccines don't have anything to do with autism. The point is that these assertions are all phrased in ways that are designed to exploit vulnerabilities in people like me, who have a certain kind of education -- to plant seeds of doubt in our intuitions and the generalizations we've made based on lived experience. After all,

Can you really be sure that no further research is needed before we conclude that humans are changing the climate? You, personally, who probably doesn't have a Ph.D in geoscience?
Can you really be sure that vaccines are safe? Maybe they only cause autism (which is presumed to be negative) once in a while. But what if that one in a million was your child?
Could you personally argue that evolution is a good explanation for the diversity of observed life forms?
Can you really laugh off concerns about ethics? That sounds like a real, serious concern.
Isn't it rude to "call people out"? Obviously being rude or shaming people or institutions publicly is kind of disreputable even if you have a good reason.

These questions have answers: "yes", "yes", "it doesn't matter", "yes", and "maybe, but who cares?" "More research" always sounds good. "Ethics" always sounds good. And you learned in kindergarten to be nice to people, right? But there is nothing magic about these phrases or concerns that prevents them from being used in a way that is bereft of meaning.

It's a false equivalence to say that the theory of "intelligent design" has as much scientific validity as the theory of evolution, or that a jumble of ideas about the potential harmful effects of vaccines should be given equal weight with the overwhelming evidence in favor of their safety, or that a handful of climate change deniers are as credible as the overwhelming consensus among mainstream scientists that humans are changing the climate. Likewise, it's a false equivalence to compare manufactured grievances about video game journalism with the many legitimate ethical concerns that a person could have about journalism, or to compare being told that your opinion is bad and you should feel bad to the state using its monopoly on power in order to put you in prison for life.

GamerGaters, corporate PR departments and climate deniers suck the meaning out of words and build Trojan horses out of words and phrases that appear superficially similar to modes of dialogue that school may have taught you to trust. They put a great deal of faith in the magical power of these words to suspend critical thinking while appearing to enact such thinking.

But words aren't magic. As Annalee on geekfeminism.org wrote:
...people on an axis of privilege have a nasty tendency to appropriate social justice terminology (like privilege and harassment) and twist it around to serve their own point of view. They treat these words like magic incantations, as if it’s the words, rather than the argument, that convinces people.

Words are not magic incantations. They have meanings. Using a word without understanding its meaning just because you’ve seen other people successfully use it to convey a point is magical thinking.

Another thing you may have learned is that arguing over "semantics" is a shameful frivolity. But semantics means "meaning", and if we don't have rough consensus about the meaning of the words we use, we can't communicate at all.

A thing that abusers, on the micro scale, do is to isolate victims from their friends. On the macro scale, that's more difficult, so people working to advance the interests of oppressive institutions work to isolate everybody from the tools we use collaboratively to identify patterns. One of the bigger tools we use that way is language itself. If you can divorce language from meaning, you can get people to believe anything, especially when you can channel emotionally charged concepts like making people feel ashamed of engaging in "public shaming" (that is, criticizing powerful people) or guilty about calling out bad behavior.

There is no trick or recipe for knowing when you are deceiving yourself, when someone else is deceiving themself, or when someone else is trying to deceive you. But knowing that it's a thing that happens does make it easier to discern truth from lies.

The general principles of skepticism, evidence-based decision-making, and even civility can be useful tools, but don't obligate us to entertain those who use them in a way that sets off our bullshit detectors. And anti-call-out-culture crusaders are obviously insincere -- if they were sincere, wouldn't they spend some time doing something other than the activity they claim to detest (namely, calling people out)? Like abortion or marriage, calling people out on the Internet is something you're totally free to foreswear if you feel it's not useful for you. But if you don't like it, the best way to show it is not to do it.

Sometimes more research is needed. But all the grad students in the world couldn't put clothes on the emperor.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
'There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.'

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

When people call out abuse, microaggressions, or macroaggressions (the last one also being known as oppression) within your community, some people are going to want to defend that abuse because they like the way things are and don't care who gets hurt or excluded. This is the "fuck you, got mine" approach. One way for them to do this is to position themselves as being more authentic or more central members of the community than the dissenters are. It's the "fake geek girl" strategy, weaponized to gatekeep people interested in social change out of the community.

Geek culture, specifically, isn't a majority group (although it's complicated, since geek culture also controls access to the most elite jobs within what's essentially the only remaining accessible middle-class profession). But when dominant groups intersect with non-dominant groups, people in the dominant/non-dominant intersection tend to win. For example, you can be a Christian engineer and no one will think less of you as an engineer, no matter how much you display your Christian identity in the context of being an engineer, hacker, or geek. The same is true about an atheist engineer, because what engineers value is being dogmatic and doctrinaire, not ideological fine points. However, accusing somebody of being an "SJW" can, if you play your cards right, delegitimize them as an engineer, or hacker, or geek. This is because "SJW" is shorthand for having a marginalized identity or believing that marginalized people shouldn't have to subordinate themselves to powerful people in order to be accepted. In geek culture, if you start a campaign to give somebody a reputation of "just caring about politics" (which is to say, political interests that aren't aligned with the dominant group's interests), that can be a very effective way of taking away their professional credibility. The Christian engineer never has to worry about this form of pollution-of-agency attack, at least not with respect to their religious beliefs.

While the details are most certainly not the same as the trajectory of the civil rights movement in 1960s America, there is a common strategy: the consolidation of power by othering people who demand the redistribution of power. If you can convince people that someone who wants a more equitable distribution of power is automatically not authentic, not real, not one of us, you've convinced them that the only way to be part of something, to be accepted, is to accept abuse and oppression.

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. They inspire fear in those who find it more comfortable to believe that it does have to be this way, that all women should stay indoors at night (instead of men learning not to rape), that people who don't like being verbally abused should "just grow a thicker skin" (instead of everyone learning not to be abusive), that children should patiently wait until they're big enough to hurt smaller people (instead of parents respecting their children's boundaries). What those using the "outside agitator" / "fake geek girl" defense wish for is making "it does have to be this way" a self-fulfilling prophecy by scaring everyone who can imagine a different reality into silence and submission. But as long as we recognize that, they won't get their wish.
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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

February 2017

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