tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2017-01-24 11:38 am
Entry tags:

Discourse Tips

Rephrasing what somebody said and repeating it back to them is a pretty powerful tool that has several distinct uses (not an exhaustive list):


  1. If you're listening to a friend and want to show that you're really paying attention to what they're saying, you can say, "It sounds like you said X?" Then they'll either say yes, and know that you understand them, or say no and explain what they meant, and you'll understand them better.

    Examples:
    friend: "I keep trying to tell my boyfriend I don't like it when he leaves his socks on the kitchen counter, but he just looks at his phone"
    me: "It sounds like you're frustrated that he's not listening to you"
    friend: "OMG yes!!"

    friend: "I don't like eggplants."
    me: "You mean you think they get too greasy when they're cooked?"
    friend: "No, I mean I'm allergic to them and they kill me."

  2. If you're arguing with somebody who you know you're not going to persuade, and want to accelerate to the point where they say something so ridiculous and unacceptable that you can just point at it and leave, you can rephrase what they're saying to bring out the worst possible interpretation (or just a more complete interpretation) and say, "It sounds you're saying that X? Am I hearing that right?" Then if they agree with you, you can either ask why or leave it at that with the confidence that other people will see why the rephrasing is bad, even if the original euphemistic version wasn't.

    Examples:
    them: "I hate this culture of victimhood that minorities have."
    me: "It sounds like you're saying that it's wrong to be a victim, and victimizing people isn't wrong?"
    them: "Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying!"
    me: "Cool story, bro."

    them: "I hate identity politics."
    me: "Are you saying you hate white male identity politics?"
    them: "No, I just meant when women do it."
    me: "Cool story, bro."

  3. If you're talking with someone who you think might be persuadable, and they say something that's ambiguous, you can pick the best possible interpretation of what they're saying, and say, "Yes, I agree with you that X", without the question. Then if they say, "Yes, totally! That's right!" you'll know that you got through (or that they thought so all along) and if they say, "No!! Why would you think I thought X?" you can repeat the process. Either way, it gets you more data.

    Examples:
    them: "My boss told me to make a diversity hire, and that makes me angry."
    me: "Of course, diversity should be a consideration in all hiring decisions."
    them: "Right!"

    them: "We shouldn't lower the bar."
    me: "I agree with you that we shouldn't lower the bar, and that's why we should hold white men to a higher standard in hiring to counter the effect of their unearned privilege and make sure they're only judged on their competence."
    them: "Wait, what???"


I'm writing all this out because I was raised by Usenet, and had it drilled into me then that you should never say anything unless it was original enough to merit the use of precious, precious bandwidth to distribute your message to nodes around the world. It took me a long time to unlearn that training and realize that sometimes, the most important and useful things you can say are rephrasing or mirroring the person you're talking to.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2017-01-19 10:11 am
Entry tags:

Don't kiss the ring

This article is important:

"This is not going to be a free and fair exchange of ideas. This is going to be a fight. If you have not absorbed that fact yet, you are already losing."


And I want to talk about false equivalences between Trump and Obama, or between Trump and Clinton.

We could have a free and fair exchange of ideas with Obama. That's why he pardoned Chelsea Manning. He's someone I have serious political disagreements with. That's why he didn't pardon Leonard Peltier. Still, he is a person who uses facts and reason to draw conclusions, and operates based on the rule of law.

We could have a free and fair exchange of ideas with Clinton. That's why she changed her way of talking about racial justice from "All Lives Matter" to acknowledgment of systemic inequality after she met with Black Lives Matter activists. She's someone I have serious political disagreements with. That's why she continued to talk about law and order and in favor of building up the military-industrial complex. Still, she is a person who uses facts and reason to draw conclusions, and operates based on the rule of law.

Trump operates based on power, domination, and violence, not a free and fair exchange of ideas. We've seen how he models with that with respect to women's bodies, his business relationships, and reporters who criticize him. His words and actions are the words and actions of a fascist, a totalitarian, an authoritarian.

People say to assume good faith, so within the scope of this post, I'm going to assume that people saying things like, "Some people thought Obama was the antichrist, and that's just the same as some people thinking Trump is a fascist", or things like, "It would be partisan to not meet with Trump when we would meet with Clinton" sincerely believe that.

You're still allowed to conclude, based on the evidence available to you, that Trump is a fascist: that his words and actions meet the definition of fascism. One definition of fascism is "an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization." Words have meaning; it's okay to be part of a shared understanding of what words mean even though no word has "objective" meaning and language is subjective.

You're still allowed to conclude, based on the evidence available to you, that when one party is a fascist party, it is neither morally nor tactically wrong to be partisan. If resisting fascism makes me partisan, then I am partisan. I don't see what's wrong with that. Being partisan means I have beliefs. I don't see what's wrong with holding moral and ethical precepts.

Even if some people say that vaccines are dangerous, you're still allowed to vaccinate your children against polio if you believe those people are wrong.

Equating disagreement within an aspirationally democratic framework with disagreement about whether democracy is worth aspiring to is the epitome of a false equivalence. When the person expressing these thoughts believes them, it means they need to think harder and more critically. When the person expressing these thoughts does not believe them, that's called propaganda: information distributed not to express a person's point of view but to influence action.

We may be in a post-truth world, but that does not mean your own thinking needs to be post-truth. We need every bit of your intellect and discernment right now. You do not need to set your own intellect on fire to keep fascists warm.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2017-01-05 08:31 am
Entry tags:

Tolerance is relational

I think Yonatan Zunger's essay "Tolerance is not a moral precept" is mostly right-on (and I'm amused to see my friends' bicycle club/radical agitprop collective The Degenderettes in the featured photo), though I wish we'd been listening to the Black women who have been saying similar things for years (decades, maybe?)

I don't agree with the essay's framing of war as justifiable, since war is generally not a matter of self-defense but of offense to enrich capitalists. ("War ain't about one land against the next / It's poor people dying so the rich cash checks." -- Boots Riley.) What I do appreciate about the essay is that it calls attention to the existence of fundamental conflict of interests between groups that can't just be resolved through peaceful negotiation. I think radical redistribution of power and wealth is a better solution than war, but of course, some people might think the opposite.

That said, I agree with the central point that tolerance is not an absolute moral law, but rather, conditional on others' behavior. Zunger phrases this as a social contract, but I would phrase it instead in terms of relationships. As your roommate, it's wrong for me to leave my dishes in the sink every night if you always clean up your messes. But it would also be wrong for me to berate you about leaving a cup in the sink one night if normally, you do most of the cleaning (and that's not part of our explicit relationship agreement).

Tolerance is not about what I'm allowed to do to you, but rather, an emergent property of the relationship between you and me. It must arise from a relationship with back-and-forth and reciprocity. It is not given for free.

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote "Against Tolerance", for which I also chose a deliberately provocative title. My take there isn't so different from Zunger's. I was describing a situation like the "war" scenario that Zunger describes: the question of whether homophobes can lead diverse companies is ultimately about a situation in which somebody has already declared war on you. Brendan Eich declared war on me when he started paying politicians to strip away my civil rights. Under those circumstances, I had, and have, no obligation of tolerance towards him. In Zunger's phrasing, my primary priority becomes self-defense.

As I said, I dislike leaning on war metaphors, since they legitimize state violence (which is very different from the violence that individual oppressed people or small organized groups of oppressed people may use in self-defense; by definition, states are not oppressed), the basic principle is the same. Tolerance is not the operating principle when you're under attack, nor should it be.

In fact, I'm inclined to scrap "tolerance" altogether as a counterproductive word (like the phrases "pro-life" and "political correctness", which mean the opposite of what they superficially seem to) than to rehabilitate it as Zunger tries to do, but he provides a helpful framing for those who don't wish to abandon the signifier completely.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2017-01-04 11:17 am
Entry tags:

There's no such thing as "just asking questions"

In engineering we ask what-if questions all the time, for example: "What if the datacenter loses power?" This is a descriptive "what-if" because it's trying to identify a scenario that might happen. Further, you're probably asking this in a group of people who share a common goal: keeping a service running. And finally, you're willing to take "it doesn't matter" for an answer: if you're running on a managed platform where somebody else takes care of failover to another datacenter, and someone tells you that, you'll say, "OK, cool, we don't need to care."

In politics, what-ifs are much more likely to be prescriptive. Consider:
"What if women lie about rape?"
"What if women are biologically predisposed to be uninterested in science?"
"What if there's no discrimination against Black people in tech job hiring, and the absence of Black people in the field is solely due to inadequate education?"
"What if resources are scarce and there's not enough for everyone to meet their basic needs?"

People ask these questions, and others like them, because they want to influence how power gets distributed -- in other words, to have a political effect. They don't ask them in order to be prepared for something, they ask them in order to make something happen.

Asking about the datacenter doesn't make power failures any more likely. But asking whether women lie about rape has a direct effect on whether women report rape. Merely asking the question changes reality. Likewise, asking whether women are biologically predisposed to be uninterested in science has a direct effect on whether women choose to follow their interest in science as well as on whether male scientists believe "women shouldn't be here" and feel empowered to harass female colleagues. Asking whether there are no qualified Black candidates for engineering jobs has a direct effect on whether your colleagues see Black candidates as qualified. Again, merely asking the question changes reality, even before hypothetical answers get discussed.

The questions we ask have a direct effect on how we allocate resources. (Also see: [CW: anti-Semitism] Are Jews people? Find out after the break on CNN.) "I'm just asking questions" is not a "get out of thinking of the consequences of my speech, free" card.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
2016-12-19 08:39 am
Entry tags:

Russia, far-right propaganda, and 4chan

I wanted to pull out so many quotes from The Hidden Author of Putinism
How Vladislav Surkov invented the new Russia
, by Peter Pomerantsev for the Atlantic (from 2014) that I thought this deserved its own post:


The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.

[describing a novel apparently written by Surkov] 'Egor is described as a “vulgar Hamlet” who can see through the superficiality of his age but is unable to have genuine feelings for anyone or anything'


Like liberals working for Fox News, the new Russian authoritarians use compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance in order to live with their own complicity:

When I asked how they married their professional and personal lives, they looked at me as if I were a fool and answered: “Over the last 20 years we’ve lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realized they are illusions, that everything is PR.”'


"Everything is PR" is similar to the phrase "virtual signalling" as used by white supremacist: the propaganda that no one holds sincere beliefs and anyone who appears to do so is just performing or trying to make you think they have beliefs:

'“Everything is PR” has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia; my Moscow peers were filled with a sense that they were both cynical and enlightened. When I asked them about Soviet-era dissidents, like my parents, who fought against communism, they dismissed them as naive dreamers and my own Western attachment to such vague notions as “human rights” and “freedom” as a blunder."


Who does the next paragrah remind you of? If his first name rhymes with "Kylo" and his last name rhymes with "Viannopoulous", you might be right.

'Surkov himself is the ultimate expression of this psychology. As I watched him give his speech to the students and journalists in London, he seemed to change and transform like mercury, from cherubic smile to demonic stare, from a woolly liberal preaching “modernization” to a finger-wagging nationalist, spitting out willfully contradictory ideas: “managed democracy,” “conservative modernization.”'


If this sounds like 4chan or rationalism, then you're right too:

"Surkov’s genius has been to tear those associations apart, to marry authoritarianism and modern art, to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose."


I think the antidotes to the destruction of meaning and morality are science, math, engineering, emotional self-awareness, genuine art, earnestness, sincerity, vulnerability, relationships, and queer sex (and as a friend said, all good sex is queer to some extent). There is no divide between science and art, only a division between intellectual fields that suffer under toxic masculinity and ones that have a little more individual and group balance in terms of gender.

And that part about the description of Surkov's novel jumps out at me. Hipsterist detachment and irony as a direct path to inhumanity; 4chan's in charge now, not because they're fascists but because of their use of irony to evade the imperative to take moral stances. Shitposting is not a good system of government.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
2016-09-01 09:09 am
Entry tags:

Cocks and Connotations

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)
2016-07-13 09:38 pm
Entry tags:

Casual narcissism

[CW: Brief discussion of rape]

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

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

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

But what about this interaction?

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

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

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

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

Now how about this example?

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

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

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

When someone says you did something hurtful and you change the subject to how you're actually a good person, how your interlocutor doesn't really know you, and how you feel attacked, you're behaving like a narcissist. And you're committing a logical error: the assumption that nobody would act in a way that's disadvantageous to you unless they did it in order to hurt you. (This is also true when the person you're defending is a friend rather than yourself -- in that case you're still defending yourself, since you're attempting to protect yourself from the pain of having to admit someone you like and trust did something wrong.)
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
2016-07-09 02:38 pm
Entry tags:

Why do cis people need the concept of "biological sex"?

"Sex is just what cis people call 'gender' when they want to misgender you." I've said this many times and I'll keep saying it as many times as I need to. If people remember one thing I've said, I hope it's that.

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

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

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

That didn't cause the problem, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I'm leaving it here as a question. Why does any individual cis person feel such a strong need to tell a trans person, "You are truly biologically male," or, "You are truly biologically female" when that isn't how the trans person would describe themself? The answer isn't "science", since science doesn't require anybody to place others in particular political categories; as well, very few cis people saying this have any understanding of science. I don't know the answer to this question, but I think the only way to begin finding it is to reject the pseudo-scientific notion of biological sex as objective truth rather than socially and politically motivated narrative. We have to stop asking what biological sex is, and start asking what work the concept of "biological sex" does and what needs it satisfies.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
2016-06-11 07:12 pm

Broken Metaphors, Flawed Technology

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)
2016-02-11 07:21 pm
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On "male" and "female" vs. "man" and "woman"

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: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
2015-12-17 10:27 am
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Pulling the Thread of Unsafe Spaces: Part 2

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)
2015-12-16 09:01 am
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Pulling the Thread of Unsafe Spaces: Part 1

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)
2015-11-30 10:23 am

The Christians and the Pagans: Part 3

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)
2015-11-29 08:21 am
Entry tags:

The Christians and the Pagans: Part 2

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)
2015-11-28 08:56 am
Entry tags:

The Christians and the Pagans: Part 1

This post is the first in a 3-part series.

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

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


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

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

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

-- "Russ Categories", Geek Feminism Wiki

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

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

Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Jesus as 10x Engineer
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-11-14 02:31 pm

I Worry About the Safety of Your Children, Too

Content warning: Discussion of abuse, apologism for abuse, abuse culture, rape, rape culture, criticism avoidance.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assumption 5: Children have power over parents

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

Assumption 6: Survivors aren't listening

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

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

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

Related to assumption 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
2015-09-04 10:41 pm

Language and trade-offs

There's a thing that happens sometimes when language changes, which is that people mistake a conditional claim for an absolute one.

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

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

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

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

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

If I say that QuickSort has better average-case performance while MergeSort has better worst-case performance, I don't think anyone would complain that I'm telling them what sorting algorithm to use, or dictating whether they should care more about average-case performance or about worse-case performance. So why do so many people seem to interpret observations as commands when those observations are about language trade-offs?
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-06-13 07:37 am
Entry tags:

Content warnings, protection, compassion

I wrote this as a comment to a friends-only post and decided to rewrite it as a post on my own journal and elaborate on it.

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

Content warning: discussion of the effects of early childhood trauma in re: ability to trust.
On staying sick and not getting well )
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-06-04 11:27 am
Entry tags:

Criticism avoidance, triggers, and wrong people on the Internet

Content note: In this post I discuss a particular form of emotionally abusive behavior called "criticism avoidance", and directly quote from criticism-avoidant discourse. Read with care if you find narcissistic behavior to be triggering. I also describe my own experience of being triggered and reacting with dissociation.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

So are both of us triggered?

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

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

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

Like love, in other words.

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

But I hope I've gotten across one way in which being triggered can be different from just being upset or feeling attacked.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
2015-03-31 11:02 pm
Entry tags:

"Call-out culture is very problematic," said the naked emperor frantically

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.