tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
This post is the last in a 3-part series. The previous parts were "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist" and "Jesus as 10x Engineer".

Elitism as Insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

Against Pollution of Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Dar Williams, "The Christians and the Pagans"
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tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
This post is the second in a 3-part series. The previous part was "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist".

Hackers and Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus as 10x Engineer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued!

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- "Russ Categories", Geek Feminism Wiki

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

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

Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Jesus as 10x Engineer
tim: Solid black square (black)
"What artists and prisoners have in common is that both know what it means to be free."
-- James Baldwin

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

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

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

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

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

standing on the firing line,
leaving all the others behind,
running to the fray,
going where no man will go,
running to confront every foe,
On another good dying day.
-- Bob Franke
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
This morning I got inspired by [twitter.com profile] mountain_goats yelling at [twitter.com profile] scotte_allen and wrote a song. Scott E. Allen is the mendacious assclown who introduced a bill into the Wisconsin state legislature barring SNAP recipients from using food stamps to pay for dried beans, as well as any other foods he doesn't think are "healthy". (I don't know where he received his doctorate in nutrition.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

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

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

To say, "It doesn't have to be this way" is to expose yourself and your reputation and credibility to every kind of attack possible, because "it doesn't have to be this way" are dangerous words. They inspire fear in those who find it more comfortable to believe that it does have to be this way, that all women should stay indoors at night (instead of men learning not to rape), that people who don't like being verbally abused should "just grow a thicker skin" (instead of everyone learning not to be abusive), that children should patiently wait until they're big enough to hurt smaller people (instead of parents respecting their children's boundaries). What those using the "outside agitator" / "fake geek girl" defense wish for is making "it does have to be this way" a self-fulfilling prophecy by scaring everyone who can imagine a different reality into silence and submission. But as long as we recognize that, they won't get their wish.
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Feb. 13th, 2015 11:15 pm
tim: A brown tabby cat's face. (spreckles)
Inspired by "I live in a house with wild animals and I really have to pee" by Ashe Dryden

Oh hey, friend, thanks for coming over the other evening! It was really fun, and that pumpkin bread you brought was great.


Oh, him? I'm sorry he bit you. You're not going to get rabies or anything, though, I took him for his shots last July. Yeah, it must have hurt, though, sorry.


No, I didn't really... adopt him, so much. He just showed up at my front door a few years back and wandered inside. It seemed like he needed a home, so after a couple days I bought some dog food and a dish and started giving him food and water. I mean, how could I deprive a poor animal of those things?


Oh yeah, he's bitten a couple of other people who've visited. It's really too bad. And I sure wish I didn't have to steam-clean my carpet so often. What can you do, though?


Call animal control? I don't know about that, it sounds sort of confrontational. I wouldn't want some mob showing up in a van to take away Buddy, you know?


A dog trainer? Huh, maybe. That seems like it would cost a lot. And doesn't it kind of infringe on his freedom to be the kind of dog he naturally is?


Tired of it? Yeah, I am, a little bit, and my housemate moved out because she said she couldn't stand finding her laundry torn apart or her books chewed up anymore. It's too bad, because I've had a hard time finding a new housemate and now I have to pay the rent for the whole house by myself. But hey, I'm not saying I would put up posters all over the neighborhood if Buddy wandered off one day. If he did, I would just shrug and get on with my life.


Oh, no, you're totally not the first person who has told me this. A lot of my friends just won't visit my house anymore. They want to meet me for coffee instead when we hang out, in cafes that don't allow any dogs in. It's okay. The way I see it, it's their loss if they don't get to be in my house.


Sue me? Why, I don't see how any jury could convict me of a crime. I'm not biting people. I'm not tearing their clothing or barking at them so loudly they can't carry on a conversation. I've never been anything but impeccably hospitable and courteous to my guests. It's not my fault if that dog keeps harassing them and if he just won't go away.


No, it doesn't bother me that much personally. I have a thick skin, you know?
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
I find myself looking for this collection of links so often (and I just assembled it for a comment elsewhere) that I'm going to put it here in one place:

Insistence on the objective truth of the culturally mediated ideological construct called "biological sex" is anti-trans, anti-intellectual, and anti-science. It is indistinguishable from misgendering -- in fact, it's a form of misgendering clothed in ersatz scientific terminology -- and as such, it's violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people, but especially against trans women and other people who were coercively assigned male at birth but reject that designation.
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
Saying "I don't censor myself. I just say what I think" is popular. I used to say it a lot myself, and I probably still sometimes say something that amounts to that.

My preferred way of saying it now looks more like "no fucks given" -- which is, I think, a little bit more accurate in that it's a statement about my assessment of the risks and benefits of saying something in a particular situation. Which is to do with how much power I have in that situation.

So somebody who says "I never censor myself" is either extremely powerful (and if that person is Donald Trump, he might just be making a completely straightforward statement of truth); is foolish (somewhat more common than the Donald Trump scenario); or isn't being totally honest. (Ironically.)

It's the last case -- the "not totally honest" case -- that I want to look at more carefully. I think a lot of people take pride in their putative lack of self-censorship because they like TV shows like "South Park" or admire some particular comedian. But they're not as funny as the comedians they admire, or even as funny as "South Park" can occasionally be.

More to the point, I think "I don't censor myself" often comes with an implied moral judgment: that there's something dishonest about not saying what you really think, in every possible situation. Tell your friend that his haircut looks nice, when you think he looks like someone put a bowl on his head and cut around it? YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON, because somehow honesty (about something unimportant) gets weighted much higher than the value of maintaining a relationship and making someone else feel nice. Why is that? We know there's no single moral principle that trumps everything -- most decisions are some form of balancing test or another.


What does the expression x + y mean in a program? Pick whatever programming language you like (except Lisp, I guess -- sorry) for the purpose of answering; at least, any one where x and y denote variable references (so, not Erlang or Prolog either).

You don't know, right? It depends on what x and y refer to in the lexically (or dynamically, depending what language you picked) enclosing environment when this expression gets evaluated at runtime. If you are a programmer, you understand that context doesn't only affect meaning. It is meaning. Or at least, you understand that when you're reasoning about programs.


So why would I choose to not say exactly what I think in a given situation? If the same person with the haircut was a total stranger, and my job was to do quality assurance for a haircutting place, then probably I would say that his haircut looked bad. So that suggests that context matters.

Not only does context affect the meaning of what you say, context is meaning in and of itself. For example, if I was at a bar with a very close friend and we were 3 drinks in, I might tell a fantastically filthy joke. (I mention "3 drinks in" because shared intoxication is a legible indicator of intimacy in my culture, rather than because drinking makes people behave badly.) I wouldn't tell the same joke at 10:00 AM on a Monday in a meeting at work. Why is this? Am I a hypocrite because I'd tell the joke in one situation but not the other? If the joke is somehow bad if I tell it at work, isn't it also bad if I tell it to my friend?

25 more paragraphs; some discussion of sexualized presentations, trigger/content warning debates, and racism )
tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
I wrote this as a comment on a friends-only LiveJournal post, so I'm reproducing it here.

"I figure that since my employer doesn't monitor how I spend my paychecks to make sure I don't spend it on booze, drugs, porn, etc. but rather only on nutritious food and sensible clothing, I am going to give to people on the street, and in fact I am going to assume giving to people on the street does more good than giving it to white people with good salaries who decide which people on the street are deserving (which is more or less what [REDACTED] said, I'm just agreeing with her).

Since I believe that I am rather good at figuring out how to spend money on things I want and need if someone just gives it to me, I'm not going to condescend to poorer people and assume they're not as good at it. (In fact, they're probably better at it, having managed to survive this long.)"

I'd add to this that I see an analogy: donating money to disease-specific charities (especially for diseases whose cures are open-ended research problems and that tend to affect people who are privileged enough not to die young of an infectious disease) : supporting global public health efforts :: donating money to white people with good salaries who will then decide how to allocate it among the poor (after taking their own cut) : giving money on the street to people who ask for it.

That said, I won't usually give on the street when I'm with other people, since in my experience that leads to pressure on the other people to give too, and I guess I put my friends' comfort first... which may not be the right set of priorities. I also don't give every time I'm asked, but I would like to give more often. My reflex (trained into me through years and years of living in cities and being influenced by people who were anti-giving) is just to say "no". And truthfully, I read this one _Babysitters' Club_ book when I was six or so where one of the characters opens up her wallet to give money to a panhandler and the more street-wise character scolds her with "he's just trying to get you to take out your wallet so he can steal it", which left its imprint on me (the bad thing, of course, wouldn't be losing my wallet, but shamefully being "gullible" which is obviously the worst thing you can be). Anyway, I'm trying to train myself out of those reactions.
tim: protest sign: "Down With This Sort of Thing" (politics)
I read a tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson that someone retweeted in which he says: "Advice to Students: When choosing a career, consider jobs where the idea of a vacation from it repulses you."

I like snorkeling. My job doesn't involve snorkeling. Does that mean I should quit my job and find one that requires snorkeling? I don't think so, because there aren't too many jobs that involve both snorkeling and computer programming, and I like programming too. Maybe there's some marine biology job somewhere that would require me to do both. Well, what about riding my bike? I still wouldn't be able to do that as part of my job. I like many things, and am unlikely to find a job that involves all of them. On the extremely rare occasion that I'm allowed to take a vacation that doesn't involve having surgery, I do things that I like to do that I can't do at work.

I'm poly, which means that when I have relationships, I prefer them to be based on informed consent rather than rigid rules that originate in cis men's need to control everybody else's bodies. That's not necessarily right for everyone, I'm just talking about me. One of the great things about being poly is that I don't have to find a single person who can fulfill all of my needs. I don't expect to be able to do that. So why would I expect one job to fulfill all of my needs?

A worker who doesn't want to take a vacation is a manager's dream come true (and in the Bay Area, it's said that companies like Netflix that have unlimited paid time off actually exert intense informal pressure on workers not to use any of it). Such a worker can potentially make management very happy. I've never heard of a CEO who never took vacations. The people I know who measure their job satisfaction by the number of hours they work are usually software engineers -- people who labor so that other people, generally not working 90-hour weeks, may profit. (It's true that in a startup, people may work long hours in the hope of profiting themselves, but this certainly isn't the norm.)

The US provides workers with the least amount of vacation time in the world. For middle-class Western Europeans, a job with three weeks of paid vacation time -- considered generous in the US -- would be shocking. Does that mean that Europeans who are scientists, engineers, teachers, and doctors love their work less than American scientists, engineers, teachers, and doctors love theirs?

Neil deGrasse Tyson might love his job enough to never take a vacation, but I don't love my job less than he loves his just because I sometimes want to do things that aren't in my job description. Different people are different; liking more things doesn't make a person less virtuous than somebody who likes one thing to the exclusion of all others. Just as we create unrealistic expectations by enforcing lifelong monogamy to the exclusion of all other ways to structure relationships, and teaching young people that they can undoubtedly expect to find just one person who can give them everything they need, we also create unrealistic expectations by teaching the young that they can expect to find one job that they love so much they never want to do anything else.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Content warning: violence against animals. (And people, but I suspect you've already been hearing about that.)
Read more... )
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). I was debating whether I should write about TDOR, because erica, ascendant and Monica Maldonado have already spoken so much truth on the subject. If you haven't read what they wrote, you should go read it. I'll wait.

The only TDOR event I've attended was two years ago, at Portland State University. To the organizers' credit, Tobi Hill-Meyer was a featured speaker. But other than her speech and showing of her movie, there wasn't a whole lot in the program that was on-topic. What I remember most about the evening was the "genderqueer acrobatics" performance, featuring a number of mostly white youths in furry costumes, cavorting. It didn't seem appropriate for a memorial, any more than a dance party -- which is apparently happening tomorrow as part of more than one city's TDOR event -- is. Do white people jump for joy at the deaths of trans women of color? One might be left thinking so.

I think that part and parcel of this fundamental not getting it is the characterization of violence against trans women of color -- which makes up the overwhelming majority of reported violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people -- as "transphobic violence" or "violence against transgender people".

It's no such thing.

As people like Erica and Monica have already written about, violence against trans women of color is fundamentally violence against women -- specifically, those women who are most vulnerable due to the intersecting oppressions (such as race, poverty, and participation in sex work) they experience. Being trans makes a woman even more vulnerable to violence, because there is no place in the world where law enforcement has much, or any, motivation to investigate a violent crime against a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color who's not wealthy. It's not that violence against trans women of color happens because of some special kind of violence that's different from run-of-the-mill violence against women because it's rooted in transphobia. It's more indirect: yes, trans women make easier targets, but to understand the real story you have to understand misogyny, racism, poverty -- in other words, the same issues that make cis women vulnerable to violence. Strangely enough, violence (to personify it) seems to be more respectful towards trans women's genders than are the trans men and cis women who often organize events like TDOR. While the latter group seems to need to construct a narrative of transphobia to explain violence against trans women -- so unable are they to see that men commit violence against trans women because they're women -- certain men show that they see trans women as women, by treating them in the same way they treat cis women: only more violent.

When trans men organizing TDOR celebrations talk about the suffering of "transgender people", when academics like Dean Spade make their entire careers off talking about the litany of ways in which "transgender people" are oppressed, they're being wildly misleading. Perhaps not intentionally, in most cases. But it still comes off as self-aggrandizing when college-educated white trans men (like myself!) talk about how they could be killed for being trans, when the worst thing they've ever experienced was someone looking at them funny in the men's room, once.

I don't mean to say that even the most privileged white trans men never face oppression for being trans. Health insurance companies are allowed to deny us needed medical care because we're trans, which affects all but the very richest of us. Many of us can't get government-issued identification that reflects our sexes correctly, which is humiliating if nothing else. I've personally known trans men who had trouble getting employment due to being perceived as trans men. I could go on, but I won't. There are issues that affect all, or almost all, trans people, regardless of their privilege along other axes. And no one should feel that those issues aren't important to work on just because someone, somewhere is suffering more.

So I am totally not opposed to someone working on health insurance discrimination in the US, for example, because that's the issue that moves them, even though having health insurance at all is a privilege many trans people lack. What's wrong, though, is erasing and distracting from the experiences of trans women facing intersecting oppressions by blurring the boundaries with the phrase "transgender people". That phrase groups together trans people who, in fact, profit from white supremacy and unequal distribution of incomes (hello, like me) with trans people who are being profited off, and implies a common set of interest where there is none. The same set of forces that means trans women of color often get the rawest deal even within a particular underclass is the set of forces that allows me to earn a very comfortable living by pressing buttons on a computer all day.

Therefore, for me -- or someone who resembles me -- to go on a stage tomorrow and talk about all the violence that "transgender people" suffer would be wrong. It would be self-aggrandizing. For me to pretend that there is something significant that makes me more similar to a trans woman of color doing sex work and living in poverty than I am to a white cis man running a well-funded Silicon Valley startup would be dishonest. And it would be hard not to see that as a cynical attempt for me to use dead women as instruments to advance a political agenda that -- because it serves the most privileged rather than the least -- isn't really about much other than a self-perpetuating machine of publicity and fundraising.

The rhetorical sleight of hand in grouping all trans people's experience together with the phrase "transgender people" is not just inaccurate and imprecise. It's actively harmful in a way that's very much like the use of "die cis scum" as a rallying cry for some white trans people. The ability to prioritize cis people's oppression of trans people as the most piercing injustice is a reflection of privilege: the privilege of being someone who expects to be in a position to dominate others, but is blocked from being in that position solely by being placed as transsexual and/or transgender. Just as seeing cis people as the only threat is a luxury for those who can rely on white trans people to have their back, garnering sympathy because one could be "killed for being trans" is a privilege reserved for those who can identify a unitary threat to their rightful place of privilege, a single reason why they can't live life at the very lowest difficulty setting.

Clearly, we white trans people (and the cis people who love us) need a common enemy to rally against. But because there's so little violence against us that could reasonably be called "transphobic" (there's a movie called "Boys Don't Cry" because it is indeed so rare for a white trans man to be attacked; if there was a movie about every trans woman of color who met a violent death, there could be an entire category for them on Netflix), it's hard for us to make our movement seem vivid enough to get people interested. Health insurance exclusion clauses, medical gatekeeping, and state bureaus of vital records that refuse to change gender markers on birth certificates are not exactly the stuff of which an attention-getting crusade for justice is made. But the answer isn't to steal stories from people whose lives have inherent value because they were, or are, who they are, as opposed to because a more socially privileged person can use them as an instrument.

What's the harm in all of this? Isn't it always good to raise awareness? But when a group like the Transgender Law Center gives an "Ambassador Award" to Chaz Bono, a man who told the New York Times that testosterone made him feel bored when women were talking, you have to wonder whether ameliorating misogyny matters to self-styled trans activists. (The same group saw it as a priority to help Bono file a legal name change, something that many trans people of more modest means do on their own, without help from a nonprofit.) I think there's a connection between how many groups that claim to be concerned with "LGBT rights", or even with "trans rights", serve mainly the most privileged, and the treatment of trans people's experience as unitary that's exemplified by TDOR and its accompanying rhetoric of "violence against transgender people". The result is a fundamental misdirection of resources. It's been pretty rigorously shown that trickle-down economics doesn't work, and I don't believe that trickle-down social justice works, either.

If it makes you feel good to watch candles being lit and listen to people who look like me mispronounce the last names of people who, well, don't, then it's possible that nothing I've just said will change that. I'm mainly writing this to sort out my thoughts. I've been wanting for a long time to do more than just write about trans activism, to get involved, but I've never been able to see a place to start that clearly does more good than harm. So maybe that's a sign that it would be more effective to work for health care and fair working conditions for everyone, cis people and trans people.
tim: protest sign: "Down With This Sort of Thing" (politics)
In what follows, I'll assume you already have a passing familiarity with the candidates and ballot measures, but http://smartvoter.org/ is your friend in general.

Like most such guides, this one will start out being relevant to everyone eligible to vote in the US, then quickly narrow itself to just California, then further narrow itself to Santa Clara County and then San José.

tl;dr: Californians, vote yes on 30, 34, 36 to fund education and abolish the death penalty and Three Strikes; no on 32 and 35 to stand up for labor unions and sex workers. San José people, vote yes on Measure D so we can have a decent minimum wage.

President: Barack Obama

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all US presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don't have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

-- Rebecca Solnit

My tone here is different from my tone about Obama in 2008. Well, I'm four years older, but aren't we all? In retrospect, maybe I was naïve for seeing Obama as an anti-war candidate, but then again, he did end the war in Iraq. What's more, I have a lot more confidence in his willingness to end the war in Afghanistan than I do in Mittens, though it's not a sure thing.

As many people have pointed out, there's nothing particularly liberal or progressive about Obama's foreign policy. That is neither why I'm voting for him, nor enough to make me not vote for him. As many people have also pointed out, there also aren't a lot of huge differences between Obama and Romney vis-a-vis foreign policy. (Not that we know much that's specific about what Mittens' foreign policy would actually be.) We can probably count on both candidates to keep expanding the military-industrial complex, and yes, kill civilians and violate civil liberties.

On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the two candidates when it comes to women's rights and LGBT rights at home, and that matters. There is no way in hell you can say that there's no difference between Obama and Romney when it comes to reproductive choice. And since whoever gets elected will likely be able to appoint multiple Supreme Court justices, their views on abortion will matter for decades.

Likewise, as a trans person, I was able to get government-issued ID that reflects the sex that I am as a direct result of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: in 2010, the State Department liberalized the rules for correcting sex markers on passports. I don't claim that's a huge thing, but it matters, and it wouldn't have happened under a Republican. If Obama is re-elected, maybe Social Security will fix their sex marker correction rules as well; I wouldn't hold my breath for a Romney administration to do that.

I am so, so tired of upper-middle-class white cis manarchists lecturing us all about how Obama and Romney are the same because predator drones. (I know that not everyone saying this is an upper-middle-class white cis manarchist, but I'm okay with people who have at least thought about reproductive rights still deciding they don't see a difference between the major party candidates.) The thing is, not voting, or voting third-party, won't save anyone from being killed by a predator drone. It won't prevent anyone from being tortured. All it does is display your radical cred. It's a deeply self-absorbed thing to do. What will happen if Romney wins is that women will get hurt, trans people will get hurt, queer people will get hurt. You can register that you are against that by voting for Obama.

If you're white, using concern about brown people abroad as an excuse to decline to vote for a candidate who is the better one for women, people of color, queer people, poor people, and just about any other disadvantage group in the US doesn't win you any anti-racist points. Actually, it just makes you look like a racist for holding President Obama to a higher standard than you would hold a white politician to. Did you really expect the guy to single-handedly dismantle the military-industrial complex? Do you realize how much flak he would get from Republicans for being weak on terrorism -- that a white president would never have to face -- if he had pushed harder against predator drones and torture? That's an issue not because his feelings would be hurt, but because he wouldn't have been re-elected and would have been replaced with a genuine warmonger.

I'm also guessing that the manarchists claiming that Obama and Romney are the same have never been denied health insurance because they had a pre-existing condition. I have been, and because of Obama, that will never happen to me again. This is not an abstract or theoretical concern for me.

So when I hear those privileged manarchists saying "don't vote for Obomney or Robama", I hear them saying that they don't give a fuck about women, or at least, not unless those women are so far away from them that supporting their rights won't threaten their own male privilege. I hear them saying that they don't give a fuck about poor people. And I hear them saying that they impose an unreasonably high standard of achievement for a Black president, one that is likely unachievable by anyone (much less a leader who is limited, who we've seen has already been limited, by others' willingness to destroy the entire country for the sake of stopping a Black man from leading effectively). I hear them saying that the only way in which national politics could conceivably (pun intended) affect their lives is insofar as having theoretical opinions about it affects how they feel about themselves, or how impressive others find them. Finally, I hear them saying that they actually don't care about anyone or anything outside themselves: that their priority is displaying their own supposed radicalism, reminding me that they're more radical than I am.

I am not holding my nose while voting to re-elect the President. I can criticize a group, or a person, and still support it, because my thinking isn't black-and-white. And I agree with Rebecca Solnit: "having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to healthcare is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly." I'm not voting to express myself. I'm voting to have an effect, and yes, my vote does matter even though I live in California. If you're a US voter, your vote matters no matter where you live. The popular vote matters for legitimacy as well as the electoral vote.

(If you're still voting for a third-party candidate regardless of anything I say? Please go vote for Jill Stein instead of horrible transphobic bigot Roseanne Barr.)

The rest of this is only directly relevant to you if you live in California.

US Senator: Abstain

Dianne Feinstein is a homophobic xenophobe. She's also highly likely to be re-elected, and there's no write-in option. (Any temptation I might have had to vote for her Republican opponent, Elizabeth Emken, was erased as soon as I read about her involvement with ableist movements to "help" autistic people by eliminating the.) So I'm not voting on this one.

Ballot measures and even more boring stuff, oh my )
tim: protest sign: "Down With This Sort of Thing" (politics)
Today I stumbled upon "Categorical Exclusions: Exploring Legal Responses to Health Care Discrimination Against Transsexuals" [PDF], a 2002 article in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law by Kari E. Hong. In my opinion, the most interesting point Hong raises in her discussion of how American law enshrines anti-trans discrimination is about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Is being trans a disability? Arguably so, under the ADA's definition of "disability":

"(1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities . . .; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment."

Even from the perspective of trans activists who believe the only unpleasant thing about being trans is the marginalization that we experience by cisnormative society (a perspective I don't share), being trans qualifies under clause (3): even trans people who don't believe they have a medical condition, don't believe that "gender dysphoria" or "gender identity disorder" are real things, and don't feel they require medical intervention are regarded as "impaired" by others. Under one definition, being trans means to have one's gender and/or sex not universally recognized as valid. That means that you are regarded as impaired in an area of life that most people consider essential (having a gender and sex that are concordant and unambiguous). So at least by the ADA's standards, being trans is a disability. I don't have a problem with that, since I don't feel the need to perpetuate ableism by holding myself as superior to and apart from people who have disabilities.

Since the ADA makes it illegal for health insurance companies (as well as health care providers) to discriminate on the basis of disability, you might wonder why a significant majority of group health insurance plans in the US (and every individual health insurance plan that I know of) have specific trans exclusion clauses in their policies, which exclude coverage for what is usually -- crudely and non-clinically -- referred to as "sex transformation" or "sex changes". Actually, these clauses exclude coverage for a variety of reconstructive surgeries (mostly on the genitals, chest, or face) when trans people are having them. Often, the policy covers the very same reconstructive surgery for cis people that's excluded for trans people: for example, breast reconstruction for cis women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer is covered (this is required by federal law), while breast reconstruction for trans women is not.

So according to the ADA, isn't this blatantly illegal discrimination? Well, no, and for that, you can thank Republican senators (at the time) William Armstrong, Orrin Hatch, and Jesse Helms, all of who were involved in introducing a heinous amendment to the ADA:

At the end of the bill, add the following:

Under this act the term `disability' does not include `homosexuality,' `bisexuality,' `transvestism,' `pedophilia,' `transsexualism,' `exhibitionism,' `voyeurism,' `compulsive gambling,' `kleptomania,' or `pyromania,' `gender identity disorders,' current `psychoactive substance use disorders,' current `'psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders,' as defined by DSM-III-R which are not the result of medical treatment, or other sexual behavior disorders.'

If you read Hong's article, you can find some of the despicable things that Armstrong and Helms said on the Senate floor that led to the introduction of this amendment. As Hong points out, Armstrong and Helms made no attempt to hide that their antipathy for trans people, pyromaniacs, drug users, and so on had nothing to do with evidence or medical science. I can't help thinking about much more recent controversies over Republicans like Todd Akin, who also made medical claims (that cis women who experience rape can't become pregnant) that are completely contradicted by fact. It's hard not to think that there not only hasn't been progress in the past quarter-century, but that we've gone backwards. While Armstrong's and Helms' ignorant statements could maybe, maybe be excused by the lack of widespread knowledge about and experience with trans people, Akin lacked that excuse for his asinine statements about pregnancy -- not a marginal condition, but one experienced by up to half the human population.

Because nobody in the Senate really gave a shit about trans people (not that I have any reason to think that's changed), the Armstrong-Hatch amendment passed, and continues to be law today. There are other legal bases on which somebody who was denied insurance coverage just for being trans could challenge that decision, but without some significant effort to show that the Armstrong-Hatch amendment violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, the ADA won't be one of them. Then again, it does violate the Equal Protection clause, so you'd think someone would get on that.

Hong's article is ten years old; since then, I've seen very little other writing that explored a potential ADA-based challenge to trans exclusion. Recently, groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center, as well as writers like Melissa Harris-Perry, have lauded how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) adds additional legal protections for trans people facing health care discrimination. However, I find these celebrations to be premature and totally misleading and harmful, since the ACA in no way addresses the core issue that trans people can be denied medical care that cis people get with no obstacles, simply because we belong to a socially stigmatized group. So long as social stigma affects the kind of health care I can access more than medical necessity does, I won't be celebrating.

Postscript: There's one thing I think Hong is totally off-base about: her assertion that trans kids shouldn't receive medical treatment. If her opinion were policy, at least one person I know probably wouldn't be alive today, and that would be bad, since I prefer her to be around. She seems to confuse reparative therapy for trans kids as practiced by Ken Zucker and supported by his pals entourage Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey, cheerled by Anne Lawrence and Alice Domurat Dreger -- something that is absolutely harmful and unethical -- with treating trans kids by letting them be the gender they are. These two modalities are about as similar as antifreeze and ginger ale, but Hong seems to fall for the harmful misconception (allow me: cisconception?) that medical treatment for trans kids amounts to forcing gender roles on them. That couldn't be further from the truth, since denying medical treatment is an attempt to force a gender role on a trans child: the gender role the child was arbitrarily and coercively assigned at birth. When it comes to adults, though, I find Hong's arguments pretty sound (aside from some of the language -- like the self-contradictory phrase "biological gender" -- which reflects the standards of the time).
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Emphasis added.
What astonished me was that no one had asked the churches if they wanted to be stared at like living museums. I wondered what would happen if a group of blue-jeaned blacks were to walk uninvited into a synagogue on Passover or St. Anthony's of Padua during high mass---just to peer, not pray. My feeling is that such activity would be seen as disrespectful, at the very least. Yet the aspect of disrespect, intrusion, seemed irrelevant to this well-educated, affable group of people. They deflected my observation with comments like "We just want to look," "No one will mind," and "There's no harm intended." As well-intentioned as they were, I was left with the impression that no one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions. While acknowledging the lack of apparent malice in this behavior, I can't help thinking that it is a liability as much as a luxury to live without interaction. To live so completely impervious to one's impact on others is a fragile privilege, which over time relies not simply on the willingness but on the inability of others---in this case blacks---to make their displeasure heard.
-- Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights

And that's why whenever someone tells you that you can't feel bad about the way in which they've hurt you, because "they would never hurt you intentionally", that is not a gesture of friendship or, in fact, of any kind of relationship other than one based on fundamentally unfair power dynamics. They are saying "You are governed by my intentions, merely because I have the power to coerce you into being so governed." They are committing an act of discursive violence.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It's been radio silence here for too long (there's a reason for that, which I may or may not ever get around to mentioning), but in the meantime: here, how about some comments about this article by Jennifer Boylan that I posted on a closed forum? I don't have permission to repost other people's comments, so this will look a little disjointed, but hopefully gets across some stuff I've been thinking about lately.

I'm kind of perplexed at why a trans woman (or trans man, for that matter) would use "transgender" as a noun or imply that trans people "change their gender". But I hope that was due to bad editing.
The problem is that in the NY Times article (I read _She's Not There_, it was a long time ago, so I don't remember much), she's *not* just making a statement about herself. She's saying that transsexuals are "(individuals who change, or wish to change, their gender via medical intervention" -- not *her*. *All* transsexuals. To me, that's profoundly offensive, because I'm transsexual (not transgender), but I have never changed my gender, nor could I if I wanted to; rather, what makes me transsexual in public -- or, what I actually prefer terminologically, a man with a transsexual body -- is that I'm someone whose sex and gender are not universally accepted as valid. And what makes me transsexual in private is that I have a morphological sex, and a neurological sex -- just like everyone else -- but unlike most people, these two sexes aren't on the same side; so, "trans" (across) and not "cis" (on the same side).

(For the "public" definition, I credit Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia: http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 )
There is a new set of definitions going around that I like, but don't always use since it confuses people, that says that "transsexual" is more or less what I said above, but "transgender" refers to a person who has articulated more than one dialect of gender over the course of their life. So actually, what Boylan characterized as "transsexual" would then be "transgender"! Now, it's ok that she uses those definitions, but she should have been clear that definitions around trans terminology are controversial and in flux, and that she speaks for herself, not the entire community. It's unfortunate that every time a trans person opens their mouth, they have to prefix disclaimers like that, but it's reality, and what happens when they don't add disclaimers is that a very, very narrow sector of the trans community (trans women who are white and who at least pre-transition are socially and financially successful and who transition in their forties or later) ends up doing all the speaking for everyone.
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to everyone that everyone's lived experience is different -- somehow, it seems like the more marginalized you are, the more other people are willing to generalize about your experience. Nothing drives this point home like having one doctor ask you "How long have you felt like a man trapped in a woman's body?" (well, gee, I thought I was in my body -- if I'm in a woman's body, where is she and is she pissed off that I'm using it?) and another doctor ask you "Do you have sex like a boy or like a girl?" (the question-asker in the latter case was trans, and should have known better).

So it really can't hurt to say "but everyone's lived experience is different". Of course, what Boylan did with her questionable definitions was different than that -- she didn't just talk about herself while forgetting to say that she doesn't speak for everyone, she actually said something offensive and false about people who aren't her.

I also don't agree that "ever splintering identity politics" is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made. I get suspicious when people start using the phrase "identity politics", because mainstream politics is identity politics (the Tea Party is identity politics for white cis men who identity as heterosexual), but it normally doesn't get labelled that way. "Identity politics" really means "identity politics for people whose identities I think aren't too important", so it's kind of othering and it's term I tend not to use.

What I think is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made for trans people is that a lot of people hate and fear us and don't want us to have rights, because if trans people get rights, cis people lose the ability to feel better about themselves by virtue of being gender-normative.
I'm probably not communicating very well, because I've failed to communicate that my issues with Boylan's definitions aren't peripheral squabbles -- they are central to the trans liberation movement, and show how she's actually undermining it. I don't think her undermining is entirely unintentional, either. But I'll explain.

The fundamental struggle that people like me are fighting is against coercive assignment, for autonomous definition. (I'm borrowing that formulation from a friend, I didn't come up with it.) When Boylan says that people like me change our gender, she's saying that the genders we were coercively assigned at birth are real; that to be recognized for the genders we autonomously define ourselves as, we first have to submit to a process of "change". But I reject that -- the gender I was coercively assigned at birth was never real in the first place.

Every struggle in the trans liberation movement -- equal access to health care, employment rights, the deregulation of gender (i.e. getting that little 'M' or 'F' off your driver's license), and ending violence against us, to name a few -- relies on rejecting the cis world's attempts to coercively assign us. So we can never win by accepting terminology like that advanced by Boylan (and not only Boylan) -- if we accept that, we accept that we have no rights. We accept that what we were coercively assigned is what we *are*.

And if we accept that, we can't claim that we have the right to health care. How can we claim that if we're whimsical eccentrics trying to defy what we *truly* *are* (as opposed to people who have the right to live as who we are, like everyone else)? We can't claim that we have the right to employment, because if we're trying to "be a different gender", that's simply a whim that indicates our likely mental stability, and employers would be totally fair if they didn't employ us. We certainly can't claim that we have the right to have government-issued ID that reflects who we are, as then we're just talking about some fiction in our heads rather than the reality of what we were coercively assigned. Finally, we can't do anything to defend ourselves from violence because we can't say we're in a particularly oppressed class of people -- after all, under this regime, we're all free to stop trying to "change" reality (which is to say, the truths that were imposed on us by force) and be who we *really* are, which would free us from such violence.

So I don't take issue with Boylan over petty details. I take issue with her because she doesn't accept the same basic principles I do, and those basic principles are the foundation for any claim I have to civil rights. Unless this was all merely an editing error, she is not "my people", as people who make statements that deny that I am who I am are not "my people". And Ms. Boylan doesn't get to write off my struggles just because she's pretty, thin, transitioned after attaining financial and personal success while passing as her coercively assigned gender, and fits the standard narrative. That's why the NY Times picked her as a spokesperson for all of trans-kind, but it doesn't give her the authority to decide that everything that would actually make it possible for me to live my life is just a matter of petty "identity politics" (again, a silencing term).

If this isn't legible, I'm not sure what more I could say that would clear things up, but I do recommend the post I already linked to once (I think?) -- http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 -- as well as, for general background, all of the posts listed in the "Trans 101" sidebar on the main page at http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/

‎(Just one postscript -- I feel like it's misleading to characterize a disagreement between folks like Boylan who are happy with the existing definitions of sex and gender and simply want to modify them slightly to allow for a "change of gender", whatever that means, and folks like me who reject those definitions entirely as based on incoherent double standards, as "infighting". That implies that all parties in the debate have the same amount of power. But Boylan clearly has the upper hand here -- her views are much more satisfactory to the larger power structure, thus she's being published in the NY Times, where you aren't going to say the words of, say, Lisa Harney, Julia Serano, Talia Bettcher, or Viviane Namaste. So really, throwing around terms like "infighting" or "identity politics" is just another way of denying privilege.)


May. 28th, 2011 02:06 am
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I am finding it less fulfilling to try to use the Internet to convince people not to be fatphobic than it is to try to convince them not to be transphobic. My belief is that this is because only a few transphobes are closeted trans people, while many if not most of the most passionate fat-haters consider themselves fat. Only a few transphobes are worried that they, themselves might become trans. And trans people don't need to hate people 'less' trans than they are in order to... well, never mind that part.

People cling far more tightly to their self-hatred than to their hate for others. They may get defensive upon being told that the socially approved acts of aggression they'd been committing all along were actually wrong (but I didn't know!), but they seem to find the news that their self-hatred isn't necessary to be utterly infuriating.

(Some other time I'll write my full-length defense of arguing on the Internet. But not tonight.)
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
We feel that statements such as “We are everywhere” and “Dykes rule!” could evoke an uneasy response in women who are not yet comfortable with Lesbian culture. It seems potentially self-defeating that the first exposure for many incoming students to Wellesley’s Lesbian community occurred in the form of anonymous, ubiquitous graffiti, rather than in the personalized non-threatening atmosphere of a Straight Talks workshop. -- Wellesley News op-ed, 1988

I find this to be a great illustration of the meaning of the terms "tone argument" and "concern trolling". 23 years later, it seems ridiculous to us, the idea that the obvious truth "We are everywhere" could be seen as hostile or alienating, as something that could legitimately strengthen someone's learned homophobia rather than undermining it. When you make a similar suggestion now -- when you tell someone that they're turning off potential allies by being so angry, or that you don't have a problem with someone's way of demanding their rights but someone else might think they're being too (hostile, aggressive, blunt, sexually explicit, bitchy, demanding, strident, selfish, all of the other qualities that privileged people flaunt) -- can you consider how you're going to look 23 years from now, with the benefit of hindsight?


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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