Holding up a Mirror (and actually looking into it)

In the midst of the now-continual screaming din of outrage and counter-outrage that has come to define the face of the internet that I see on a day-to-day basis, I’ve taken a step back.

Otha and I went to the Mall of America today, sans smartphones, to walk in a habitable environment (it was in the single digits outside today, with a horrible biting wind) and enjoy what is, sadly, the closest thing Minneapolis has to vibrant, pluralistic, public space.

As we lapped around, up, and down; stopping for an occasional browse (it’s nearly impossible to walk by the Lego store without stepping in), we talked about life, the internet, and everything. We even ran into a couple of friends, and they joined in on our “Solving the World’s Problems” sesh for a bit. Good times.

Anyway, the whole experience has me thinking about a lot of things; mostly circling around the ways in which our relationship with social media primes us for the kind of exhausting political merry-go-round so many of us seem to be stuck on.

Walking around today, I kept feeling pulled back toward social media. At least half a dozen times, I found myself wanting to share a photo or comment about some observation or experience I was having, and because I was very consciously not doing that, I tried to poke and prod at the mechanics of that pulling sensation when it arose.

For me, it is very much the sense that an experience is not fully realized until it is shared; that experiencing something or making an observation without access to a potential pool of immediate feedback somehow diminishes it. As I sat in the food court, waiting for Otha to come back from the bathroom, I watched the amusement park rides and felt a tangible void creeping in; as though my existence had been robbed of a dimension.

But, upon examination, that absent dimension is often a parasite, at least in the relationship I have with it. It’s a drug; brimming with unfulfilled promise while mostly serving as a distraction from living my life the way I claim to want to live it. That’s an ongoing struggle, but not the point I want to make here.

The salient point is the idea that social media outlets tend to commoditize our everyday experiences: we are all the content producers that keep each other coming back to these giant online hubs, which then harness our content and consumption to turn a profit. It’s the 24-hour news cycle on steroids; infiltrating every tiny little aspect of our lives. And we all want to be heard; to be seen; to be validated, so we give it everything we’ve got. We become more concerned with the document of an experience than with the experience itself. We, in essence, become documents. And our world becomes an incestuously-connected web of intractable minutiae. But we must continue the conversation; we must participate, lest we find ourselves left behind, and so we become consumed with the minutiae. It’s like we’re a billion mirrors, all reflecting images around and across and over and through and back again, with no time to actually look at the original image or its context.

I don’t think unplugging entirely is the answer. If I thought that, I wouldn’t be online anymore. But I do think it would be good for all of us to cultivate a more thoughtful relationship with the media we consume and participate in. I’m thinking of enacting some kind of defined social media time for myself; treating it as a window I can choose to look through rather than a lens permanently attached to my face (for me, that is a figurative turn of phrase: I do not have Google Glass).

I know it’s good for me to be more present in my physical environment. I’ve been having a fantastic time selling my wares at the various flea markets around town; surrounded by all kinds of people with all kinds of views, but no imperative to hate or demonize each other for our differences – we’re all just trying to have a good time and maybe make some extra money. It’s a lot harder to see someone as an enemy when you can see more than just one opinion or statement. I keep trying to think of ways to translate the multi-faceted nature of humans onto the internet, but I’m not sure it’s possible.

I’m always open to suggestions, though.

The Weight of Music

Records. Information saved for posterity. Music saved for posterity. Music records. Was it ever just anthropology; only concerned with documentation? When did listening to records become a recreational activity? Did it happen before radio? Even before radio, on telephone circles, there was a social element to listening; it was about coming together with others to experience a performance. With the advent of records, that coming together lost its temporal dimension. The music industry shifted toward creating the perfect hit song; rather than trying to document what was happening in the culture. Or perhaps that’s what it was always about, at some level.

But certainly something changed as music evolved into a physical product packaged for mass consumption.

In the digital age, music may be primarily consumed in non-physical form, as files from the ether, but its position as a commodity seems to be cemented. Some artists appear to fight against this fact by streaming impromptu performances or giving their music away for free, but these same artists also make their livings selling recorded (and usually heavily-produced) songs. Everybody’s gotta eat, after all.

I’m not sure what any of this means; it just seemed important to me tonight, jarred out of the book I was rapt in when Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” came over Otha’s Pandora stream and invaded my mind with a visceral sense of history. I had to put the book down and just live in that moment; not sure whether it was something inherent to that particular song, or the accumulation of my own affinity for this particular piece of music history which roughly coincides with my own entry into this world – no doubt fueled by the unforgettable recounting of its creation in the film “24 Hour Party People”…

Anyway, that got me thinking about all this stuff, and now I’m asking you: Have you had this experience listening to recorded music? Which songs feel heavy in this way, to you?

Sex and the Socially Awkward

A self-identified “Aspergian” blogger has penned an an open letter to women, pleading for our mercy on behalf of awkward men everywhere. I imagine many women will dismiss it as privilege-soaked and condescending, get angry and perhaps rant, then move on without thoughtfully considering the sincere question at the heart of it. But I think there’s some important stuff to unpack here, not the least of which is the very real pain of isolation behind these words.

So, Awkward Men everywhere, let’s talk about this. I can’t speak for all women, but I can tell you what I have learned in my own struggle with social anxiety and awkwardness. Who knows? Maybe we can help each other.

You begin your letter with an analogy, to try and explain to women what it’s like for men who struggle in their search for sexual fulfillment.

“Ladies, I ask you to imagine, for a few minutes, that you have a deeply rooted biological need to play chess. Something about moving around a bishop or a rook gives you the highest possible pleasure and satisfaction. You can have some of this pleasure playing against the computer or watching others play chess, but there is no decent substitute for playing with another human being. As often as you can – maybe every day, maybe a few times a week, you ask people to play chess with you, or you try to join in a game.”

First, let’s clarify something here. Women don’t need to imagine this scenario. There may be some quibbling around the edges over the exact degree of difference due to the difficulty of seeing past all the cultural baggage, but women need sex, too, and there is certainly a significant number of women in this world who are similarly frustrated over their lack of sexual prospects. It seems that what you really mean when you say “women” is “women I find attractive and wish to have sex with”.

I think your chess analogy only sort of works, and I’d like to try to help you think around it. I get that it is useful for people on the autism spectrum to try and apply sets of rules to social situations, in order to help them navigate shorthand that they don’t naturally understand. But doing this is necessarily reductive, and can blind you to the real solutions to your frustrations.

Instead of comparing sex to chess, let’s pull back a bit to a simpler construct. Let’s say sex is the chess board. It is the field of play, rather than the action itself. There are many different games that can be played on a chess board, which suit different personalities and their goals. For the purposes of this analogy, let’s say that good, old-fashioned picking up people in bars is chess. Those of us who struggle with social cues and come off as awkward in person are not going to be good at chess without a lot of trial and error and patient strangers. The problem, of course, is that strangers do not owe us their patience. We can certainly ask for others to put themselves in our shoes, but we must also put ourselves in theirs – there are understandable reasons why women in bars are extra sensitive to behavior that falls in or near the “creepy” category, and other understandable reasons for women to avoid giving direct feedback with their rejections. You and I might agree that it would be wonderful to live in a world where people were always explicit with each other, but for most people that world would be a nightmare.

So the answer is to stop trying to play chess, at least until you get some experience under your belt and learn to be less awkward. Just because most of the people in the world meet and hook up in bar culture doesn’t mean that everyone has to. Try playing checkers instead. Try to find women with similar struggles to your own. Instead of hanging out in bars, put up honest ads in personals sections and on dating sites. Spell out your need to have things spelled out. Find other awkward humans in online communities or at in person meet-ups and get to know them – I’ve heard MENSA is a great place for the awkward to find each other.

You’re right when you say that confidence can be very attractive. But, as an Aspergian, you can’t fake confidence. At some point, you’ve got to stop trying to be something you think women will find attractive and just own what the fuck you are. Yes, that’s a lifelong struggle. And part of that struggle is realizing that owning what they fuck you are will get you rejected. But it will make the acceptance you find so much more valuable when you do find it, because you will know it is an acceptance of you – as you – and not an acceptance of something you’re pretending to be. At this point, what do you have to lose?

Along this journey, you’ll meet some crazy characters. You’ll likely drive away most of the “normies” you’ve been trying to pick up in bars. You might have to re-assess your expectations regarding the types of women you will consider dating. If you’ve got an idea in your mind of “the perfect mate”, against which you compare the women you encounter as you go through your life, knock that shit off. Shed your expectations and really learn people. I get that it’s natural, when you feel deprived, to think of sex as an economy, and women as the holders of the most precious resource in that economy. But at the end of the day, we’re people, just like you. We contain depths of complexity and individuality, and that’s the place to start. If you need to, give yourself permission to stop trying to date for a set period of time, and just work on getting to know people outside of the transactional economy of sex. If you cannot separate the idea of transactionality from your conception of social sexuality, you might consider utilizing the services of a sex worker to meet your needs.

This will not be an easy journey, and even if you do everything I suggest and become a totally awesome, fully-realized, confident human, there can be no guarantee of sexual success, because even though it might look like it from the outside, sex is not something you can earn. There are no short-cuts to real fulfillment. But, when it comes down to it, the struggle is where humanity lives.

Now round up those checkers and start playing… 

#YesAllWomen: Internet Feminism and the Real World

Maya Angelou died last week; eulogized in memes on social media feeds, breaking up the erupting solidarity of fearful femininity marked by #YesAllWomen with quotes about courage and empowerment:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.

What is a fear of living? It’s being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.

I am never proud to participate in violence, yet I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.

To be sure, the #YesAllWomen meme is an interesting development. It gives the women of the internet an opportunity to join their voices together and talk about their experiences with everyday sexism and the things they perceive as threats which influence the ease with which they go about their lives. It gives well-meaning men who agree that women should have equal opportunity a window into an experience that differs from theirs in ways they are often unable to see. That’s important, and valid. But the other side of a campaign like #YesAllWomen is the reinforcement, not of empowerment, but of fear. And the implication from the feminist blogosphere is that the solution to this particularly female set of problems lies in removing the sources of women’s fears, rather than in teaching women to feel empowered in spite of them.

It is a fact that the world is not a safe place. It’s a shitty, unfair fact, but it’s true. The public safety of individuals varies along many axes and situations, and it is true that women face a unique set of concerns. At the end of the day, the world owes us nothing. Attempts to make the world better are noble and can certainly help, especially when implemented within local cultural paradigms by people who understand the forces at work within those specific paradigms. But if we wish to be empowered, we cannot rely entirely on civilization to empower us. We must claim our agency and empower ourselves. We must meet humanity where it is, even as we work to change it.

But all too often, the two prongs of this principle are set at odds to one another, because to talk about transcending your own fear and empowering yourself is seen as invalidating to those who are crippled by their fears. Claiming your agency and discussing practical approaches to safety often garners accusations of victim-blaming. Attempts of well-meaning male allies to discuss risk/benefit analyses with regard to women’s fears are regarded as derailments. All of this happens because the online feminist community is held together by women’s desires to see their fears validated; to be reassured that they are not crazy for feeling the way they do; to convince men that their fears are not silly.

The feminist reaction to the recent mass killing in California is a great example of this phenomenon. The implication behind much of the commentary from the feminist blogosphere is a big finger, pointing and shouting, “SEE?! They really are trying to kill us! We’re not crazy!” This is entirely understandable. And these discussions and the ones coming from #YesAllWomen will likely go a long way toward getting middle- and upper-middle-class men, in the developed world, who were already basically on board with feminism, to step up and address these issues where they see them.

But what about the rest of humanity? What about the vocal, misogynist minority? What about the men and women in other cultural paradigms who are not part of this discussion? What about John and Jane Doe? What about future Eliott Rodgers? Are we really prepared to stake our liberation to the conversion of all of these people and the eradication of the forces that drive them? That’s not only unrealistic; it’s self-defeating. If we are not, indeed, the weaker sex, then we shouldn’t require a consensus vote from the men of Earth granting us permission to walk freely among them.

The internet is a revolutionary social force. It empowers us to organize around principles that transcend geography. It amplifies our voices by joining them together. It allows outsiders and marginalized individuals to find validation in a sense of community and shared experience in virtual space. These capabilities are undoubtedly creating positive change in the world.

But, as is true of all civilizational change, these capabilities come at a cost. The power and convenience of the internet as a communication and organization tool make it a cultural magnet, tending to draw everything into itself. It links locally active organizations with large, international communities. Because of the anonymous nature of much of online communication, organizations and their representatives frequently receive comments from trolls and trouble-makers and dissenters, whose motives are difficult to distinguish. These forces naturally create in-group defensiveness and wagon-circling within these online communities, which inevitably leads to a situation where even constructive criticism can be dismissed as attack, and those who ask the wrong questions can be counted amongst the enemy.

The demographics of internet access, combined with the above-detailed emergence of online tribalism within these groups, creates an environment in which the concerns of specific classes of people become the primary focus of online discussions, and, by extension, define the parameters of the most visible areas of activism. Combine with this the demographics of higher education access and the entanglement of academia in social justice movements, and a picture begins to form of an increasing prioritization of Western, middle- and upper-middle class concerns.

In addition, the mechanics of the blogosphere itself can influence the direction of activism within a community. The ongoing discussions of the #NotAllMen “derail tactic” among online feminists is a prime example of this. The very idea of a “derail” is the product of specific expectations that online discussion forums, in order that they do not devolve into chaotic flame wars, should be limited to pre-approved discussion points. This tendency is entirely understandable. It helps people create spaces in which they feel safe sharing their fears and experiences, which is a powerful tool in building communities. But at some point, the community has to be about something other than building itself, and the tools that a community uses to build itself can actually undermine its own efforts to fulfill the stated aspirations of its members.

The goals of the loudest voices in the online feminist movement are neatly situated within a careerist, capitalist paradigm, focusing on wage equality, reproductive rights, and the politics of identity and consumption. Within this context, it makes sense to try to win male allies in the fight to eradicate harassment and remove sexist barriers to female acquisitions of power. But this set of interests should not crowd out or dictate the terms of discussions of barriers to female empowerment within other paradigms.

For example, attempting to apply this same logic to street harassment and casual, everyday interactions outside the context of a corporate or academic workplace is doomed at the outset. Despite the increasing prevalence of adults walking around in sweatpants, the world is no one’s living room, and none of us has the right to expect to go through life without encountering unexpected challenges and scary circumstances. To tell ourselves that we do is to confine ourselves to “safe” prisons.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to the library – a journey which takes me through a lively, culturally-diverse section of the city – and I glanced down a side street as I passed. There was a tall, thin, black man walking clumsily in my direction, and after our eyes met, he ran up to me and started chatting me up as I walked. We had a friendly, easy interaction. He complimented my physical appearance, then told me he was high on crack and some other stuff, and that he was looking for a nice woman he could “spoil”. The whole conversation unfolded over about two blocks, and as soon as I told him I wasn’t interested, he said a friendly goodbye and walked away.

Did this encounter make me uncomfortable? Sure. I didn’t know this guy. He was a self-avowed crack-head. It was the middle of the afternoon, and there were a lot of other people around, so I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety, beyond the usual level of worst-case-scenario paranoia my brain likes to produce, no matter what is happening around me. And even though he did look me up and down like a piece of meat, he didn’t persist after I refused his advance, so I didn’t feel disrespected. In fact, the whole thing left me feeling rather positive about the human race.

This guy was acting within the parameters of a cultural paradigm very different from the corporate, academic, middle- and upper-middle-class expectations of the prominent voices in the online feminist movement. Part of my personal empowerment process is understanding these paradigms and learning to navigate them on their own terms, so that I can more comfortably traverse a wide variety of situations. Throwing temper-tantrums about unwanted male attention on the street accomplishes little, especially when that attention is part of a codified system of behavior practiced and accepted by both men and women within that context. If and when people within these paradigms feel oppressed and ask for help, we can certainly ally with them in respectful ways, but expecting to swoop in with your white privilege and teach “urban” men why it’s wrong of them to holla at you is the height of ethnocentric hubris. And walking briskly through those neighborhoods, wearing your headphones like a hijab and staring at the ground, as though danger you can’t see or hear can’t hurt you, seems terribly childish.

The crux of the feminist mission is to make a place in public life for women to thrive and make our own destinies. If we wish to take our places in public life, we must accept the burdens that come with existing as public entities. Public life is often chaotic, and it is impossible to exercise any ultimate form of control over what you will encounter, in public, on a day-to-day basis. We can support each other in meeting these challenges. Part of this support can take the form of sharing our frustrations. But we need to keep them in perspective. We need to remember that, in the end, the real progress we make will be in the rights we take for ourselves by deciding not to give power to our oppressors by believing their slurs and libels and threats; not in the ones we badger and cajole and shame them into provisionally ceding to us. We’ve got to be able to walk on our own. The world will never be completely safe for us.

Freedom isn’t a given. We buy it with our courage.

Oh, the anxiety!

I’m thinking about anxiety today, after reading a little doodle comic aimed at explaining the experience of the anxious person to the unafflicted. It’s an Imgur series, linked in an article from relationshipsurgery.com, but it’s not clear to me who made it in the first place. (If anyone understands these things better than I do, please let me know and I will edit this to credit the illustrator.) In any case, as a life-long anxiety sufferer who has actually made progress learning how to live with anxiety, I have some thoughts I’d like to share on the matter.

While I think the weather analogy is a great explanation to help people who don’t have anxiety understand how it feels, I find the rest of the advice in this set of doodles a bit problematic, because I think it misses something key that might actually help people recontextualize their anxiety and see a way through it.

I certainly agree that it is not helpful to have people around you who don’t understand what you’re going through get tired of humoring you and say tone-deaf things that send you into a downward spiral of self doubt. And I think it’s good to point that out. But I also don’t think it’s helpful to set up a privilege framework of sorts where someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety can never make observations about it without being categorized as insensitive or harmful. The author wants others to offer constant reassurance and patience, and leave it at that. It’s essentially saying, “You can never understand what I’m going through but please sit and pat me on the head while I talk about it over and over again but don’t try to understand or offer suggestions because you don’t know my experience.”

To me, the point of forming relationships with other humans is to grow better together in the pursuit of mutual understanding. If you set up a framework in which you believe that no one else can possibly understand your experience and become insulted or hurt when they try to, you are setting up a framework in which your ideal relationship will tend toward codependency: each person in the relationship exists to support and validate the other person in a way that enables both to continue their respective unhealthy behaviors. It diminishes both parties, keeping them mired and comfortable in miserable ruts.

For me, having a loved one constructively tell me how my anxiety appeared to function from an outside perspective helped me to think about it differently. I began to see how I was projecting my own self-judgements onto others, and how that would spin into a cycle of awkwardness and self-consciousness and lead to more anxiety. Because this person cared enough to engage me in a conversation about my social problems and share his own unencumbered extrovert experience with me, I was able to step back and look at my social life from a third-person perspective, and understand on an intellectual level that, at the end of the day, most people I encounter don’t fucking care about any of the things I worry about. They don’t care if I use the wrong word or pause too long in conversation or have a piece of hair sticking up at a funny angle. They’re too consumed with their own shit to notice. And if they do care about those things, they aren’t worth my time.

Coming to terms with the idea that other people’s worlds don’t actually revolve around me was magical. I’ve started taking myself a lot less seriously in social situations – laughing at myself when I say the wrong word; getting out of my own head and just watching other people socialize without worrying about why no one is talking to me. That shift of focus off of myself is an incredibly powerful tool. These days, I catch myself talking and laughing with strangers like some kind of extrovert. It still feels really weird sometimes, but it’s wonderful.

I used to think my anxiety was just part of who I am, and that nothing could change it. That seems to be the view of the author of this comic. While I don’t think I will ever be rid of the raw, emotional reactions at the root of my anxiety, I now know it is possible to change the way those reactions influence my behavior. Instead of letting myself get sucked into those feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness and turn into a neurotic mess (which actually does influence others’ willingness and ability to engage with me), I can take a deep breath and move on, accepting myself where I’m at and allowing the people around me to do the same.

I think that asking people who love people with anxiety to treat it as an immutable condition and never offer thoughtful, constructive criticism does a disservice to people with anxiety. I also think that reinforcing the idea that people with anxiety should expect unquestioning support and validation from those around them is bullshit. Often, being truly supportive means challenging someone to see their way clear of a self-imposed roadblock.

You know what? My anxiety absolutely is all in my head. That doesn’t make it an imaginary problem, but it does empower me to do something about it, instead of resigning myself to cowering in corners at parties for the rest of my life. I can recognize it for what it is and move past it. That is a profound gift, and I will be forever grateful that someone cared enough about me to help me find it.

Send out the clowns

There’s a meme making the rounds this week, making the case for the superiority of liberal media pundits over their conservative counterparts, based on their relative levels of education. It’s the worst kind of “like”-baiting, uncritical, ad hominem bullshit that passes for political engagement these days.

clowns

The truth is that all of the most successful political pundits are clowns. They exist to rile up their respective bases with sensationalist rhetoric and empty invective. They’re very good at what they do, and I think most of them know exactly what they’re doing. To me, the real message in this particular meme is circular: Liberals value education, therefore they require of their clowns a certain level of collegiate achievement. The credential has become an important shorthand for progressive credibility. Liberals might want to tell themselves that a degree symbolizes an increased aptitude for critical thinking, but I would argue that it actually represents a different flavor of conformity. It shows how able a person is to afford higher education, and how willing they are to follow the college catalogue’s prescriptions to participate in their chosen career field.

A large number of conservative political pundits in this country hold very advanced academic credentials. The person who made this meme just cherry-picked the only three they could find who lack them. College degrees nowadays are a dime a dozen. Despite the fact that they cost more and more every year and most people go deep into debt in their pursuit, getting a college degree of some sort has become part of the status quo. It is becoming more and more difficult for people to enter most career fields without one. All three of the conservative “dropouts” pictured above are primarily media guys. None of them set out to enter a field of study. All were interested in becoming radio and television personalities, and all three succeeded in turning their respective brands of apopleptic charisma into lucrative careers. They’re very good at appealing to a certain segment of the common people in the United States, and the audience they talk to doesn’t care that they lack credentials.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He's got degrees from both.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He’s got degrees from both.

The really odd thing, to me, is the fact that there are no liberal pundits without a degree of some kind. Even Ed Schultz, who went to school on a football scholarship and is not exactly an intellectual, has one. It would seem that a college degree is the price of admission for being taken seriously in liberal company. As a “college dropout” who leans left, I find this rather disturbing.

It is tempting for liberals with degrees to feel like they belong to some sort of enlightened class and assume that the very act of becoming credentialed imbues them with an objective kind of knowledge that leads naturally to a certain political bias. While I think it is true that the bent of today’s liberal arts education tends to attract and foster a particular kind of postmodernist thinking which predisposes people toward liberal thought, I don’t think that higher education necessarily leads individuals to more progressive thinking. I also think it is deeply fallacious to regard conservative thought as somehow philosophically inferior and unable to stand up to factual critique. Political views are, at their core, about values, and values are deeply subjective.

Take, for example, the abortion debate. The meat in the middle of this particular shit sandwich is the fundamental philosophical dispute over when an embryo or fetus should be considered “fully human” in the sense that its right to life overrides the concerns of the woman who carries it. There is no objective answer to this question. I am pro-choice, because I value a pragmatic approach which accepts that humans tend to screw up, regardless of attempts at reigning them in, and the best solution is to reduce the harm that results from those screw-ups. To me, keeping abortion legal while making birth control widely available to make it less necessary is the right balance. But I can make those arguments until I’m blue in the face and no amount of evidence will change the mind of the pro-lifer who sincerely believes that the moment sperm and egg meet, a new human life is formed, and that interfering in that process in any way amounts to murder. We’re playing in different ballparks, screaming past each other into the void.

It’s difficult not to succumb to the desire to keep screaming, even when it is so clearly not productive. It’s frustrating to try and argue a point when your debate partner seems to be speaking an entirely different language than the one you know. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a relativist, philosophically speaking. But I think it is important to grasp the fact that when it comes to political discourse, the only way to really make progress without resorting to fascist dictatorship is to acknowledge the humanity of the other side, understand that your differences grow out of divergent values, and then try to find a compromise. At this point in our history, it seems that both sides would prefer fascist dictatorship to democratic cooperation.

Popular media have further muddied the pool in this regard. Rather than arguing facts and fostering respectful discourse in order to try and bridge real gaps in core values held on each side and emphasize compromise, pundits across the spectrum settle for cheap point-scoring and ad hominem attacks. It’s easier to sway public opinion by placating people’s emotional biases than to challenge people to actually consider issues on a rational basis and think of their political rivals as human beings with legitimately-held views. Take this meme as a case in point: Instead of saying anything substantial or crafting an argument based on facts, the creator is essentially blowing raspberries at his or her presumed opponents and saying, “Nyah-Nyah. You guys are stupid,” and ignoring the wider implications of such a statement.

clowns2

Liberals often wonder why so many working-class folks “vote against their own self-interest” and fail to make what they see as the obvious choice to support Democratic candidates. Most of the left-wing establishment is so far removed from the everyday existence of the people they’re trying to reach that they can’t effectively communicate their message to those people – their attempts come off as condescension. Dispensing with this kind of “if you don’t agree with me you must be stupid” bullshit might go a long way. Also, I think that letting a few “uneducated” liberals rise to the top could only help their cause. But it seems they would rather maintain an in-crowd of academic hoop-jumpers and keep preaching to the same choir.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine any substantive change actually happening when the screaming clowns continue to rake in profits for media outlets. Networks might argue that they are in the business of giving the people what they want, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. But sometimes what the people want is exactly the opposite of what the people need. The trick, in a for-profit media marketplace, would seem to be convincing the people that they want what they need. I’m still trying to work out how to do that.

“Feminine” Discomfort

Image

There’s this conversation I’ve been having with myself for years now. I put it down, and then, a month or six months or a year later, prompted by an overheard interaction or an online essay or a dialogue with a friend or acquaintance, I pick it up again. This conversation has to do with the way I feel about being female, what those feelings mean, and why I seem to have difficulty relating to and maintaining friendships with other women.

meangirls

The latest provocation in this perennial dance flitted through my facebook feed in the form of a HuffPo blog post about Taylor Swift and the idea of “Other Girls” as a set of monotone foils who serve to set a particular woman apart.

The myth of the other girl can be seen in passive aggressive tweets by girls proclaiming things like, “I hate girls.” It’s present in proud declarations that someone only hangs out with boys, because girls are too much drama. It is girls frantically trying to convince others that they aren’t like other girls, because they are laid-back, drama-free; girls obstinately insisting that they are different, because they aren’t catty or fickle or vapid.

Essentially this myth is the manifestation of ingrained misogyny, a result of the longstanding stereotype that girls are catty, two-faced, superficial and gossipy. It is a stereotype meant to demean and dismiss girls, delegitimize and quiet them in order to maintain traditional gender roles. The “girl” part of the “other girls” myth is crucial, as it equates femininity with negative attributes like cattiness and superficiality.

On paper, this reads as gospel to me. It resonates with the part of me that wants to believe that we’re all just prisoners trying to break free from an evil system of social programming that turns us into a bunch of petty monkeys, and if we could only just make everyone aware of it, we could transform reality so that everyone would truly be free to express their true nature without the burden of stereotype and societal expectation based on superficial categories like sex.

When I try to take those ideas into my life, though, and lay them over my own experiences and alongside my constantly-evolving ideas about how to build society in a way best suited toward encouraging individuality and critical thought while fostering collaboration, problems arise.

Here’s the thing: I am a female uncomfortable in the world of women. I’ve never mixed well with other girls, and have often found myself on the wrong side of groups of girls and women within the various social circles I’ve inhabited throughout my life. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly to do with my difficulty reading social cues, my tendency toward too-overt earnestness, and the fact that my similarly-built mother didn’t model for me how to “perform” girl. She never saw the point in putting on an act in order to fit in, and both she and my dad encouraged individuality and contrarianism. They allowed me the freedom to explore interests that other girls’ parents would have discouraged. I grew up immersed in hunting and fishing culture, and saw no reason not to participate. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that there weren’t really any other girls doing those things. I don’t think I really thought about things in those terms. The summer after fourth grade, I had my mom sign me up for baseball. Traditionally, girls played softball. But I didn’t want to play softball. I wanted to play baseball like my heroes on the Minnesota Twins. If there was controversy or conflict behind the scenes, I never knew about it. All I knew was that I asked to play baseball and I got to play baseball. I didn’t care that I was the only girl on the team.

I was an active kid. I attended volleyball and basketball camps in elementary school and continued to play all three sports through Junior High and into High School, on girls’ teams – organized, school-sponsored sports in a small town are a bit different than summer community education in terms of decorum, – but social politics gradually poisoned all of it. I quit volleyball after my freshmen year, because the other girls were mean to me. I was a decent player with a pretty badass overhand serve, but that didn’t matter. The important bit, for them, was that I was an awkward kid who didn’t fit in socially, and acknowledging me amounted to some kind of mythical treason to the idea of “cool”. The same thing happened in basketball a year later. Sports weren’t about the game anymore. They were about alliances and social displays and power dynamics and I hated all of it.

I stuck it out in softball, maybe because I loved it more than I had the other sports, or maybe because the coach was good at keeping us focused on the game – it’s hard to say in hindsight, but it never seemed as bad. It also helped that I had a fellow misfit friend on the team with me.

More recently, I found myself in what seemed to be a conglomeration of grown-up misfit girls. It was a dream come true. We were even considered “cool” within our particular subculture. But it fell apart when several of them decided they didn’t like my boyfriend and embarked on a campaign of passive-aggressive tactics (up to and including “crusties”. I’m not exaggerating) intended to punish me for transgressing against the group and undermining a social hierarchy that I had rather obliviously not recognized. I owned my part in it, but they wouldn’t own theirs, so I cut my losses and moved on.

The point I’m trying to get to in all this rambling and reminiscing is this: The idea of girls and women displaying catty behavior and appearing to value superficial things is not a fantasy. It’s something that happens in the real world. Now, we can examine the roots of those behaviors, and argue about whether they are innate “feminine” traits or whether they are the scribblings of a broken society writ on blank slates or whether the truth lies somewhere in between, but I think we do ourselves a disservice to simply dismiss these ideas as negative stereotypes and try to find our way across the chasm of imperfect reality and into the land of “should”, jumping between stepping stones carved from postmodern relativism.

The fact is, for me and other women like me, “the other girls” are not just cartoons with bitchy faces, starting catfights over a boy. As is usually the case, the truth is much subtler. I don’t think I resent “the other girls”; not anymore. I might pose questions about what society considers “properly” feminine, but I try not to put down individual women for their choices with regard to those items of gender performance. But I can’t say that the way I feel set apart from “normal” women isn’t real. I can’t accept that it is the result of unrecognized, internalized misogyny. Because when it comes down to it, I didn’t reject “the other girls”.

They rejected me.

Again and again and again.

Of course, this is my personal perspective and it is, by nature, limited. Maybe high school boys’ sports would have been just as traumatic for me if I’d been born male. There’s no way for me to know. But I do know that I have a much easier time navigating male-dominated social structures. I do construction work for a living, and maintain a jocular, “one-of-the-boys” standing with most of my coworkers. Sure, there are hierarchies and political struggles and plenty of drama, but the language of that drama seems more comprehensible to me.

I don’t think this makes me special. I don’t think it makes me better than other women, as if “other women” were a monolith. But I have to acknowledge that I do seem to be different from most of the other women I’ve encountered in my life. I’m still working out what that means.

The real Gordian Knot is this: How do you encourage girls to step outside of societal gender norms without illustrating those norms using examples that will inevitably lead to stereotyping, which will feed back into the system that keeps them shackled to those norms in the first place? Maybe you have to be a social misfit of one stripe or another to really escape it.

One thing’s for sure: Taylor Swift doesn’t have the answer.

Feminists vs. Catholics, part 6,832

There’s an article making the rounds on Facebook this week, titled “6 Reasons (+2) to NOT Send Your Daughter to College”, that seems to have the whole internet’s panties in a bunch. I’ll admit it; when the link came across my feed, my own knickers started to twist a bit. Finally, today, I sat down and read the article and explored its immediate context. You know what? (You may want to sit down for this one.) I don’t understand the outrage. Okay, that’s not entirely true – I get why people have knee-jerk reactions when faced with ideology they find abhorrent. But this egalitarian atheist thinks this particular outrage is a waste of time and energy.

If you took the time to read the preface to Raylan Alleman’s “listicle” (I really hate this format, despite my love of many of the things said using it, but that is a topic for another day…), or perhaps even took the extra time to click on the “about” tab on its host blog, you would learn that this article was written for a limited audience. Fix the Family is not an evangelical website, at least not in the usual sense. Its stated goal is to educate people who are already professed Catholics about what that profession of faith entails. I have absolutely no problem with this. In fact, I think it’s kind of awesome.

I was raised Catholic. I was also raised not to do anything “half-assed”. At some point, those two value sets came into conflict with each other. Due to various events in my young adult life, I realized that I needed to better understand what I was professing to believe because I was feeling like a half-assed Catholic. That journey led me away from the church and toward a rationalist view that more honestly reflected the way I operate and interact with the world. I do not, however, think that this is the inevitable outcome of any similar examination. My family is full of sincere, thoughtful, “full-assed” Catholics. They take their professed faith seriously; not just as some kind of membership badge. We may disagree on almost everything, but we share a very fundamental value set regarding what it means to honestly explore and embrace the full meaning of what we say we’re about.

There’s no denying that there are a lot of conflicting forces at work within the membership of the Catholic Church today. Many in the developed world would like to see ideas about sexuality, marriage, and birth control brought more in line with secular Western ideals. While it is true that there are mechanisms for change built into the Church structure, they are slow to react. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. I understand that religion plays a significant role as social glue, and many people identify very strongly with the faith they were raised in. It can be difficult to face the prospect that one’s values and one’s faith might be opposed. I realize that my view is a bit radical, but I personally feel that honesty is more important than social belonging. If your views diverge from Catholic teaching, maybe you need to take a good, long look in the mirror and admit to yourself that you’re not actually a Catholic anymore.

This article is part of that discussion. It represents an accurate understanding of what the Church expects of men and women, and what it views as the optimal version of Holy Matrimony. It was not written to convince me or any other non-Catholic to live differently. I might find the ideology expressed here to be absolutely ass-backwards, and as much as I might tell myself that publicly getting all worked up about it might be just the kind of thing that would have nudged a younger version of myself down an important path, it would mostly serve a vain desire on my part to feel superior or to show solidarity with purveyors of another brand of group-think – here, academic liberalism.

Look, I’m not saying we should never criticize another person’s religion. I think it is important to engage in debate, especially where one group’s religious beliefs are being imposed on others through legislation. I also very strongly value subversion and dissent. I still remember, at age 13, watching Sinead O’Connor tear up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. It was shocking, insulting, and titillating, all at the same time. It planted a seed in me. It gave me a glimpse out into the world, and made me aware, for the first time, in a really visceral way, that the things I held sacred were not universally held as sacred.

As much as those of us on the secular side might want to scoff at conservative religious people’s claims of persecution – and rightly so in a lot of cases where it seems so obvious from the outside that they are mourning a loss of special treatment, they are right about one thing: their views are increasingly at odds with the mainstream. It is nearly impossible nowadays for a child to be raised in a fully-fortified belief bubble, insulated from knowledge of the secular world. As limited as my access was, I had a television. I had Sinead O’Connor. Today’s kids have the internet. They have the whole world at their fingertips.

Ultimately, those kids don’t need our condescension. They will make up their own minds about how to respond to the interplay between their inherited belief structures and the broader culture around them. Some of them will remain faithful. Others will choose different faiths or give up faith altogether. A large part of that process will play out in social media.

Too much of what circulates on Facebook, among users of all worldviews, is shared primarily as identity negotiation. People who express dissenting or uncomfortable views can be blocked out with the click of a button, and with a worldwide pool of millions, even the obscurest beliefs can be supported and validated by a virtual community. I suspect that’s an inevitable consequence of such a forum. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it to be better. I would love to see such a powerful platform put to the truly constructive work of hosting honest and engaged dialogue. I am not talking about a hippie internet utopia where everyone is constantly affirming everyone else. I’m talking about messy, self-aware, and courageous conversations that challenge people to examine what they say they believe and try to really live their values. As much as I might disagree with Alleman’s perspective, he is attempting to have that kind of conversation with his fellow Catholics, and I have to commend him for it.

“Worst Jerk Fail Ever”

Apparently, Jimmy Kimmel secretly made a Youtube video of a woman setting her ass on fire, presented it as a really real thing that really happened in someone’s real life, and then revealed it was staged. I live under a rock, and I haven’t actually watched it, but the internet is all a-flutter with lulz and butthurts alike.

Over at Slate, Daniel Engber bemoans the damage hoaxes like Kimmel’s do to the “public trust”, and the way they interfere with the innocent web denizen’s “sense of wonder”.

YouTube shows the world in all its weirdness, and gives a window on the geek sublime. When liars spread their hoggish propaganda, they mist the landscape with distrust. Think of all the other twerk fails—real ones, I mean—that have been strip-mined of their life and humor by Kimmel’s toxic hoax. Why ruin those for personal gain? Why make all online videos seem a little suspect, just to advertise a late-night talk show?

Youtube, and, more pointedly, the place it has come to occupy in our culture, deserves critique. It’s an unfettered playground for the id; a black hole of schaudenfreude and voyeurism. It’s a 24/7/365 stream of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with porn and gore thrown in. Engber’s chief concern with Youtube seems to be maintaining an ability to enjoy watching other people make idiots of themselves, and a necessary prerequisite for this enjoyment is his ability to believe that said idiots are sincere idiots. Here, Engber reveals his corroded, hipster core. For him, it is unseemly to watch videos engineered to appeal to his baser appetites, but perfectly acceptable to watch videos that happen to capture something “true” or “real”. As long as he can feel superior to the twerkers, he’s happy.

Whether or not he’s being entirely serious here, Engber is claiming to be angry at Jimmy Kimmel because he has now “ruined” twerk fail videos forever. Bullshit. This guy is angry because Jimmy Kimmel flipped the joke onto him. He subverted the “magic” of Youtube: he took millions of viewers, who were accustomed to laughing at the misfortune and embarrassment of others through their phones and computers, and made them into the butt of the joke. I have not historically been a great fan of Kimmel’s work, but this was a stroke of genius.

Engber and his ilk would do well to close their computers, put away their phones, and GO THE FUCK OUTSIDE once in a while. That’s where they’ll find the real wonder. Imagine it: real, live people and dogs and cats, being stupid and cute and funny all around you, in actual, physical reality. And better still, it’s a world you can be in, fully, and find untold depths of satisfaction and wonder engaging and exploring.

What would happen if we remembered how to share ourselves with each other instead of finding cheap comradery in sharing laughs at others’ apparent inferiority?

What if we re-learned how to exist in the world without an interpretive screen to mediate our experiences?

What if we rediscovered the courage to engage other people without a force-field made of irony?

These are important questions. Every time somebody like Jimmy Kimmel subverts the dominant paradigm, we have an opportunity to ask these questions, and others, about how and why we participate. We should seize these opportunities, not lash out at the hoaxers.

Blindered to our own irrationality: notes on the human condition (and organized skepticism)

I’m what many people would call a skeptic. I try to think rationally and follow the evidence. I think it’s unlikely that God exists. Same goes for ghosts. And alien visitation of earth. And fairies. And Bigfoot. In light of this, I think we are our own best hope; and our own worst nightmare. There are saviors and there are monsters; but contrary to popular belief, all are human.

You may have heard of something called the “Skeptical Movement”. Maybe you’re a part of it. For those who don’t know, it’s a loosely bound group of people and organizations who all ostensibly fight to make the world a better place through the popularization of critical thinking and the advocacy of science as the best way to solve the big problems we face in the early decades of the 21st century.

I was a part of this phenomenon for about five years. It was a crazy time in my life; full of excitement and comradery and new experiences and unbelievable connections. As a writer for a popular blog within the subculture, I had a certain social status within the movement which was very foreign to me. I grew up an outsider; constantly struggling with the facts of my bookish and too-sincere disposition while trying so, so desperately to fit in. Being a Skepchick was the culmination of a lifetime of childhood fantasies: I had finally found a place where my nerdy ways actually made me desirable social company; where social awkwardness was paid a strange kind of lip service; where I was one of the “cool kids”.

I never got over the “too-good-to-be-true” feeling it all gave me. Two years ago, it all fell down. I had a personal falling out with several of the key social players at the blog, which was, in hindsight, stupid all the way around. I committed a clumsy social blunder, which was met with what looked to me, at the time, like junior high clique behavior. Whether or not that was an accurate interpretation of what was going on, it made me take a step back and realize that the assumptions I had made regarding what those friendships were about needed some further analysis.

This isn’t about airing dirty laundry. If I wanted to put the hurt on the people who hurt me, I would have done this two years ago, when it was fresh. I would have named names; assigned blame. I can’t say I was never tempted. But, in the end, that’s not who I am. So I held onto it, and I stepped back and did other things. I pulled back from the movement almost entirely, getting glimpses here and there when various stories bubbled up into my Facebook feed, mostly dealing with various crises within the movement.

I am writing this because I think the skeptical movement needs to hear what I have to say about what I’ve observed over the past couple of years as an outsider, and, in hindsight, what I saw going on even when I was still a part of it.

Humans are tribal creatures. There’s no escaping that fact. We are petty and short-sighted and prone to all sorts of logical fallacies. We are eternally fallible yet our egos are often too fragile to admit to anything less than perfection. We crave social validation; and social validation from a group of people who share the same interpretation of the world as we do is the ultimate fulfillment of that craving. In order to protect that very particular type of social validation, we will fiercely defend the group we belong to, and just as fiercely attack people and forces that challenge cohesion within the group.

Organized skepticism is not immune to this phenomenon. Many skeptics find themselves, as I did, feeling like they “belong” for the first time in their lives. This can be a wonderful and life-changing feeling, especially for people who have found themselves repeatedly shunned by friends and family members after admitting their true beliefs about the world. The simple act of being able to discuss disbelief openly without fear of social reprisal is a huge burden relieved. This environment can create very intense social connections, and, ironically, a sometimes dogmatic fervor about skepticism.

We cling ever tighter to our in-group mentality, and begin to distance ourselves from anyone who exhibits, say, an untoward interest in communicating with “believers” of various stripes. Just this week, Scientific Paranormal Investigator Hayley Stevens was ridiculed by fellow skeptics over her assertion that it is possible to use scientific methods to investigate paranormal claims. One of the very basic principles of scientific skepticism is the idea that we should figure out what’s true and what isn’t based on scientific investigation. Just because we’re convinced that something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that the investigation should stop, especially when there are lots of people out there who still believe, and who are actively investigating various claims using less-than-rigorous methods. Stevens’ work, honestly investigating claims of the paranormal alongside believers and trying to teach them how to be more scientific, is in my opinion the cutting edge of what skeptics claim to value.

I think there is an inherent tension between the comfort and acceptance of a social group and the real work that needs to be done to meet the stated goals of the skeptical movement. How do you relate to believers on a human level when you also find comradery in ridiculing them? How do you remain self-aware, self-critical, and vigilant for internal inconsistencies in your own logic while at the same time engaging in social identity negotiation? How can you feel free to ask honest questions that challenge the very assumptions your entire social group is built on when the natural response from other group members will be to excise the dissenter? Is it worth it to point out inconsistencies and logical fallacies when your friends and fellow skeptics commit them when doing so could cost you friends and business opportunities?

I lost a lot of friendships after I fell out with Skepchick. I realize now that most of those friendships were more akin to social allegiances: they weren’t about the individuals involved. They were about our shared interest in the goal of organized skepticism, and our shared participation in a system of social ladder-climbing within the movement. It was more about networking and validation seeking than it ever was about personal growth and real relationship building. In the end, I want to know others and I want to be known. I want to challenge and be challenged. I want growth, not hollow validation of the status quo.

Skeptics pay a lot of lip service to critical thinking and the understanding and recognition of logical fallacies. But too often, they seem blinded to their own shortcomings by the very nature of humans as social creatures. They fall into the same tribal traps as the believers they claim to oppose.

The ever-roiling battle over the place of women in the movement is rife with evidence of this kind of tribal defensiveness, on both sides. Those who represent the “old guard” do not want to admit that they might have been complicit in creating an unwelcoming environment, so they minimize or outright deny women’s stories about sexual harassment within the community. Meanwhile, those fighting to create a more welcoming environment for women, exposed to a lot of threats and nonsense on the internet, close ranks and have a hard time engaging in discussion with well-meaning dissenters, because it becomes impossible to differentiate between the well-meaning dissenter and the internet troll.

Both are perfectly natural reactions. But I expect more from self-proclaimed skeptics. I expect self-critique and intellectual honesty. I expect humble and respectful discourse. I expect, at the very least, some kind of acknowledgement of human fallibility and a willingness to look in the mirror before lashing out. And yes, I expect failure. None of us is perfect, and our set of skeptical values is a difficult one to live up to. Self-criticism is difficult. It is also something that our culture discourages.

Social belonging is important. The presence of the social side of organized skepticism gives many people motivation and support to carry out projects they would not otherwise have the strength or resources to complete. I don’t deny the value in that. But it also creates an environment where people can insulate themselves from the effects of challenges to their assertions by surrounding themselves in a consensus bubble where everyone validates everyone else, as long as they stick to the party line. This is one of the primary mechanisms for the continued prevalence of religious belief.

Part of what it means to be a skeptic is to remain open, even welcoming, to new challenges. To be challenged is to be presented with information which contradicts our existing thought patterns, and to gain an opportunity to consider something we’ve taken for granted in a different light. Even if the end result is that our worldview remains intact, it has been strengthened by the process of working through the challenge.

More than a few skeptics think of religious believers as weak-minded cowards who lack the fortitude to stand on their own two feet in the face of the vast uncertainty that is existence. They see religion as a crutch. Well, I would argue that many skeptics, especially those engaged in the social aspect of the movement, treat their belonging to the group as just such a crutch.

Is it too much to ask that they recognize their own cowardice and try to move beyond it?