Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.


[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

I said in my post criticizing the Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions page that I agreed with various people that it would be a good idea to have spaces where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions or say “politically incorrect” things that would then be discussed calmly and charitably, with no backlash or criticism. The question, though, is what that kind of space would look like and how it would work.

Here’s what I envision (there are other ways this could work, of course, this is just one idea):

A subreddit, much like AskScience or AskHistorians, called something like AskSocialJustice or PoliticallyIncorrectEducate (like Transeducate, a great subreddit)

  • You have a verification system that gives flair (tags next to your username, essentially) that indicates what your field of knowledge is. Things like “sexism” or “racism”, or perhaps framing it the other way “feminism” or “anti-racism.” Just as in AskScience or AskHistorians, it might be optimal to have only academics in the subject be given flair, but I’d be happy to have Jessica Valenti or Ta-Nehisi Coates in there, obviously. People who know a lot about the subject and are accustomed to writing about it.
  • The rules in the sidebar are:
    • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
    • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
    • Questions that are good questions but not phrased as well as they could be get rewritten, with the original in strikeout (I don’t even know if this is possible). This lets questions from people who don’t know as much through, but keeps things more respectful and demonstrates how discourse should work.
    • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and also mention to people that they’re being less respectful or helpful than they could be, and give concrete advice and even rewritings of the comment or question to model what the discourse should look like.
  • Mods also allow any good responses, but emphasize the flaired/tagged experts on the topic

So in the end what I envision is questions like:

  • Why can’t I use the word X, but other people can?
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a Y, doesn’t it just mean blah blah blah?
  • Why do Z people always do A? (Actually, this one would probably get rewritten as “I notice that Z people are more likely to do A than Y people. Why?” so that we encourage people to write what they observe instead of what they infer.
  • I know it’s a stereotype, but actually, B’s totally always do C.
  • Is G X-ist?

And I envision the responses being of the form:

  • Well, here’s the history of that word and what it means to people and what harm it causes when non-Z people use it.
  • So, in some sense, Y does mean that, but its meaning has changed because of these historical events, and now this is the effect it has on people.
  • You may notice that because you’re influenced by the stereotype of Z doing A, and so you don’t notice that Y does A a lot as well. It may also be that they’re more likely to as a result of alpha, beta and gamma cultural influences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does A bother you?
  • Well, B actually isn’t true. The statistics indicate that C is a lot more common, even though popular media and even news outlets emphasize B far more.
  • G certainly comes out of an X-ist culture, and it might perpetuate it, but the benefits of G could outweigh those in the cases of R, S and T.

Responses would follow the guidelines of charity and civility laid by myself, Dan Fincke and others. They would be academically rigorous but as free of jargon as was humanly possible, and accessible to readers of a variety of educational levels. Responses would also contain concrete advice for how to act or what to say, giving useful potential scripts where helpful. Questions asked frequently would probably end up constituting their own page that people would get linked to if they asked the same ones.

That way, people of all beliefs, from the merely curious to the rabidly racist, get their questions answered, and they stay anonymous. They get thoughtful, charitable answers filled with resources, should they want to investigate further. The answers are logically and academically rigorous, and delivered without moral judgement or abuse, even if moral judgement would in general be thoroughly warranted. (I think there would also be a way to say, “Yes, that’s X-ist and it’s an awful thing to say to someone. Here’s why..) within these guidelines, since that doesn’t have the same effect as simply calling them an awful person. There would be plenty of empirical data provided whenever possible. Responses would emphasize the real, tangible ways that bigotry and prejudice affect people and their lives, so as to cultivate empathy, but also place responses in historical, economic, political and sociological context.

What do you all think? Would this work? Would these spaces be good? Productive? Would they still “make bigotry fester”? (Which I’m not really sure is a thing) . Would they still hurt people and spread bigotry? What would you add or take away from the rules or approach? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

Green Donate

In Which Geek Culture Is Not, In Fact, Perfect: Female Role Models

So there’s this image going around:

What’s going on here? Female Role Models are selected from “popular culture” and “geek culture,” the viewer is supposed to instantly understand how vastly superior the latter are. Why?

Well, since much of geek culture is constructed and circumscribed by the all-important trait of knowing and caring nothing of “celebrities” and “popular culture”, it’s probably not because everyone recognizes all of the women on top, realizes that by their actions or opinions they are poor role models for young girls and thus agrees with the image. More likely the women being cast into the “NO” pile for what one might want one’s daughters to be fall into two categories: Try As They Might To Deny It, Geeks Know Some Celebrities And These Are Some Of Them That They Know And Hate and Scantily Dressed. Note: These categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they pretty much overlap entirely.

Snooki (top left) and Kim Kardashian (middle top), as near as I can tell, are famous because they are famous. I’ve never seen Keeping up with the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, so maybe I’m not qualified to discuss, but they have personalities and lives which people like to observe. It may not be everyone’s dream for their child, but I’m having trouble understanding why they’re really all that bad. Kristen Stewart makes the line-up more complicated, since I’m almost certain that she’s meant to be representing not herself, but Bella Swan. If anyone knows of any particular reason Kristen Stewart is a bad person/role model, they should let me know in comments. I’m not going to discuss the matter of whether or not Bella Swan is a good role model. She’s certainly boy-obsessed, largely passive and strangely non-troubled by some very problematic behavior on the part of her suitors, but she’s als0 intelligent and has sexual agency. So…it’s complicated?

I’m really baffled as to why Lady Gaga is on the list. She’s an LGBT activist, a philanthropist, a kink-aware artist and she likes to play with social norms through fashion and other behavior. The problem is what? That she’s a conventionally attractive woman who is dressed sexily in the photo shown? Wouldn’t want my daughter ever wearing less clothing than I deem appropriate. Gross. Nothing at all like any of the women in the bottom column (*cough* all the way on the left *cough*). In fact, it seems like that might be the problem with all of the women on the top row. They’re conventionally sexy/are in pictures that are geared to illustrate that fact, and we’re supposed to hate them for it.

It’s that, or it’s that they represent pop culture, which we’re supposed to hate all the time anyway. (This notion deserves its own post).

On the other hand, the characters in the bottom row are sexy, but not over sexualized. They’re talented, intelligent, respected, in positions of leadership and can wield a weapon with flair and skill. Great! Go Geek Culture! No problems here.

You, convenient foil in the back, you want to say something?

“Yes, I think it might be worthwhile to recognize that the women on the top (aside from Bella Swan) are real people whereas those on the bottom are fictional, meaning that the potential perfection and badassery is much higher for the Geek Culture set.”

An excellent point. On the right, obligatory Devil’s Advocate, you have a response?

“Ok, but it’s still important to point out that popular culture glorifies women who aren’t famous for any particularly admirable characteristics like those mentioned above but rather for more superficial traits whereas geek culture does a much better job elevating useful and important aspects of womanhood in their portrayals thereof.”

*snort* Sorry, that was unladylike. While I finish laughing, I’ll let Ellen Lundgren (who also blogged about this very issue here) explain why that’s ridiculous.

Well said (though she did not create the image).

It’s still complicated. For example, Leia is indeed dressed gratuitously sexily and the outfit she is wearing is intended to make her a sex object. But that’s the only time in the movie where that occurs, it’s a punishment by the villain, and she’s a generally badass character. Also, Carrie Fisher requested more interesting outfits to wear.

But it’s by far the most common portrayal of her at Comic/Nerd/Geek Conventions, and dressing that way is highly rewarded by the Geek Community. (Please go read that link, it’s wonderful, and the video linked directly prior is very telling). Sexism is a problem in Geek Culture, and that means it cannot go around claiming that it is a producer of solely Good Role Models for Girls. Ellen is totally right to point that out.

If you’re still skeptical, go check out Geek Feminism. And these analyses of the Starfire reboot. And how female superhero’s bodies are contorted in sci-fi and comic books. And the way Anita Sarkeesian of the amazing Feminist Frequency has been treated for attempting to explore the way women are portrayed in popular videogames. Then come back and tell me you want your daughters (or sons, for that matter) growing up in unexamined geek culture.

Absolutely buy your daughter a ray gun instead of a Barbie*. But don’t consider yourself the enlightened elite unless you’re fighting the battle on other fronts, too. No free passes.

*For the purposes of this post, we’re ignoring the problems with glorifying violence for children, the disconnect between the admirable traits of intelligence, leadership and self-respect demonstrated by the characters in the bottom row of the first picture and what a ray-gun signifies, the gender essentializing and socializing and the possible femme-phobia associated with the denigration of a doll.

Breaking News: There is Sexism on Twitter

(cross posted on the GALS blog)

“Gross”, “disgusting”, “nasty”. “Get away from me”.

What could the internet have found so revolting? You’d think the subject matter of the twitterati’s latest target was a new sex tape that involved both necrophilia and bestiality and was thus finally shocking enough to horrify the mainstream judgement cloud that is Twitter (until the next trending topic came up, of course). Or perhaps it was an Actual Bad Thing like a celebrity domestic abuser.

Ah, me, no. The grossest thing the internet could imagine was a woman somewhere out there in the world, not applying sharp metal blades or hot melted wax to her skin. The horror!

We, the reasonable majority, might start to think about the women that we know, how in particular, they are not one unshaven day away from causing us to vomit every time they walk into a room. We might start to think that a twitter storm implying such a thing might start to make women put down, self-conscious and shamed. We might come to believe that sentiments expressed with such internet behavior are foolish and harmful, and that we need to push back. And we would be right.

The Occasion: No Shave November. Also known as Movember, or Novembeard, NSN is a yearly tradition in which people don’t shave for a month, in an effort to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research. As you may be able to tell from the latter naming options, it has traditionally been focused on men. I don’t really have a problem with that. I understand that cancer research and awareness can be best served by snazzy, hip campaigns that appeal to people’s self-interest and sense of identity. This tactic can go terribly wrong, of course, as we’ve seen in the ‘pinkification’ of breast cancer. But in general, it’s fine for Movember to involve mainly men and market the idea mainly to men and even to emphasize the manliness of beards in order to do it.

But. But! When a phenomenon like No Shave November goes viral, it becomes so decentralized as to lack any organization that could alter the event to be more inclusive. This has obvious benefits, since it’s supposed to be, in some ways, something that people (read: men) just do because it’s fun and silly and exciting and yes, also because it’s for a good cause. Unfortunately, this means that the public face of No Shave November, as analyzed through twitter, becomes a cesspool of male privilege and pangendered body shaming.

No shave November does not apply to females… I repeat: No shave November DOES NOT apply to females. That is all”
“Just Witnessed A Female Who C L E A R L Y Started -No Shave November-. Ughhhh. Nasty AF”
“No shave November doesn’t apply to women. That’s disgusting.
“No Shave November is meant for men, NOT women!!!”

And I could go on and on and on and on…(note: these came from all genders).

Seriously, now? Has women’s body hair been killing people? Engaging in public urination? Eating people’s hamsters without justifiable cause? No? Oh, it’s just existing on women’s bodies in a totally sanitary and natural way in the same way it does on men’s bodies. And that is apparently enough to provoke an onslaught of self-indulgent narcissistic personal preference sharing tweeting, all of it entirely oblivious to the vast social and political consequences of such an overwhelming condemnation of women who do not shave their bodies.

I, for one, am fed up. Fed up with the silliness of caring so much about what other people look like, even when it doesn’t affect you. Fed up with the totally unfair beauty standards to which women are held and shamed if they do not. Fed up with the internet helping to create a society where it’s ok to make a perfectly normal preteen girl feel like she’s less of a woman if she doesn’t pull out the razors immediately on her twelfth birthday. And really really fed up with a culture that focuses more on the fact that women aren’t shaving than on the fact that they’re fighting prostate cancer.

But what is to be done? The internet is a devastatingly unappealing place at times, but it would be politically lazy to therefore do nothing. We have the choice to let the internet conquer feminism, or to make feminism conquer the internet.

Sexists may be all over the internet for now, but remember: their public forums are ours as well. We can use the same tools and turn their awful messages on their heads. We can call out sexism where we see it. We can spread supportive, healthy messages to the entire Internet community.

And we already are! The feminist blogosphere exists, of course, but even just in this case, check out this woman, who is calling out sexism. And this guy was really happy we, the anti-sexists, existed. Sure I received some unpleasant replies to my requests for a saner, less misogynistic world, but again, if the sexists can use twitter as a public forum, so can we. We can say things like, “Stop shaming women for their personal choices. Especially if they’re trying to fight prostate cancer” We can even change some minds. We can hopefully reach many who may be made hopeful by the sheer existence of those willing to question the assumption that women must naturally have a higher standard of beauty inconvenience.

A woman who doesn’t shave her legs does not harbor the seeds of destruction of a civilized and hygienic society, and one who does it in the name of raising money for prostate cancer research is praiseworthy, not disgusting, and she should be lauded, not shamed. This is worth saying. Over and over again, in conversation and on the internet. It may be saddening or disturbing that it has to be said at all, but that is no excuse for inaction on our parts. If feminism has done anything, it has given us a voice. Let’s use it to make a more equal society, 140 characters at a time.

Also check out a friend’s take on the same issue at Teen Skepchick.
If you want to donate to the cause, check out the Prostate Cancer Foundation

Comprehending Cat-Calling

So, I just wrote partly about objectification in my last post, but a fairly interesting idea came to me a few days ago and I kind of wanted to discuss it. As a premise, I feel that fashion, like so many other things, is a language. It speaks both to the public at large and to the wearer, sometimes in the same way, and sometimes in entirely different ways. For example, I was once at a frat party in order to keep a friend, who was collecting money, company. I had no intention of going inside, I wasn’t in a frat party mood, and I had come from elsewhere, so I was wearing a skirt to my knees and a long sleeved T-shirt. That said to the world something along the lines of, “I don’t really belong here.” Or, “I’m not like you.” Which I suppose is a step up from what my fashion choices usually say, which is “I don’t really care about fashion, I just wear clothes because they serve certain practical purposes.” Anyway, that’s fine that that’s what they said, but to me, they had an entirely different message. They communicated, “Chana, you are a beautiful girl who could easily, with the right motivation or desire, feel sexy dressing the way these girls do, and that would be fine. But you feel sexy now, wearing this, and that is very cool.”
Anyway, back to the story.
So, I was in a not entirely good mood, and I wanted to dress in a way that said, “I am beautiful and wonderful and here I am.” So I put on a skirt and T-shirt or whatever and walked to class. On the way, I had a few interactions that I really enjoyed, talking and saying hi to strangers. And then, at some point, a car full of guys drove by and whistled or made some comment. I don’t exactly remember. But I didn’t mind, much, which is unusual for me. Interestingly, a twitterer I follow, named feministhulk (who is great, by the way), said something recently about this exact phenomenon. The twitter account releases impassioned statements in all caps, and this one said, “HULK TRY TO OPEN MIND, SMASH EPISTEMOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS WHICH LIMIT HULK’S THOUGHT, BUT HULK WILL NEVER GET CAT-CALLING.”
So my original thoughts on cat-calling were not particularly well-defined. I thought that, in general, it created a hostile environment and was fairly skeevy and an all-around bad way of telling someone you find them attractive. It makes women feel like they’re always, constantly being judged, and even if that’s true, there’s no reason why it has to be obnoxiously nailed into their heads in such an obvious and crude manner. I had little respect for men who took part in such activities, especially because it seemed more like frat-boy male bonding than anything else, and at the expense of someone’s ease and comfort in their environment. At the same time, I was aware that as I physically matured, there was an element of excitement and appreciation for a no-commitment positive commentary on my appearance. A cheap and superficial route to validation, to be sure, but not necessarily inherently evil. The general principle I derived was that to seek to be sexually appealing in order to draw compliments in order to boost self-esteem or something similar is fairly disgusting. However, the general act of wanting to be seen as sexually attractive is not. That’s a perfectly legitimate message to send, though one should certainly be aware of it. So I sort of understand cat-calling.
Anyway, much more interestingly, this new idea I had struck me as I thought about whether or not, in this instance, I’d been objectified. My answer was, well, I don’t feel particularly objectified, and those guys drove off so quickly that they weren’t able to make me feel trapped in a hostile environment, so maybe not. I mean, I’m clearly inhabiting my body, I am a subject, and so, in this case, I’ll say no. But as I went through this line of reasoning, I realized I wasn’t thinking of the guys as people; in fact, they had become part of my environment. I had sent a message to the environment, and it had responded in a way I was not only not uncomfortable with, in this case I had liked. Which is fine, I suppose, but note that those men had, unwittingly, objectified themselves.
So why is objectification bad? Not just for the obvious reasons. But because it objectifies you. In calling out anonymously, cravenly, you become part of the environment rather than a person in your own right.
Confession: Once I was walking around the streets of northern Chicago with some girlfriends, and we’d been hollered at incessantly for the better part of an hour. So when I saw a van full of teenage boys drive by, I yelled, “Looking good, boys!” which at the time, I thought was hilarious. I realized some inconsistency, but they’d seemed to appreciate it. But now I realize, that not only does that sort of behavior continue the cycle of objectification, it doesn’t do me any favors. Two arguments better than one?