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One of the things that intrigues me most about the rise of the internet is the ways in which it fundamentally alters social structures. Virtual and physical reality afford different forms of interaction, differences people are only beginning to acknowledge. These affordances don't make one aspect of reality "better" than the other, just different. That difference is unavoidable, but my real interest lies in the ways these aspects of reality co-define one another. Events like GamerGate expose how violence can fulminate in virtual spaces until it spills over into physical spaces. But I believe that an understanding of how virtuality and physicality reinforce each other can also be used to construct a safer and more just world.

Over the past week I had a number of conversations with folks about these differences between physicality and virtuality. On tuesday I talked with Rob for a few hours about how economies of information and economies of material are incommensurable (tangled up with a discussion of the systems- and game-theoretic roots of why capitalism is fundamentally flawed)— an interesting topic, but one for another post. But I also talked with S, and later briefly with Lindsey, about an anthropological concern I've been meaning to write about for some while.

There is an unavoidably accidental nature to physical reality. Physicality has an immediacy that cannot be ignored, and the inability to freely reroute through other pathways means we are constantly bumping into one another. Asking a stranger for directions or if this seat is taken; overhearing conversations on the bus; running into that little-known would-be-friend on the street; and yes also the ill-met accidents. In contrast, virtuality is —for now— inescapably intentional. You can't just stumble upon new friendships, but must go looking for them. You can't foster relationships through the familiarity of a quiet presence, but must speak out to maintain them.

To reiterate, neither intentionality nor accidentiality is inherently superior— especially for those of us on the margins. Most of my relationships have started out accidentally. To pick a few: I met K when I happened to audit a class she was in, and she recognized me from the comic store she works at; I met S when she caught me checking her out in a busy hallway; I met L when her boyfriend at the time was ignoring her at a mutual friend's birthday party. None of these interactions are the sort that avail themselves online. We may recognize handles seen elsewhere, but that seldom leads to a "where do I know you from? let's have dinner" moment. While we can flirt online, it's much harder to feel out the other party for whether they're receptive. And we cannot readily see those sitting silent in dejected corners. But despite whatever accidental beginnings, my deepest relationships have always been grown online. Relationships are always forged in a shared vulnerability, but the experiences of us on the margins are often too vulnerable to speak aloud. Exposing the details of a life of violence and minoritization requires the emotional safety of intentional spaces. The abilities to edit, to wait, to breathe, to digest, to scroll through history; for those of us who have never had safety in the physical world, these abilities provide a structure that permits us to to be vulnerable without risking our health.

But while intentionality can be used to construct spaces in which to open ourselves, it also constructs spaces which trap us into ourselves. To find safety in online spaces it is necessary to be able to block out those who would cause us harm; but the intentionality of this blocking out makes it easy to block out too much, and so to lock us into our ways of being. A key example here is the possibility for reconciliation. In any relationship there is always the threat of breakage. When a relationship breaks we block the other out, but in physical spaces these blocks seldom last forever. At first we may avoid places the other frequents, but in time this fades from memory. When living in physical proximity there is always the possibility for an accidental encounter, and in that accident the possibility for reconciliation. Walking down the street we can bump into ex-friends and ex-lovers, and depending on the circumstances of the break, these bumps can provide a means for renewal— to wit: a chance for growth and change. However, in virtual spaces we have no mechanism for such accidents. Once we block or mute others, there is never an incentive to revisit these choices. Ironically, the less we recall the slight —and so the greater the chance for reconciliation—, the less likely we are to revisit the choice, since doing so requires an explicit intention to reconnect, and that intention risks renewing the rupture since it's explicitness calls to mind the reason for the separation.

I think the possibility of reconciliation is necessary for healthy communities. (E.g., the inability to reconcile is, imo, part of why politics in the US have grown ever more polarized.) But it is unclear how to develop a virtual society which affords reconciliation. Simply having blocks expire in some timely fashion is unacceptable; most blocks stem not from broken relationships, but rather from the need to defend oneself from violence. The locality of physical space provides a strong defense against certain forms of violence: you can (at least in principle) move away from bigots and abusers. Whereas the non-locality of virtual space precludes this defense: there is no "elsewhere" to go. Of course, this non-locality is also one of the greatest strengths of virtual spaces, as it enables marginalized peoples to connect over long physical distances.

I don't yet have a conclusion. It's just something I've been thinking about off and on for a few years. And was reminded since bumping into an ex-friend; though, alas, we didn't get the chance to try and reconnect.

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Hi NCTE,

I took the US Trans Survey a while back and had some feedback, though I forgot to include it in the survey itself. In particular, my comment is about the gender/identity portion of the survey (question 2.2). It's great that you include a variety of nonbinary identities (fa'afafine, mahu, genderqueer, genderfluid, two-spirit, third gender,...) but I noticed a severe bias in terms of the more binary options. You offer a variety of options for masculine-of-center folks (AG, butch, stud,...) but you offer zero options for feminine-of-center folks. This contributes to the ongoing problem of femme/feminine erasure in feminist and LGBT communities. I identify very strongly as femme, in fact it's one of the few labels I "identify" with— far moreso than I "identify" with trans, fwiw.

While I did write in under the "other" option, I worry that this only serves to contribute to the ongoing erasure and underrepresentation of feminine identities. Having worked on a number of these sorts of surveys, here's a short list of reasons why:

  • Feminine-of-center folks will be undercounted because many will not feel strongly enough to write in.
  • The presentation of specific choices for masculine-of-center identities helps to funnel people towards particular terms, improving their statistical significance; whereas the lack of explicit options for feminine-of-center folks will result in a larger diversity of terms, thus decreasing each term's likelihood of reaching significance.
  • Attempting to correct for the previous point by aggregating all feminine-of-center identities serves to erase the diversity of femme/feminine identities: "femme" forms no more a singular identity than AG/butch/stud/etc forms a singular identity. The distinctions between high femme, hard femme, tomboy femme, etc are just as important as the distinctions between varieties of nonbinary or masculine-of-center identities.

While it is too late now to correct the 2015 survey, I do hope you take this into consideration when choosing how to report your results and when designing future surveys.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

I talk about a number of sensitive topics: depression, cPTSD, child abuse, sexism. Every one of these are topics where you risk damaging or ruining your career simply by bringing them up. And, believe it or not, I'm actually a rather private person; I do not discuss my personal life as part of casual chit-chat, I do not "accidentally" share personal details, and even mundane goings-on I prefer not to mention except among friends. So why, then, do I speak about these topics? Why make myself uncomfortable and risk devastating financial repercussions? The reasons I speak haven't changed much over the years (though the way I think about those reasons has). And yet, I don't think I've ever given a clear explication of these reasons and what I hope to achieve by my words. It's time to correct that.

I speak as a form of active political resistance against the silence culture that pervades the US (and surely the rest of the world). I do not discuss my history as a form of confession, nor as a form of exhibitionism; I talk about my past in order to perform my politics. I've talked about silence culture before, and today I want to unpack that a bit more by distinguishing between two different forms that silence culture takes.

A Note on Terminology

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD) is a variant of PTSD that arises from long-term exposure to trauma. Simple PTSD results from acute trauma —e.g., a single violent encounter, or short-term exposure to warfare—, whereas complex PTSD results from repeated exposure to trauma over an extended period —e.g., childhood abuse where the child lives with the abuser, or living in a war-torn region. The complexity of cPTSD stems both from the extended/repeated nature of the trauma, and from the pervasive/inescapable nature of the traumatic environment. Together these undermine any sense of self-worth, personal safety, or ability to trust others. (cf., cPTSD Light, Out of the Fog, EMDR-web)

In the past I've always talked about "PTSD", because "cPTSD" did not exist when I was diagnosed. However, I'm a text-book example for cPTSD— both symptomatically and etiologically. Consequently, henceforth I will refer to my experiences as cPTSD, both for clarity/specificity and to raise awareness of the distinction. As if it needed stating: I still stand with those who live with "simple" PTSD, and will continue to advocate for awareness of and sensitivity to their experiences.

Internal Silence Culture

The internal culture of silence is a specific form of psychological violence used to sustain abusive environments. This is the kind of culture that says, "what happens in the family, stays in the family." This apophthegm shows up in alcoholic families, in families with mental illness1, in sexually abusive families, in intimate partner violence, in sexist and racist work environments, in acquaintance rape, in fraternity gang rape, and countless other abusive social groups. In all these situations, enculturated victims teach the new generation of victims that the outside world is dangerous, that they cannot trust it because it will betray them ("unlike the family"), that talking about the physical, sexual, and psychological violence will delegitimize and harm the one who speaks out, that talking about this violence will "embarrass" the family or other social unit, and that the damage of this loss of face will be greater than the damage from the violence itself. Sometimes abusers also teach this message, either by presenting themselves as "the real victim" or by threatening increased violence should the victim go public. But the culture of silence cannot be maintained without the complicity of enculturated victims.

The discussions and disclosures in my youth had the goal of disrupting this internal silence. By speaking out about the specifics of my own trauma, disclosing who enacted which forms of violence, and how they were themselves victims of violence, I took control of my life away from my abusive family. By speaking openly, I ensure that others in similar situations know they are not alone, and know that they too can break their silence. By naming the demon, we can tame it. By disclosing generations of abuse we make ourselves open to the possibility of breaking that chain instead of repeating the cycle once more with our own children.

Most of these discussions of my personal history happened years ago. I don't know how much they can be traced back to me now, since the bulk of them happened in the mid- and late 1990s when anonymity and pseudonymity were de rigueur. But I don't care. The only thing I regret is my youthful naivete and whatever ways I hurt people along the way— including my previous inability to see my abusers as fully human, as simply reenacting the abuse they themselves were raised with2. Though I do not give the specific details anymore, I am fine with these details being part of the public record. I am not —and will not be— embarrassed by my history. The past is a mere collection of facts; it cannot compel my silence. By neutralizing my own embarrassment, I know that at least on a personal level my politics have been successful. The more I can help others to neutralize their embarrassment and guilt about speaking out, the better. And I am not above enumerating the details once more if that is what's required.

External Silence Culture

More recently I've switched away from talking about my history with abuse, and towards talking about how living with depression and cPTSD affects my daily life. This is a shift in focus, not intent. I used to only be aware of internal silence, and tailored my activism accordingly; but now I realize there is another form of silence, one which is much less discussed and therefore more in need of awareness.

The external culture of silence is the systemic means by which a community fails to recognize (or refuses to admit) that it has a problem. It is the silence which allows each compagnie to realize and internally discuss the problem, while the community at large remains ignorant. It is how failure of communication prevents local/specific knowledge from becoming global/universal knowledge.

External silence culture often takes the form of superficial acknowledgement of a problem while perpetuating it via ignorance or misunderstanding of its root causes. A prime example is the way certain men acknowledge that sexism is a problem, but then turn around and enact the same sexist culture they decry in their blog posts. Another is how we can admit that, in the US, one-in-11 people are affected by some form of depression and one-in-24 people live with major depressive disorder (CDC), but then on an individual level most americans refuse to believe they know anyone with depression. Or how we can admit that depression costs US employers 44 billion dollars per annum in lost productive time, but then we turn around and stigmatize people for seeking treatment.

I do not believe this failure to recognize how our communities perpetuate the problems they nominally oppose can be brushed off as "mere" hypocrisy. There's a deeper issue than logical inconsistency going on here. Systemic failures can never be explained by idiosyncratic failures. This failure of communication is due to enculturated systems of silence and to a failure to appreciate how global interactions are constructed through local, personal interactions. As a species, we do not understand how to interpret facts like "one-in-N people"; we can believe these facts to be true without recognizing how that truth must be immanent in the personal microcosm of our daily surroundings.2.5 This mode of cognitive failure is perfectly natural, which is why we must take explicit steps to disrupt and forestall it.

This is why I talk about the fact that I live with depression and cPTSD. By making this public knowledge, in refuting the sanist assumption, I deny people the ability to believe they don't know anyone with these conditions. I don't say "there are lots of people with depression", I say "I am a person with depression", I say "you know someone who has attempted suicide". I make it personal. The logic here is the same as the logic behind Out & Proud. By making it personal, by going on with our daily lives and yet not allowing these lives to be masked over by normative assumptions, we help those around us to realize that we are everywhere, that we have always been here, and that we are already part of that thing they call "normal".

One of the ways silence is encultured is in all the things we don't feel the need to say when among "our own kind". With people like ourselves there is less need to discuss certain details; they already know, and so we can speak in analogies, allusions, and assumptions. But when we take this dialect of implicit communication into larger communities, our words are misunderstood and misconstrued because the audience fails to hear the content in what we do not-say and presumes the content of what they expect us to not-say. The problem here is not that we communicate meaning through the not-saying of particular things— the use of implicit communication typically increases the efficiency of communication, and it's an essential component of how groups foster intimacy. The problem is being unaware of the fact that there are many dialects of subtle communication, and being uncritical of our assumption that the audience knows which dialect we are using and understands how it should be interpreted. Subtle communication is why satire is such an effective shibboleth (Arthur Chu), and why George W. Bush can give speeches which are interpreted radically differently by evangelical Christians and the rest of the country (Craig Unger, William Safire, inter alia).

This is why I talk about what it is like to live with depression and cPTSD. By discussing their specific, ongoing influence on the ways I interact with the world, I'm explaining one of those dialects of assumed experience. Just knowing that I have depression is not enough to understand what it means, how it affects who I am and what I do. We need explanations like the spoon theory, depression quest, mainichi. Before the spoon theory was vocalized in 2003 people with chronic conditions would try to explain how our lives are just plain harder, but non-spoonies misinterpreted our words as "laziness" or "whininess". That references to spoons are so ubiquitous now, is because of the specific ways that explanation serves to make this aspect of life real to those who do not live it.

Beyond "illness", "cures", and the eventive mythology of trauma

In cognitive science there's the concept of umwelt3: an organism's lived experience of their surroundings. To understand why animals behave in certain ways it is not sufficient to know about their environment: the animal does not make decisions based on our perception of their environment, they make decisions based on their own observations and internal conceptions of these surroundings. The senses at our disposal are not like tools in a drawer that we can pick up or discard at a whim. Our senses are fundamentally ingrained in the fabric of reality: reality cannot exist to us without our perceiving it, and we cannot perceive any aspects of reality which lay outside our sensory capabilities. There is no unified "reality", at least not in any way that's helpful to daily life. Each of us inhabits different worlds, and each of these worlds is structured by our personal and specific perceptive, physical, cognitive, and social capabilities.

When people hear "PTSD" they think of veterans waking from nightmares, as if the condition is a punctual event with the effects of rewatching a scary movie. People don't realize that when we say we are "haunted" by our pasts, we mean it in the full gothic sense of the word. Our pasts, our memories are a demonic possession. They cast a pall over interactions, corrode friendships, corrupt vision with spectral intruder-attackers, poison socialization with projected phantasmagoric intentions. The haunting leeches into every waking moment, draining their color —except for harsh glaring garish splotches—, and when all those waking moments have been polluted it seeps into the dreamworld, hungry for more. The severity of the haunting varies, of course. And the possession sometimes goes into remission, hiding away to strike again later. And some of us aren't plagued by revenants or sluagh, we have poltergeists: spiritual agents that move things when we aren't looking, that are mostly quiet but always directing us down their crooked paths, with loud bangs and broken furniture if need be.

PTSD —like depression, and like anxiety— is not an event, it's a mode of living. Although we must talk about the events which gave rise to these conditions (to end our internalized silence), doing so allows our society to continue believing in and perpetuating the mythology that trauma causes an event of suffering rather than causing a state of suffering. This mythology includes the belief that mental "illness" can be "cured", that it is a transient condition without long-term repercussions. While acute depression4 is short-term, I'm not so sure it should be considered transient: 80% of people who've had a depressive episode go on to have another (Fava, Park, & Sonino). Contrarily, major depressive disorder —aka "depression"— is, by definition, an ongoing condition. Similarly, while simple PTSD can also be short-term5, the existence of complex PTSD suggests that simple PTSD is not transient. Conditions like cPTSD, depression, and anxiety are not something that goes away. We need to accept that fact and talk about them accordingly. We need to teach people how to live productive and fulfilling lives, not teach them to pin hopes on a "cure". Pretending it will go away causes disappointment, guilt, and embarrassment about not having "gotten over" it yet. And pretending it'll go away contributes to the continued marginalization of people who live with these chronic conditions. Pretending that depression, anxiety, and cPTSD are "illnesses" that will "go away" causes real and lasting psychological damage; and it does so in the exact same way as pretending child abuse will "go away" if we don't talk about it, and that pretending one's sexual orientation is an "illness" or that it might "go away" if ignored.

By refocusing my speech on what it's like to live with depression and cPTSD, one goal is to combat this mythology of a "disease" with a "cure", but the bigger goal is to inject some humanity into the public conception of people with these conditions. The spoon theory works because snatching spoons out of someone's hand creates a visceral reaction, which induces a personal experience of the claim that "life is harder", and thus causes one to view people with chronic conditions as expressing authentic human responses to living in a particular kind of world— even when that world isn't the one the snatchee is used to inhabiting. When I speak of my paranoia about releasing writings into the world, or the fear that masculinized cultures induce in women, or the panic I experience whenever I have the presumption to share deep personal opinions, or the rage I feel at people dismissing the monumental pain of living, my goal in all these disclosures is to help people see —for once— that I am human. That my responses are authentic, that they are responses shared by countless others who live in worlds like the one I inhabit. We are not diagnoses, we are not labels, we are not identities; we are human. We do not feel the need to describe our umwelt to one another, but you know not how to read the meaning we utter in the gaps between words. And this is why I speak, if you can but hear.

Afterword

While editing the above post, I became aware of an abusive campaign against Zoë Quinn (the creator of Depression Quest) orchestrated by a malicious ex. This sort of invasive, dehumanizing, personalized attack is not at all uncommon— for women. If you are a man, you cannot comprehend what this is like because it is a form of gendered violence tailored exclusively to women. This is part of our umwelt. As women, our realities are shaped by the ever-present threat that our sexualities will be weaponized against us.

This highlights a very different reason I am open about my past. By being open about these things, I ensure that they cannot be used against me in the sort of "revelatory" smear campaign Quinn is facing. Make no mistake, my sexuality and psychology will be used against me. Openly handing men the ammunition only prevents them from engaging in this one specific form of violence. While I prefer to think of my openness as active political resistance, the fact is my openness is also a form of triage. A way of defending against the worst of the misogyny I must face for daring to exist. Perhaps I will unpack this motivation a bit more in another post.


[1] I really hate the term "mental illness". It's medicalizing and pathologizing. When people find out I wear glasses they barely even notice; why should finding out whether I take meds be any different? My height also has significant health repercussions, but noone talks about my "vertical illness". My brain is no more magical than my eyes or my spine. Unfortunately, I don't know of a suitable alternative to using the term MI. If you know of one, please do drop me a line.

[2] The surviving members of my family have matured significantly since my childhood, and it is not my intention to malign the people they have become by discussing the harm they inflicted on me throughout my childhood.

[2.5] Even without getting into cognitive issues, linguistic issues already forestall our ability to comprehend what statistics like these mean. Mark Liberman has written a number of excellent articles at Language Log about how, at present, natural language fails to adequately capture or convey probabilistic information and how this causes undue confusion between frequencies, rates, risk, odds, likelihoods, ratios of any of these, and various other probabilistic and statistical measurements. Here's one on how it's misleading to report odds ratios, counterbalanced by this piece on why (log) odds ratios are useful and have a cognitive basis.

[3] I refer here to the variation that occurs in embodied cognitive science and ecological psychology, rather than the variation that occurs in semiotics per se. So more like Gibson and less like Uexküll.

[4] The form of depression brought on by a novel traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one.

[5] EMDR-web reports being able to relieve 9/11 survivors of their simple PTSD using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Prior to writing this article I was unaware of any reliable treatment for successfully treating PTSD, and I'm still not familiar with all the literature here.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

A followup to my previous [reddit version]:

The examples are of limited utility. The problem is not a few bad apples or a few bad words; were that the case it would be easier to address. The problem is a subtle one: it's in the tone and tenor of conversation, it's in the things not talked about, in the implicitization of assumptions, and in a decentering of the sorts of communities of engagement that Haskell was founded on.

Back in 2003 and 2005, communities like Haskell Cafe were communities of praxis. That is, we gathered because we do Haskell, and our gathering was a way to meet others who do Haskell. Our discussions were centered on this praxis and on how we could improve our own doing of Haskell. Naturally, as a place of learning it was also a place of teaching— but teaching was never the goal, teaching was a necessary means to the end of improving our own understandings of being lazy with class. The assumptions implicit in the community at the time were that Haskell was a path to explore, and an obscure one at that. It is not The Way™ by any stretch of the imagination. And being a small community it was easy to know every person in it, to converse as you would with a friend not as you would online.

Over time the tone and nature of the Cafe changed considerably. It's hard to explain the shift without overly praising the way things were before or overly condemning the shift. Whereas the Cafe used to be a place for people to encounter one another on their solitary journeys, in time it became less of a resting stop (or dare I say: cafe) and more of a meeting hall. No longer a place to meet those who do Haskell, but rather a place for a certain communal doing of Haskell. I single the Cafe out only because I have the longest history with that community, but the same overall shift has occurred everywhere I've seen. Whereas previously it was a community of praxis, now it is more a community of educationalism. In the public spaces there is more teaching of Haskell than doing of it. There's nothing wrong with teaching, but when teaching becomes the thing-being-done rather than a means to an end, it twists the message. It's no longer people asking for help and receiving personal guidance, it's offering up half-baked monad tutorials to the faceless masses. And from tutorialization it's a very short path to proselytizing and evangelizing. And this weaponization of knowledge always serves to marginalize and exclude very specific voices from the community.

One class of voices being excluded is women. To see an example of this, consider the response to Doaitse Swierstra's comment at the 2012 Haskell Symposium. Stop thinking about the comment. The comment is not the point. The point is, once the problematic nature of the comment was raised, how did the community respond? If you want a specific example, this is it. The example is not in what Swierstra said, the example is in how the Haskell community responded to being called out. If you don't recall how this went down, here's the reddit version; though it's worth pointing out that there were many other conversations outside of reddit. A very small number of people acquitted themselves well. A handful of people knew how to speak the party line but flubbed it by mansplaining, engaging in flamewars, or allowing the conversation to be derailed. And a great many people were showing their asses all over the place. Now I want you to go through and read every single comment there, including the ones below threshold. I want you to read those comments and imagine that this is not an academic debate. Imagine that this is your life. Imagine that you are the unnamed party under discussion. That your feelings are the ones everyone thinks they know so much about. That you personally are the one each commenter is accusing of overreacting. Imagine that you are a woman, that you are walking down the street in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town after a long day of talks. It was raining earlier so the streets are wet. You're probably wearing flats, but your feet still hurt. You're tired. Perhaps you had a drink over dinner with other conference-goers, or perhaps not. Reading each comment, before going on to the next one, stop and ask yourself: would you feel safe if this commenter decided to follow you home on that darkened street? Do you feel like this person can comprehend that you are a human being on that wet street? Do you trust this person's intentions in being around you late at night? And ask yourself, when some other commenter on that thread follows you home at night and rapes you in the hotel, do you feel safe going to the comment's author to tell them what happened? Because none of this is academic. As a woman you go to conferences and this is how you are treated. And the metric of whether you can be around someone is not whether they seem interesting or smart or anything else, the metric is: do you feel safe? If you can understand anything about what this is like, then reading that thread will make you extremely uncomfortable. The problem is not that some person makes a comment. The problem is that masculinized communities are not safe for women. The problem is that certain modes of interaction are actively hostile to certain participants. The problem is finding yourself in an uncomfortable situation and knowing that noone has your back. Knowing that anyone who agrees with you will remain silent because they do not think you are worth the time and energy to bother supporting. Because that's what silence says. Silence says you are not worth it. Silence says you are not one of us. Silence says I do not think you are entirely human. And for all the upvotes and all the conversation my previous comment has sparked on twitter, irc, and elsewhere, I sure don't hear anyone here speaking up to say they got my back.

This is not a problem about women in Haskell. Women are just the go-to example, the example cis het middle-class educated able white men are used to engaging. Countless voices are excluded by the current atmosphere in Haskell communities. I know they are excluded because I personally watched them walk out the door after incidents like the one above, and I've been watching them leave for a decade. I'm in various communities for queer programmers, and many of the folks there use Haskell but none of them will come within ten feet of "official" Haskell communities. That aversion is even stronger in the transgender/genderqueer community. I personally know at least a dozen trans Haskellers, but I'm the only one who participates in the "official" Haskell community. Last fall I got hatemail from Haskellers for bringing up the violence against trans women of color on my blog, since that blog is syndicated to Planet Haskell. Again, when I brought this up, people would express their dismay in private conversations, but noone would say a damn thing in public nor even acknowledge that I had spoken. Ours has never been a great community for people of color, and when I talk to POC about Haskell I do not even consider directing them to the "official" channels. When Ken Shan gave the program chair report at the Haskell symposium last year, there was a similarly unwholesome response as with Swierstra's comment the year before. A number of people have shared their experiences in response to Ken's call, but overwhelmingly people feel like their stories of being marginalized and excluded "don't count" or "aren't enough to mention". Stop. Think about that. A lot of people are coming forward to talk about how they've been made to feel uncomfortable, and while telling those stories they feel the need to qualify. While actively explaining their own experiences of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, sanism, etc, they feel the simultaneous need to point out that these experiences are not out of the ordinary. Experiencing bigotry is so within the ordinary that people feel like they're being a bother to even mention it. This is what I'm talking about. This is what I mean when I say that there is a growing miasma in our community. This is how racism and sexism and ablism work. It's not smacking someone on the ass or using the N-word. It's a pervasive and insidious tone in the conversation, a thousand and one not-so-subtle clues about who gets to be included and who doesn't. And yes the sexual assaults and slurs and all that factor in, but that's the marzipan on top of the cake. The cake is made out of assuming someone who dresses "like a rapper" can't be a hacker. The cake is made out of assuming that "mother" and "professional" are exclusive categories. The cake is made out of well-actuallys and feigned surprise. And it works this way because this is how it avoids being called into question. So when you ask for specific examples you're missing the point. I can give examples, but doing so only contributes to the errant belief that bigotry happens in moments. Bigotry is not a moment. Bigotry is a sustained state of being that permeates one's actions and how one forms and engages with community. So knowing about that hatemail, or knowing about when I had to call someone out for sharing titty pictures on Haskell Cafe, or knowing about the formation of #nothaskell, or knowing about how tepid the response to Tim's article or Ken's report were, knowing about none of these specifics helps to engage with the actual problem.

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Gershom Bazerman gave some excellent advice for activism and teaching. His focus was on teaching Haskell and advocating for Haskell, but the advice is much more widely applicable and I recommend it to anyone interested in activism, social justice, or education. The piece has garnered a good deal of support on reddit— but, some people have expressed their impression that Gershom's advice is targeting a theoretical or future problem, rather than a very concrete and very contemporary one. I gave a reply there about how this is indeed a very real issue, not a wispy one out there in the distance. However, I know that a lot of people like me —i.e., the people who bear the brunt of these problems— tend to avoid reddit because it is an unsafe place for us, and I think my point is deserving of a wider audience. So I've decided to repeat it here:

This is a very real and current problem. (Regardless of whether things are less bad in Haskell communities than in other programming communities.) I used to devote a lot of energy towards teaching folks online about the ideas behind Haskell. However, over time, I've become disinclined to do so as these issues have become more prevalent. I used to commend Haskell communities for offering a safe and welcoming space, until I stopped feeling quite so safe and welcomed myself.

I do not say this to shame anyone here. I say it as an observation about why I have found myself pulling away from the Haskell community over time. It is not a deliberate act, but it is fact all the same. The thing is, if someone like me —who supports the ideology which gave rise to Haskell, who is well-educated on the issues at hand, who uses Haskell professionally, who teaches Haskell professionally, and most importantly: who takes joy in fostering understanding and in building communities— if someone like me starts instinctively pulling away, that's a problem.

There are few specific instances where I was made to feel unsafe directly, but for years there has been a growing ambiance which lets me know that I am not welcome, that I am not seen as being part of the audience. The ambiance (or should I say miasma?) is one that pervades most computer science and programming/tech communities, and things like dogmatic activism, dragon slaying, smarter-than-thou "teaching", anti-intellectualism, hyper-intellectualism, and talking over the people asking questions, are all just examples of the overarching problem of elitism and exclusion. The problem is not that I personally do not feel as welcomed as I once did, the problem is that many people do not feel welcome. The problem is not that my experience and expertise are too valuable to lose, it's that everyone's experience and expertise is too valuable to lose. The problem is not that I can't teach people anymore, it's that people need teachers and mentors and guides. And when the tenor of conversation causes mentors and guides to pull away, causes the silencing of experience and expertise, causes the exclusion and expulsion of large swaths of people, that always has an extremely detrimental impact on the community.

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[Content warning: discussion of rape culture and child abuse]

Transitioning is a mindfuck. Doesn't matter how prepared you are, how sure you are, how long and deeply you've thought about gender/sexuality issues. Outside of transitioning1 we have no way of inhabiting more than one position in any given discourse. Sure, we can understand other positions on an intellectual level, we may even sympathize with them, but we cannot empathize with what we have not ourselves experienced, and even having experienced something in the past does not mean we can continue to empathize with it in the present. Julia Serano emphasizes this epistemic limit in her books. And it's no wonder that no matter how prepared you may be, completely uprooting your sense of self and reconfiguring the way the world sees, interprets, and interacts with you is going to fundamentally alter whatever notions you had going into it all.

Since transitioning none of the major details of my identity have changed. I'm still a woman. Still feminine. Still a flaming lesbo. Still kinky, poly, and childfree. Still attracted to the same sorts of people. Still into the same sorts of fashion (though now I can finally act on that). Still interested in all the same topics, authors, and academic pursuits. And yet, despite —or perhaps because of— all this consistency, transitioning is still a mindfuck.

Read more... )
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I'd like to take this moment to point out that all forms of binarism are bad. (Including the binarist notion that all things are either "good" or "bad".) I feel like this has to be pointed out because we, every one of us, has a nasty habit: in our overzealousness to tear down one binary, we do so by reinforcing other binaries. So let me say again. All forms of binarism are bad.

It's well-known that I've had a long, fraught history with certain "feminist" communities, due to which I have heretofore disavowed that label. Because of these persistent conflicts, around ten years ago I retreated from feminist circles and communities. However, over the past year I have rejoined a number of feminist circles— or rather, I have joined womanist, black feminist, transfeminist, and queer feminist circles. And thanks to this reinvolvement with feminist activism I have come, once again, to feel a certain attachment to that word: "feminist". The attachment feels strange to me now, having disavowed it for so long in favor of "womanism", "black feminism", "transfeminism", and "queer feminism". But because of this attachment I feel, once more, the need to reclaim feminism away from those "feminist" communities whose philosophy and political methods I continue to disavow.

So, to piss everyone off once more: a manifesto. )

Edit 2014.07.13: Added footnotes [2] and [3].

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As discussed last time there's a deep-seated problem with performativity as a theory of social categorization. Specifically, it puts the focus on the wrong thing. That our actions are performative in nature gives us important insight into the role agency plays both in forming our own identities and in defending those identities against silencing, marginalization, oppression, and colonialism. But, by centering discussions of identity on our own personal agency we miss out on other important facets of the issue. When we say that someone belongs to a category, we do so because we've decided they belong to the category, or because we think they belong to the category. The statement that they belong to the category is not merely true (or false), we are projecting it to be true (or false). That is, we do not passively observe people's gender, race, class, etc; instead we actively project our own notions of gender, race, class, etc upon them. This projecting of beliefs onto others is called projectivism[1].

Interestingly, by localizing "truth" as the beliefs we hold to be true[2], the projective act is itself performative: by projecting something to be true, one comes to believe that it is true. And yet there is no reason to suppose these beliefs are correct (local truths need not be global truths), nor that they will agree with others' beliefs (local truths need not be true in other locales). Crucially, in the case of categorizing or identifying ourselves, we have access to our own personal thoughts, feelings, memories, subconscious inclinations, etc. Whereas, when others are categorizing us, they do not; they can only observe our bodies, our actions, and the results of our actions. Thus arises the discrepancy in cases like transgenderism. When self-identifying, we may well prize our internal observations over our externally observable state. Nevertheless, others will continue to project their categorizations upon us, regardless of our self-identification.

Not only do people project categories onto others, we do it compulsively. Our persistent and ubiquitous gendering of others is an especially powerful example, but it is in no way unique. Projecting race is another example. And in professional cultures where there are sharply contested borders between "tribes" (e.g., academia and hacker culture), projecting these "tribes" is yet another. This compulsive projectivism —or, more particularly, our unconsciousness of it— is where issues arise.

When we are not typically confronted with evidence that our projections are mistaken, our projectivism becomes almost unconscious. Once there, we fail to notice the fact that we are actively projecting and we come to believe we're passively observing truths about the world. So when our projections turn out to be mistaken, we get a feeling of betrayal, we feel like the person whose identity we were mistaken about was "lying" to us. This subsequent projection that they were "lying" stems from the fact that we mistook our earlier projections for mere observations. Thus, because of an original error on our part, we end up imputing that others are being dishonest or deceptive.

When the identity one desires to be seen as (which may differ from the identity they claim for themselves) is often or easily at odds with the identities projected upon them, they understandably become concerned about trying to avoid these projections of "lying". If one can successfully avoid projections of "lying" they are said to "pass", terminology which turns around and suggests that they were in fact lying the whole time and only managed not to get caught. This terminology is, of course, deeply problematic.

Simply acknowledging compulsive projectivism is not enough. To undo the damage caused by misgendering, racial profiling, stereotyping, and other misprojections, we must lift this knowledge up and remain consciously aware that the beliefs we project onto others are not an observation of their identities. We must denaturalize the projectivist assumption that our beliefs are others' truths, by discontinuing the use words like "passing" which rely on that assumption. And when we feel betrayed we must locate that feeling within ourselves and stop projecting it in bad faith. The performative theory highlights the positive role of agency in our lives, but agency alone is not enough. The projectivistic theory extends this to highlight the negative role of agency when used to deny or overwhelm the agency of others.


[1] I do not mean this terminology to be the same as Hume's notion of projectivism, though of course both terms have the same etymology. Hume's projectivism is popular in the ethics literature, with which I am largely unfamiliar; thus, my use of the term here is not meant to entail whatever baggage it may have accrued in that literature.

[2] While it is not usually presented as such, Austin's original definition of performative speech acts should also only hold up to localized truth. In the classical example "I now pronounce you married", by saying the words one does the deed of pronouncing the couple to be married. However, the pronouncement of marriage does not cause the couple to be married in a universal sense; it only causes them to be married in the current jurisdiction, and a different jurisdiction may or may not recognize that marriage as valid. Because the marriage must be localized, therefore the pronouncement of marriage must be localized: one can't pronounce a couple to be married (everywhere), they can only pronounce them to be married (here, or there, or wherever). Thus, the deed performed by the utterance of the words is a localized deed: the pronouncement of a localized wedding.

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When it comes to explaining the social categorization of people, I've been an advocate for performative theories since long before they became popular/mainstream. To be clear, I find the current mainstream notions of performativity deeply problematic because they overemphasize social constructivism and fail to highlight what I see to be the actual insight behind the original formulation of performativity. But all the same, I've long been a fan of (my understanding of) performativity.

However, in the tail end of chapter 8 of Whipping Girl, Julia Serano raises a major complaint against performative theories of sex/gender in particular— a complaint I agree with wholeheartedly, and which is not easily reconciled. Before getting into the problem she raises, I should probably explain what performativity is and why I've been such an advocate for it.

The Question

What does it mean to be human, or a woman, or an atheist, or a scientist? For any specific categorization the exact details will vary, of course. The question I'm asking is, once we abstract over the particular category, what does it mean to say that some person does or does not belong to that category? Many social categories are uninteresting in this regard. I am an IU student in virtue of the fact that I am registered here, pay tuition, attend classes, etc; there's a clear definition, and that definition is wholly uninteresting and uncontroversial. However, for many categories things aren't so cut and dried.

Read more... )

Math envy

31 Dec 2012 02:22 am
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I have often derided those who are susceptible to math envy. Y'know, the idea that math=intelligence. This utter foolishness leads to the simultaneous fear and awe of anyone who throws math around, as if the presence of mere symbols and equations demonstrates the clear superiority of the author's throbbing, bulging,... intellect. This utter foolishness leads, therefore, to authors who feel the need to add superfluous "mathematics" to their writings in order to demonstrate that their... intelligence measures up that of their colleagues.

Well, turns out, someone finally got around to doing a study on math envy: Kimmo Ericksson (2012) "The nonsense math effect", Judgment and Decision Making 7(6). As expected, those with less training in mathematics tend to rate utterly irrelevant "mathematical content" more highly than its absence. Lest anyone start feeling smugly superior, however, I'll note that I've seen this effect most strongly in those who should know better, i.e., those with just a little mathematical training. This includes, for example, computer scientists who are not formal theoreticians. Not to name names, but I've read more than one NLP paper that throws in some worthless equation just to try to look more worthwhile. (These papers are often fine, in and of themselves, but would have been better had they not succumbed to math envy.)

As Language Log points out in their coverage, this isn't limited just to math. Some people also have brain-scan envy and similar afflictions. That's definitely worth watching out for, but IME people seem more aware of their pernicious effects while being blind to math envy.

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So, one of the things I've been up to in this long silence since posting regularly is getting caught up on my Vernor Vinge reading. I first got started reading Vinge a couple years back, picking up A Deepness in the Sky whilst traveling through Union Station. I fell in love with Deepness and kept meaning to read some of his other work, but found it oddly difficult to locate it in the local bookstores. At the beginning of the summer I picked up copies of Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep from Amazon. Marooned reminds me a lot of G.R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light (which I very highly recommend). I'm still reading through Fire, which has a lot of what I loved about Deepness: namely detailed consideration of the cognitive nature of alien life, especially the effects of alien bodies on cognition, as opposed to the "everyone's human(oid)" perspective familiar from Star Trek and most SF.

For those unfamiliar with Vinge, one of the major themes in his works is the idea of the Singularity. Much of this was novel when he was first writing about it, though it's a mainstream idea these days. There's been a lot of discussion on the technical, technological, and philosophical considerations behind Singularities; just google for transhumanism and you'll run into it. However, I just ran across a post by Elizabeth Bear which comes at it from, IMO, a more interesting direction: namely, analyzing the Singularity as an artistic movement in literature and analyzing it through the lens of critical theory, feminism, etc. I definitely believe that SF is, and has always been, a tool for exploring the current world around us and especially for trying to interpret the effects that current technologies have on social life; but the problems we're working out are not always obvious at the time. Perhaps the Singularity is now old enough that we can start to untangle all the concerns it was invented to address. Bear's posts (both the one I linked to, and the 2006 post cited therein) are a good start in that direction.

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Less than a fortnight past one of my academic heroes passed on. Language Log has a good summary of the highlights of his life and some touching stories of bygone eras. I haven't a lot to add to Dan Everett's treatment, but I thought I'd send it along for those who don't read LL.

My love for bringing linguistics and anthropology into the discourse of other fields, and much of my philosophical perspective on the need for integrating formalism and functionalism, both stem from Lévi-Strauss and his work. Too rarely do people cross the borders in academia, and too rarely do they try to integrate opposing theories rather than choosing a side. One of the greatest of our clan is fallen.

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As the good Tom Waits would say, I want to pull on your coat about something. As I've been revamping my cv and hunting for advisors for the next round of phd applications, I've begun once again lamenting the fragmentation of my field. I suppose I should tell you what my field is but, y'see, that's where all the problems lie: there's no such field. As diverse and Renaissance as my interests are, they're all three sides of the same coin: language, sociality, and intelligence.

So, first things first. Evidently language is a diverse topic, but I mean to focus on formal and theoretical matters, the quintessence of what makes what we call "language". The early work of Chomsky to the contrary, there's an unfortunate —though entirely understandable— break between the study of formal languages and natural languages. On the natural side I'm interested in morphology and its interfaces with other components of language (morphophonology, morphosyntax & scrambling, morphosemantics & nuance). On the formal side I'm interested in the design of programming languages, ontologies, and interfaces. And on the middle side I'm interested in grammar formalisms like TAG and CCG as well as the automata theory that drives these and parsers and machine translation.

Sociality is also a diverse topic, without even accounting for the fact that I'm abusing the term to cover both the structure of societies and the interactions within and between them. Here too there's an unfortunate —though entirely understandable— break between the humanities and the sciences. In the humanities I'm interested in anthropology, gender/sexuality studies, performativity, the body as media, urban neo-tribalism, and online communities. More scientifically I'm interested in nonlinear systems theory, information theory, chaos theory, catastrophe theory, scale-free networks, and theoretical genetics. And again, on the middle side there are issues of sociolinguistics: code switching, emotional particles, uses of prosody, politeness and group-formation; and evolution: both evolutionary computation, and also cultural and linguistic evolution.

And as you may no doubt be gathering, studies of intelligence too are vast and harshly divided— between wetware and hardware, or between cognition and computation if you prefer. Language is often pegged as a fundamental component to humanity's ability for higher thought, and yet even despite this the majority of linguistic formalisms neglect questions of how cognitively realistic they are as models of actual human linguistic performance. Over on the side of artificial intelligence and artificial life there's a rift between those studying complexity, adaptation, and emergence vs those trying to hammer thought and knowledge into the rigid formalisms of logic and probability. Sandwiched between these conflicts are the war-torn battle grounds of machine translation, language learning, and language acquisition.

So how many fields are involved in this tripartite Janus of interfaces, systems, and agency? To make a short list: linguistics, mathematics, computer science, cultural anthropology, gender/queer/feminist studies, women's lit, systems science/systems theory, cognitive science, social psychology, computational biology, artificial intelligence/artificial life/machine learning, and given the vagaries of universities often electrical engineering and philosophy for good measure. How many is that? Too goddamned many, that's how many. And to top it off, all of them are interdisciplinary to boot. Now you may be saying to yourself that I'm trying too hard to unify too many disparate discourses, and perhaps it's true, but there is a cohesion there which should be evident by the extent to which each of those many fields crosscut these three seemingly simple categories.

Systems theory gets it right when they say that the current state of science is burdened by its focus on fundamentalism. )
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I've said it before. I am not ashamed to say it. But noone understands it. I think there is a lot of wisdom in feminism. I do not generally disagree with feminism when practiced. But I am not a feminist. Some readers might think that this has something to do with the false notion that men can't be feminists. It does not. Some readers more familiar with my multifarious interest in gender and sexuality may think perhaps that is why I am drawn to queer theory and its ilk rather than to feminism. It is not.

Many friends of mine, however, both here on the internet and in my daily life, are themselves feminists. And I do have, as I mentioned, quite an interest in gender and sexuality and the ways in which they interact with the social, political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and psychological spheres of the world, as well as how we can go about disentangling this menagerie of thousand-dollar words in order to say something meaningful about what is a central facet of most people's lives and how we can use that knowledge to strive for greater equality. So some have found it curious that I eschew the title.

for reasons why, and history personal )
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Okay, so here's another link roundup, sue me. I should get back to real posts soon enough. I've determined that I spend wa~y too much time colocating links from all my various sources (yeah yeah, hush you), and so I'm planning on easing off. In my last post I mentioned that I'm officially pruning TechEBlog from the things I'll post here about, and a while back I decided that most links found through livejournal will make their way around soon enough without me. But that still leaves me with a number of sources before even getting into the random stuff I actually found myself cruising around.

For those who follow my weblogs via the RSS feeds, heads up. I'm planning on separating out all the link roundups (and similar links-only posts) to their own blog, including retroactively. That should help folks who only care about my more essayic posts, or only for the links. It may be a while yet until I do that since I've still yet to get this site switched over to Titania from its immediate predecessor; there'll be an announcement on the website updates blog when it does happen, maybe also here. For those who're following from livejournal, I'll still mirror the links posts (I finally got my mirroring script set up :). I'll also start mirroring the f/oss blog since folks seemed interested in hearing about Eng.

Less talking, more linking )
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