Archive for the ‘Debate vs. Discussion’ Category

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Our Worst Selves (or as I Like to Call Them, Our Selves)

2016.April.13

[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]

Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:

“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”

I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).

The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:

“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.

I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.

But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.

For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.

As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.

And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.

Okay, too silver, let me fix that…

I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.

Awkwardly.

(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)

The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.

Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.

And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.

People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.

For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.

Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!

The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.

I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.

These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)

 

Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.

There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.

The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.

Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.

It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.

At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.

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After the Victory Lap, Take a Moment for Hindsight

2015.June.26

Please, please, please celebrate all weekend. Then next week, or the week after, or say the end of summer at the latest, come back and contemplate this:

One of the secondary victories of today is that a wedge issue has been decimated.

Same-sex marriage did not become a national issue in the hands of the people who wanted those marriages, but in the hands of people who either A) wanted to extra-double-ban those marriages and/or B) pretend to do A just to get more conservative reactionaries into the polls.

As this tactic eventually led to backlash from LGBT communities and their allies, the added a C) divert activists and resources into turning that backlash into a movement, invariably at the cost of many other issues along the way. It’s not that this fight wasn’t important or necessary, it’s that a lot was sacrificed along the way.

In the nineteen years since the first shot was fired over same-sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, conservatism has run roughshod over almost every other issue in this country: education cuts, military spending, suffocating access to abortion, getting away with torture and wiretapping, dismantling net neutrality, media conglomeration, (lack of) finance reform, privatization, skewed trade agreements, the dismantling of American unions, the prison-industrial complex, bastardizing healthcare reform, and stalling out immigration reform.

In the time that we succeeded in having a national conversation over the right to marry, we have failed to have a national conversation over the fatality of being black in this country, the dehumanization of trans people, the quality of veteran care, the militarization of police, the urgency of climate change, waste and unsustainable practices in food/water/housing, the inadequacies of our two-party political representation, or whether $7.25 is anywhere close to a “living” wage.

Marriage equality has even created some fractures among the people it is supposed to benefit, LGBTQA-identified individuals. Some of the most prominent organizations fighting for marriage have been inconsistent at best and complicit at worst about trans erasure; their biggest campaigns have frequently failed to include perspectives of poverty, people of color, and immigrants, and change that is not intersectional is hardly change at all.

I put forth that marriage equality was inevitable, and that the most cynical of conservative strategists have always known so. Their battle, then, was never to prevent same-sex marriage, but to drag it out as long as possible, to normalize gay and lesbian relationships as little and as begrudgingly as possible (thanks in part to media and entertainment industries that could always be counted upon to show these relationships in the whitest, wealthiest, and most traditionally attractive ways, so that only a narrow expression of them became commonplace), to mobilize conservative voters with this single issue whenever possible, and to leverage this highly visible battle into real, long-term political consequences that slipped under the radar on pretty much every other front.

I don’t say any of this to steal a single tiny thunderbolt from this huge and hard-fought victory. All I’m saying is that now that this wedge has been defeated, we can’t lose momentum. We can’t decide to stay home now and keep our contributions to ourselves; those same cynical conservative strategists have already picked the next eight battles if we let them continue to set the narratives. Just look how fast they were ready to sacrifice the Confederate flag once the topic came around to gun control one too many time.

A lot of other hard battles are ready and waiting for you to carry your enthusiasm, your time, you money into the next struggle for equality, so don’t spend it all on celebrating. There’s still work to be done. Pick someone whose life doesn’t look like yours and listen to what they tell you they need. Those cheap equal-sign stickers will still be on your car in a month; who will they re-humanize next?

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Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness

2014.April.30

Baggage Claim

Now that “calling out” has become an Internet thing, there’s a lot of tension coming from folks who don’t really know what to do with it, particularly on the receiving end. The kneejerk reaction is usually some kind of defensiveness (“I am a good person, therefor I can’t be ___ist.” “I don’t follow your logic, therefor the mistake must’ve been yours.”, “How dare you? Don’t you know everything I’ve done for ___?”) or attack. Some conflict-averse folks can ignore or deflect being called out, but very few slow down to address the concern thoughtfully. To some extent, this is because dominant cultural narratives encourage us to take any disagreement as a personal or political affront, but I suspect it also owes to our inexperience with ambivalent self-examination. Deep self-awareness is neither common nor encouraged, so how in the world can it be acquired?

Personally, when I feel challenged or conflicted in some way, I attempt to unpack those feelings. Although I no longer have the privilege of travel, I find myself “unpacking” more than ever…

To a skilled traveler, unpacking a suitcase is as important as packing it. Upon return, one is smart to sort out belongings and reintegrate them into the usual routine. This may entail laying out contents into various piles: travel documents to be secured, dirty clothes for laundry, toiletries here, souvenirs there — oh, don’t need that bus pass any longer, better toss it… Investing a little time now can save a lot of trouble later.

In the activist spaces where I first heard it, to “unpack” is to take apart a complicated thought, belief, or conversation in order to interpret its smaller, less apparent components. When participants in a facilitated discussion stumble onto something profound or dense, the facilitator (whose role includes encouraging useful tangents) might step in and suggest everyone slow down to “unpack what just happened;” the aim is greater understanding for all participants and/or progress toward the group’s shared goals. Reviewing such components can help contextualize the ideas or persons present, and often the unpacker(s) uncover biases, assumptions, or other problematic notions of which they were previously unaware. However carefully they prepare an agenda, facilitators often cite these shared detours as the most fruitful points in their discussions.

As activism evolves from just movement-building to comprehensive lifestyles (where personal growth is progress, i.e. “being the change you want to see in the world”), the term gains wider usage because many ideological concepts are simply too complex to stand on their own. And although one of activism’s great proverbs alludes to it — “the personal is political” — unpacking has never been reserved for activists; it is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to live out a consistent set of personal values.

Our ideas and beliefs — all of them — carry some layer of social “baggage” (hence the metaphor), cultural and/or personal cues we may not recognize as ours or as optional. Like unpacking a travel bag, unpacking an idea involves reorganizing its contents, distinguishing what is useful as-is from what needs modification, even discarding some components entirely. This decision process cannot be performed well unless the context for each component — its social baggage — is known and understood. Unpackers must confront those concepts that are problematic, counter-intuitive, or self-contradictory, or they may instead need to anticipate others’ discomfort with ideas that, however beneficial, are simply new and unusual.

For activists, unpacking is integral to effectiveness. Ideological success cannot be guaranteed without confronting the biases and assumptions of one’s community, beginning (and ever-continuing) with the confrontation of one’s own biases and assumptions. Unpacking helps activists build consciousness of individual impact, rooting out any embedded contradictions and sowing more consistent insight and behavior into their work. Understanding one’s own baggage also makes others’ baggage more relatable and will ideally facilitate others to reflect for themselves. While many experiences are not universal, the ability to sympathize and point to parallel experiences can help open conversations that would not otherwise seem possible. Even if the conversation does not lead to the same conclusions for all parties, it will humanize those parties to one another and add faces and important contexts to opponents who might otherwise be nameless and alien.

Unpacking Privilege

As important as unpacking is for any person motivated by ideology (in order to practice what we preach), it is particularly valuable for persons afforded a lot of social privilege. In this context, I want to be clear that “privilege” is not the willful assertion of power by a person based on outdated and unequal social norms (I call that “entitlement”); privilege is the social power a person receives from others, consciously or unconsciously, based on such norms. If ethnic, economic, and gender bias were wiped from all human minds tomorrow, they would be back within a week because our personalities are forged in context, that context is perpetuated in our personalities, therefor the waters of our perception would flow down the same paths even if we could somehow pause the water for a bit. The only meaningful way forward is not for folks with privilege to wipe the slate clean of all past wrongs, but to discuss those wrongs openly and unpack our continued misguided notions about them.

Societal baggage is weighed down significantly by assumption and unconscious prejudice, which means that privilege cannot be easily shirked. As a passive participant in zir own social role, a person of privilege may not recognize the extent of these advantages, nor the ways ze might accept, reinforce, and wield them.

For the record, I consider myself a person with above-average privilege: I am white, cismale, educated, young, attractive, and more hetero than not; I have been working most of my life to unpack my social privileges, but I continually make new discoveries and must uncover the ways my good nature and best intentions might lead me to subvert my own ideals. A white guy can grow long hair, get tattoos, wear radical clothing, and have no job yet still get better credit than a black man in a business suit; a tall man can be weak and non-violent and still feel safer walking down the street than a short woman; a heterosexual couple can consciously decide to never get married but later change their minds in ways that are not available to same-sex couples. I have learned to acknowledge and, where possible, to counter such injustices. Whenever unpacking leads me to a privilege I might overlook, I seek alternate ways to notice it and/or work around it; just as with driving, I must check my blindspots. Ultimate perfection will be unattainable, but improvement is not.

For a person raised in a conservative religious environment, all understanding of the world has been filtered through a specific dogma: every piece of knowledge before a certain age has been filtered to reinforce that worldview. If, at some point, that person rejects the faith/its leaders/its politics, the new worldview will still be founded by its relation to the foundational dogma. Unaddressed thought patterns will continue largely as they always have; like a riverbed carved into the countryside, ideas may flow in a different direction but they will still take the same path to get there. Rejecting a belief system that preaches women are inferior to men will not clear a person of residual sexist patterns. Even a person who consciously rebels again previous dogma will often seed that rebellion by merely choosing the opposite from the same options originally offered: what was “good” may become “evil”, and what was “evil” may become “good”, but positions outside that entrenched dichotomy will be no easier to fathom after defection then before (gender identities outside of male or female, for example).

The same self-analysis that leads someone to renounce a belief system must continue if the dregs of old patterns are to be voided. That person must learn to check blindspots, then to process information in new ways, and finally to adopt improved habits and reflexes — and there is no way to do any of it quickly. If the departure was mentally or emotionally taxing, the person may be resistant to dig any deeper, but otherwise it can be like removing a tick whose head remains in the skin, poisoning you for your health-minded efforts. Remnants of a former belief system can become liabilities to moving on, particularly when dealing with folks who were never part of that world.

(By sheer coincidence, my dear friend Heina is presenting on this topic vis á vis atheism this weekend; check out the event page or follower her on Twitter for info.)

Society itself is a belief system, a social construct with prescribed interactions, prescribed power dynamics, even prescribed rebellion; true change can only be possible when change-makers understand societal dynamics and learn to work around them. This can be particularly challenging, both personally and socially, when dominant advantages are in one’s own favor, therefor the single most pervasive blindspot afforded to persons of privilege is that unpacking is optional. When the mainstream society, politics, and morals around you all broadcast that you are a good person — that you deserve to be happy, healthy, and educated — you may not even realize that the same society is sending a different message to others. A white person who grows up in a white-dominated society and is not exposed to the experiences or challenges faced by contemporary people of color may believe that society offers the exact same opportunities in the exact same way to all its members; since society advertizes itself as “post-racial”/”colorblind”, a white person’s good will toward equality can even be subverted into reinforcing systemic and unconscious racism, to the point of resenting programs that undo centuries of discrimination and viewing THEM as unfair. Meanwhile, a person of color raised in a white-dominated society will become conscious of racial identity early in childhood and will never have the opportunity to stop thinking about it: the legacy of generations of poverty, the mixed messages in media and entertainment, the microaggressions of complete strangers, and, yes, the yet-unresolved prejudices.

(Since I keep using conservative examples, allow me to point yall to Ferret’s post about how liberals can also live in a bubble…)

Unpacking is a daily fact of life for persons who lack privilege, while those with social power may choose to ignore persistent inequalities without great effort. The disconnect of privilege is most troublesome when the privileged viewpoint leads a person to disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people because those lives contradict the safe and familiar world lain out for privileged hearts. Even folks with moderate privilege can recognize the ways awareness of other exclusions stays with them: the weight of having a high-school education when employers want a college degree, for example.

Chances are, there has been a time in your life when you felt compared by an unfair standard — an orange among apples — but how well do you notice when you’re the apple and someone else is the orange? And what do you do once you have noticed?

Owning Your Stuff Is 9/10s of the Law

Unpacking happens when you realize something about your own context and decide to examine it further; ideally, this process brings your beliefs and actions closer to alignment. That moment when you realize you’re an apple at least SOME of the time, that is the moment most potent for unpacking. It can also be the moment when you recognize just how complicated this society can be, how convoluted its biases, how self-perpetuating its machinations.

I cannot tell anyone how to unpack; like love or art or jazz you have to see it done a few ways then find your own. What could be more individualized? Unpacking involves untangling the layers of your very self, from personality quirks to early influences to adolescent rebellion. What practices are based in your experiences alone? Which beliefs were handed to you, prefab, through societal cues? Which came from your parents or guardians? Which are just habits you picked up and couldn’t defend if you wanted to? And the layers run in more directions than just origin: which of your behaviors have ongoing emotional ties? Which have healed you in times of pain? Which have been contradicted in the past, and have the contradictions turned you away from or toward the familiar? A synonym to unpacking is “deconstructing”, though this has a more formal connotation in literature (and isn’t always reassembled). Unpacking is the deconstruction of your own text.

Unpacking is not always pleasant, nor is it straightforward. Taking apart an idea may involve explaining a useful piece in more detail, or it can lead to dismantling a flawed concept and starting over entirely — and you won’t know which needs to happen until you’re already in the thick of self-discovery. You may need outside observers (who may or may not share a similar background) to point out your idiosyncrasies or explain correlations you never knew about, or you may simply need to listen and be willing to challenge yourself. At some point, if you want to examine your own assumptions, you’ll likely have to confront them with the benefit of several diverse perspectives, but only you can figure out when and which.

Self-examination is only the first part of unpacking, really. Once you’ve broken a behavior or belief down into components, you have to figure out what to keep and what to throw away; just as with literal baggage, you’ll need to plan for the next configuration, and to do that you will almost certainly have to relate it to other people. Got a racist uncle who says this same thing you say? Might be dubious. But what if he worked in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and married out of his race? Maybe he has a very different view and is more irreverent than oppressive. But then he calls his wife racial slurs and stereotypes her culture? Well, exoticism may not be the same kind of racism as a Klan rally, but it is still harmful and entitled… You have to follow these tangents — tangents from your own concepts, remember — and see where they lead you.

Some layers are obvious and easy to re-conceptualize, but most are subtle, nuanced, and well-entrenched, and the world isn’t going to stop turning just because your work-in-progress leads you someplace unpleasant. Better ideas will come in their own time if you let them, but it helps to maintain awareness of your own weaknesses while keeping an open mind; resist the urge to find quick fixes or diversions that will leave the problem in place, but also pace yourself and don’t expect an epiphany on command. Don’t be afraid to step away from a topic for a while or to ask for help.

Unpacking in a group can present its own challenges; while listening to others, you must not only note what you believe but also how you feel and respond; it benefits no one if your unresolved discomforts spill over into your group’s work. Remember what I said at the top about kneejerk defensiveness? Unchecked discomforts can overtake a share space and unintentionally reinforce social power dynamics by derailing the unresolved topic toward one participant’s personal process. A person of privilege can derail an otherwise productive group discussion by insisting that zir personal progress be validated, by asking for on-site education on topics that others know well or agree can be saved for later, by contradicting broad trends with rare incidents and anecdotes, or by generally projecting zir own discomfort as being more urgent than the issues at hand. A person without much privilege may have the same capabilities, but is less likely to be taken seriously or to unconsciously command full and immediate attention.

For individual reflections, I cannot recommend journaling enough — particularly if you are used to processing aloud or are not yet comfortable taking your challenge to someone else — for it is as much about listening (whether to yourself or to what others have said previously) as it is about speaking.

Usually, the challenge is just getting started: it’s easy to feel vulnerable or attacked (especially if one has been called out publicly) and give in to fight or flight mode, but unpacking benefits from a mental quiet and no small amount of personal security. It requires humility, patience, and often allies who can sympathize with your discoveries and your defeats. Most of all, it requires the willingness to be wrong once in a while. You will make mistakes; learn from them gracefully. Each of us already holds some incorrect or unhelpful assumptions from earlier points in our lives, but through unpacking we can identify and correct those assumptions more fully.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And if you don’t know how anyone else can do it, remember that people who have less or different privileges than you have probably been wrestling with similar questions their entire lives; while this does not diminish the newness for you, it does prove that it can be done. (When all else fails, though, a search of the Internet or your local library can also be fruitful; again, your challenge is probably not completely original.)

If it sounds daunting, take heart in knowing that you have the rest of your life to learn and small steps can make a great difference. Eventually, you can learn to be generous to people with less opportunity than yourself (especially by listening) and to speak up more among people like yourself. Along the way, you get to be a better person, a stronger influence on others who have yet to recognize their own hangups, and help forge a society that is more aware and more respectful of its members’ most thoughtful values.

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Best of 2013

2013.December.31

I am by no means an exhaustive consumer of media, but this year had some gems that I feel compelled share. Simply put, this list comprises things I experienced that helped me grow & love better in 2013. No rank or order is implied; “Honorable Mentions” are older but were new to me in 2013.

Favorite Concept: “self-othering”
To self-other is to claim narratives of the powerless for oneself with little or no authentic claim to such levels of powerlessness. Examples might include the concept of “reverse racism”, equating being “broke” with actual poverty, exoticism, framing “language police” as equally oppressive to the use of offensive terminology, borrowing from an unfinished struggle to promote a contemporary one (e.g., “gay is the new black”), and the claim that polyamory is a queer and/or oppressed status — but most instances are actually far more subtle. By its privileged nature, self-othering is far more pernicious in educated, hetero, white, cismen [friendly wave]; it is not usually a conscious co-option, which makes it difficult to recognize in oneself, but I suspect anyone who examines zir own social power will struggle with it at some point. Perhaps even those with very little social privilege could benefit from remembering that actual physical and societal oppression feels different for every person and every circumstance. This concept needs to be contemplated and discussed widely, so we might all better catch ourselves exercising the power of naming and the privilege of inclusion; try not to water it down too fast, Internet.
Honorable Mention: Intersectionality
The Grand Unified Theory of social activism, where those deconstructing sexism, racism, classism, and countless other systemic power disparities compare notes. In a few more years, the Internet may relegate it just another dialectal buzzword, but for now it has teeth as a thoughtful and dynamic post-social-justice outlook.

Favorite Discussion Piece: Orange Is the New Black
I cannot say I exactly love this show, but I absolutely love to watch and participation in its deconstruction. I dare anyone to read White Chick Behind Bars and not feel personally challenged somewhere. Some friends have begun to shy away from discussing OITNB publicly because the critiques made them feel like bad (white) people, but to let call-out critiques of such a complicated, try-hard show brand it irredeemable would be just as short-sighted as to review it purely for cinematographic and storytelling qualities. In these discussions, there is the opportunity to examine where poetic license and politics collide, to ask which is making us feel uncomfortable this week (and whether it was the show’s intent), and to celebrate the heretofore overlooked perspectives now receiving thoughtful screen time. Until perfect art comes along, let us continue to be motivated by imperfect art that keeps us talking, introduces us to new situations, and makes us check our assumptions about what a titty-shot really conveys.

Favorite Blogger: Ferrett Steinmetz
I discovered Ferrett shortly before his earth-shaking Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Some Fucking Awesome Sex went viral, but he’s been posting all over for a while. In Ferrett, I found a rare straight guy who could not only educate but inspire me: atypically male, relatable, passionately self-aware, sex-positive, polyamorous (but kind of relaxed about it), thoughtful about the creative process, AND prolific. Every time I approached one of his posts expecting a mere oasis from the kind of entitlement narratives that poison me against my fellow white guys, Ferrett transports me levels beyond by finishing thoughts I hadn’t even started yet. His approach is to excise common misperception from reality with quick, deft text grounded in everyday experience — and he owns it when he messes up! The man writes about anything without wasting a word; I can trust that if I don’t find a particular post profound, SOMEONE ELSE WILL. Not that I’m saying you should idolize him (or anyone else).

Favorite Music: Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
A late arrival in my year; I was slow to pick up this album because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to my first impressions of the hottest android-impersonator in music, but I was wrong. So very wrong. I’m just starting to dig into the mythos she’s created and the funked out fusion she’s worked into the tracks, but I know this album will be getting a lot of play in 2014.
Honorable Mention (album): Black Snake Moan Soundtrack
I could spend the rest of my life debating where the movie sits on the line between “problematic” and “irredeemable”, but its highest point was the filmmakers’ engrossing love letter to Delta blues.
Honorable Mention (song): Lupe Fiasco (with Guy Sebastian), “Battle Scars
The conscious rapper dropped this crossover hit — questioning the battle-like nature of relationship discord — and went platinum. Yes. This.

Favorite Movie: Gravity
Another item I feared couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I was left breathless the first time I saw the two-minute trailer, and the movie theater experience was basically 90 minutes of the same. I won’t say it’s the best story ever (and I really think I would have liked Robert Downey, Jr., to have kept the part that eventually went to George Clooney), but its telling is gripping and its visual achievements should do to space what Jurassic Park did to dinosaurs: raise the bar to impossible heights and dare every movie that follows to choose between pitiful homage or pointless improvisation. Along the way, it instilled for me a dread of what happens down here on Earth should our skies ever receive such a disaster.
Honorable Mention: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Another visual spectacle, Beasts is carried by a six-year-old thriving in Southern myth-making — and yet I can’t watch it without cross-referencing myth-like places and people I’ve known. The stories from behind the scenes are just as breathtaking.

Favorite Parody: Pretty much anything riffing on Blurred Lines
The horror of the original song/video/message isn’t the kind of thing you can rectify with academic deconstruction or even conscious indignation — you need a good genderfucking parody or two.

Favorite Reads: Parenting on the Internet
Perhaps even more than Ferrett’s piece above, this piece showed how parenting can provoke individuals to look within for change. The RenegadeMama sees the greatness in her son’s gentle nature and, going against her won inclinations, decides to let it stand. It’s impossible to encapsulate its brilliance without lifting swaths of text (which you should go read for yourself), but I can say this: it made me appreciate parents and parenting a little more, and it even fostered forgiveness for the ways my own family had tried to socialize me against my gentler inclinations. That’s powerful wordsmithing right there.
Honorable Mention: Cat’s Cradle
My lover put this book in my hands and told me to read it; she is wise, and there will be celebratory tattoos. The legacy of a dead scientist draws a listless writer to a banana republic with an outlaw religion and a captivating woman. Sardonic wisdom and global change ensue.

Favorite Introspection: Defining Allies and Their Role
I should note that this conversation is far from over, so rather than trying to encapsulate it how about I share a tiny sample and you go join the conversation yourself?
Growing Up Online: Why & How I Care About the Comments
8 Ways Not To Be An Ally — A Non-Comprehensive List
For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids
Holy Gender Politics, Batman! How a D.C. Punk’s Music Video Sparked an Identity Controversy
Honorable Mention: Call-Out Culture
Another unfinished debate, is “calling out” the Internet’s greatest act of justice, a stalled strategy that’s keeping allies from necessary reflection, or flat-out liberal bullying? Is anger and vitriol on another person’s behalf ever justified, even helpful? What are our assumptions about people who call out? about people who don’t? Is there something better they could be doing? Reply hazy, try again.

Favorite Polyamory Topic: All Good Right?
Alan from Poly in the Media shares a few thoughts from himself and several other long-time poly writers on the assumptions that can slip into nonmonogamy and how rapid growth of the identity has made it harder to check such foundational misunderstandings.

Favorite Cracked Article: 5 Mind-blowing Facts Nobody Told You About Guns
Just read it; you won’t be disappointed.

There! You get ten. But here’s one to grow on, my favorite piece that I’ve written this year. Feel free to add it to your Best of list!

How Dyadism Ruind the Best Moment at SexTalk

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How Dyadism Ruined the Best Moment at SexTalk

2013.February.12

Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas

— wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:

Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.

And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.

For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).

After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.

(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)

Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.

Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”

Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.

We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.

Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.

Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.

By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.

Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.

In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.

I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”

Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.

It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if  there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.

We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?

When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.

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