Tag Archives: social justice

Moments Without Proper Names, by Gordon Parks

Moments Without Proper Names [SIGNED] by Parks, Gordon

What It’s About

A history of hope and resistance in the face of anti-Black violence, poverty and injustice, told through photographs and short poems.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Everyone knows a picture speaks a thousand words. I think a poetry is what we call it when a dozen words have the power of ten thousand. Juxtapose the two, and you get an experience that I, with my measly prose, could not hope to capture. Twenty minutes flipping through these pages feels like a lifetime. The outside world completely disappears, as your heart is broken and remade over and over again.

Sidenote; this is the same Gordon Parks who produced and directed Shaft. He was also a musician, civil rights activist, painter, photojournalist for Life magazine, co-founder of Essence magazine… in short, a multi-talented pioneer of arts and activism. I’m seriously mad that I did not know how amazing this guy was until now.

Content Warnings

Some pictures show the aftermath of violence. A few also have nudity. This is what they call mature content.

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A Group Callout Checklist

1. Did somebody say something shitty? (if yes, proceed to step two. If no, I’m not sure why you’re here)

2. Was this a shitty thing that was absolutely integral to the philosophy of the group? Or somewhere between “kinda related but not everybody buys into it” and “totally unrelated?” (if integral, proceed to Outcome Three. If not, or you aren’t sure, proceed to step three.)

3. Did someone from the person’s own group immediately call them out? (if yes, proceed to Outcome One. If no, proceed to step four)

4. Are you deeply familiar with this group, or have you just read a couple of postings/hung out casually with a few individuals? (if deeply familiar, proceed to step seven. If not, take a stop by step five.)

5. Do more research. Look to find out if this kind of thing is said often in the group, or if this was an aberrant occurrence. This is also where you can clear up any ambiguity about how deeply the shitty thing is tied to the group’s philosophy. Once you have a clearer picture of where this shitty thing fits into the group’s overall culture, you can proceed to step six.

6. Has your research determined that this is a random occurrence, or that this group has a toxic element that has not been addressed? (if the former, proceed to Outcome One. If the latter, proceed to step seven. If you have discovered that this shitty is absolutely an integral part of the group as a whole, proceed to Outcome Three.)

7. Are you part of the group? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to step eight.)

8. Are you one of the people the shitty thing affects? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to Outcome Zero.)

Outcome Zero: Talk to people with personal stakes in the situation, either because they are part of the group, or affected by it. Support them in addressing the thing. Your perspective is not invalid; an informed outside opinion is often very useful in identifying problems. But recognize that it is their thing to fix. Don’t write a callout post unless a lot of the affected people want you to.

Outcome One: this should not be a group callout. An individual in a group was shitty. Sometimes this happens, because groups are people, and enough people are shitty that growing groups will eventually gain shitty people. Call out the shitty individual if that’s something that you really think needs to happen, but move on with your life. You can’t fix everything, and there’s no shame in saving your energy for more important battles.

Outcome Two: talk about the thing. Acknowledge that it is not a thing that everybody does, because then people on your side will be more likely to listen to you. Aim to be constructive for the sake of those people. Remember that it’s sometimes easier to recognize a problem from a distance than when it is right up next to you, and that’s why good people sometimes seem to ignore problems among their own. It is possible to keep those things in mind and still issue a powerful callout. You are not weakening your strike, but adding precision to the blow.

Outcome Three: this is a shitty group. They will probably not care what you say, and will like the attention your callout brings. However, it is also possible that their shittiness will harm others. Carefully weigh the cost of feeding the trolls against the risk of ignoring a wildfire. No one can make the final decision for you. Godspeed

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Subject Yourself

*Deep breathe*

Okay, I think the best way to handle this is to describing the episode without criticism, to capture how I perceived it as a kid. Then I’ll go into what stood out to me as an adult.

It opens with Lawrence Hodges, eternal troublemaker, waiting at Whit’s End for his mother to pick him up. He is chatting with Jack Allen about his new braces. Unsurprisingly, he hates them. They’re uncomfortable, they stop him from eating half the food he likes, and he has to wear them for two years. Jack Allen encourages him to be patient and follow his orthodontist’s directions, but Lawrence is still moody.

Mrs. Hodges shows up. She was delayed by a meeting to go over the new history curriculum for next year, and she is not happy with it. She isn’t very specific, but one thing that bothers her is the absence of religion, outside of descriptions of indigenous beliefs. Jack Allen says he heard something on the news about “revisionist history,” which he defines as textbooks that try to downplay the role of Christianity in American heritage. He thought that only big cities like New York or Chicago were doing that kind of thing, not places like Odyssey. But apparently he’s wrong, and he’s dismayed that Mrs. Hodges will have to teach it.

Later, Mrs. Hodges goes to the principal to talk about the new curriculum. She shows him a list of problems. The principal did not remember there being any issues, but she says there were events that were left out, and more importantly, no discussion of the Christianity that laid the foundation of those events. When he asks if she is religious, she says yes, but emphasizes that this is not relevant to her problem. She gives Washington and Lincoln as examples of figures who you can’t discuss without also discussing their faith. They go on talking, and I’ll skim over what was said because, as I said, as a kid the details went over my head. I’ll get back into them later. What did stuck was the sense that this textbook was clearly trying to brainwash kids into thinking all Christians and white people were evil.

Tension builds when the principal brings up the potential repercussions of fighting the curriculum. He thinks the government will slash their budget. He mentions an after-school program for special needs children that she works with. It’s an example of the kind of thing they could have to cut if they lose funding. He urges her to not rock the boat.

Meanwhile, Jack Allen catches Lawrence with a huge bag of snacks and candy from the “don’t eat” list. Lawrence tries to justify his shopping trip, but his arguments boil down to “but I really like sticky candy.” He’s also been having a miserable time at home. He and his mother fight every night over the headgear that comes with his braces. He hates sleeping with it, almost as much as he hates the nightly cleaning routines. Jack listens and encourages him to follow the orthodontists’ rules, but also use his imagination to make the experience more bearable.

This gives Lawrence an idea. He asks his Mom if he can get his braces colored. She doesn’t have time to talk through scheduling and costs, as she is distracted by the problems she has found in the textbook. She does like the idea of coloring Lawrence’s braces, and reassures him that she will get to it, but right now is not a good time. Lawrence is not happy to hear this. Patience isn’t a strength of his.

Mrs. Hodges goes back to the principal. Some other teachers have shared similar concerns, and she asks the principal to take them to talk this decision over with the school board. He is reluctant, but when she threatens to go to the press, he caves. He, and the board, would prefer a private discussion over a public fury. The principal does warn Mrs. Hodges that if this does not go her way, it could ruin her entire career. Mrs. Hodges is prepared to take that risk.

While his mom goes to the meeting, Lawrence waits at Whit’s End once again. He gleefully shows off his new, technicolored braces. Which he colored himself. Yeah, he got tired of waiting for the appointment, which is a whole week away, so he just helped himself to some paint leftover from his roller derby kit. Although he does now feel a little queasy…

Jack facepalms and rushes Lawrence to the emergency room.

Mrs. Hodges presents her case to the board. She is asked whether this is just discomfort over being confronted with a perspective that is different from hers, and she says she is positive that is not the issue. As she explains it, being a teacher she is used to dealing with other points of view. This book simply takes it too far.

They go over the potential consequences to her career and the school’s budget. She acknowledges those risks, but insists that an accurate, balanced look at events is crucial to education, and this textbook is simply indoctrinating students. It also opens the door to further strongarming of teachers and ideological issues. She says she would rather resign than teach the curriculum. The board thanks her for her time, and then adjourns to discuss the issue.

Mrs. Hodges then gets the message to meet Jack and Lawrence at the hospital.

Lawrence was made to throw up the paint, and is doing fine now. Jack shakes his head over Lawrence’s impatience, and Lawrence is now a little more ready to work on that character flaw. Jack impresses on him that, more than just being patient, he also needs to listen to those in authority. Lawrence then brings up his mother and her little rebellion against the school board. Jack talks about the difference between standing up as a kid to people who have expertise that you don’t (like medical knowledge about healthy teeth), and standing up as an adult who has a responsibility to protest when she sees something that is wrong. It’s a pretty good speech, honestly.

A week later, Lawrence gets his teeth colored the right way, and he loves them. Mrs. Hodges also gets news from the school board. They decided to hold off on any changes in the curriculum until they have time to take a more careful look at the material.

Cue the happy music!

Okay, so as a kid I thought this was a pretty solid episode. I didn’t really know anything about history other than what my parents taught me, and I pretty much took it for granted that AIO could teach me no wrong, so I assumed the textbook was exactly as bad as she said it was. Then I listened to it again, with more information under my belt.

Revisionist history is not just about erasing Christianity, whatever Jack Allen says. It is any approach to history that challenges a dominant narrative. It’s not inherently good or inherently bad. Like all academia, it’s only as good as the evidence that supports it.

History is, as the cliche goes, written by the victors. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say they get a crack at the first draft. Every historian writes with a perspective that will inevitably color their narrative. Sometimes they do their best to stick to the facts despite their own biases. Other times they cherry pick the facts that best fit their own biases. Sometimes they actively make shit up. Western academia is built around the idea that if you constantly question and challenge your own ideas, then the truth will eventually triumph over the lies. Revisionist history is simply a natural part of this process.

As a kid, though, Jack Allen’s skewed definition made perfect sense to me. I was being homeschooled in part because my parents didn’t trust the government to not brainwash me with secularism and liberalism. A big part of my education was learning how important religion was to everything, especially history and the founding ideals of America.

As it turned out, much of what I was taught was wrong. I didn’t learn how Thomas Jefferson cut out parts of the Bible that he disagreed with, or how Benjamin Franklin was a deist, which by 1770s standards was nearly atheism. I taught that Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were devout men. I was not taught that Samuel Morse wanted to use his telegraph machine to spread anti-Catholic propaganda, Alexander Graham Bell was a racist, ableist eugenicist, and Thomas Edison was an all-around dick. Oh, and of course it was not reasonable to suggest that people like Washington or Jefferson used the Bible to justify keeping slaves. Religion got credit for the good, never the bad.

When she gives her speech to the board, Mrs. Hodges claims to have a seven page single spaced list of errors, which she has provided to the board. Obviously a half hour episode was not going to have time to show all of them, so we have to judge it on the basis of the issues she does bring up. I already described her first issue. She thinks the Founding Fathers and other figures cannot be understood without a discussion of their faith. Obviously, for some historical figures, she is right. On the other hand, many others were passively religious, or actively critical of religion. And sometimes religion was used to justify atrocities, like how Manifest Destiny was used to justify genocide of the Native Americans. I do agree that balance is important to understanding history, but I think our ideas of balance are very different.

For example, Mrs. Hodes doesn’t think this textbook isn’t particularly fair to white settlers. She says that they talk about the settler’s slaughter of Indians but not vice versa. That’s not a fair comparison. At most, I’d acknowledge that there were inevitably cases where white non-combatants were killed by Natives, because Native Americans are human beings and any large group of human beings contains a few shitty ones. But in terms of the scale, context and stakes, there is no fair analysis that makes white settlers anything but invading imperialists. The indigenous peoples were there first; that’s why they’re called indigenous. We attacked without provocation, we broke our own treaties and we corralled the survivors into shithole reservations. And if you still think their slaughter of us and our slaughter of them is comparable, ask yourself, how many of us are left? How many of them? Entire tribes were wiped out, entire languages lost. We committed genocide, and it’s our moral imperative to admit that.

Similarly, she talks about how unfair it is that Christian missionaries are described torturing Indians. Well, tough. That happened. She complains that there’s no mention of Aztec human sacrifice. I’m pretty sure kids will find out about that one through cultural osmosis, so chill out. Plus, this sounds like a US history textbook, and that was more South and Central America, so that’s not especially relevant. She even complains that it doesn’t even mention the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, which… ugh.

Okay, for those who don’t already know, the history we are taught as kids is extremely skewed. There was one Thanksgiving that kind of resembles the kindergarten play version, and a ton of others that were held specifically to celebrate. If you want to know more, here’s some links. Besides, even if the sweet holiday version were completely true, would it really be historically relevant? If the best moment in European/Indian relations you can think of is one reasonably pleasant dinner party, that tells you something right there.

The last problem she describes is that the textbook “makes it sound like religious leaders were responsible for slavery.” That’s an ambiguous phrase. Do they specifically paint a picture of bishops sitting in a dark room hatching a plan to enslave Africans? ‘Cause yeah, that would not be correct. But “responsible” can also mean responsible for allowing it to happen, or justifying it. Christian preachers absolutely did that. She also says they aren’t credited with abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. That’s a fair point.  There were religious leaders both condemning and defending slavery.

A few paragraphs ago, I put a pin into the whole concept of whether or not the real complexities of religion in the US would be in line with AIO’s philosophy or not. Not every Christian in American history preached Christianity exactly the way AIO does. Quakers, for example, were probably the most famously anti-slavery denomination, and they were vocal activists. AIO is a fan of original sin. Quakers talk instead about the inner light of God which inhabits everyone, and many Quakers do not believe conversion is necessary for salvation. They also value the Bible but do not consider it infallible or the final word. Unitarians, who frequently reject even the divinity of Christ, were also typically abolitionists. As we know from episodes like Bad  Company, AIO does not look kindly on this kind of liberal Christianity. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists, whose doctrines align far more closely with AIO, literally became Southern Baptists because their leadership refused to condemn slavery.

I can headcanon Mrs. Hodges as a person who understood all this, and whose ideal textbook would not only celebrate Christian heritage, but also criticize Christianity’s failings and celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs among those who had, on the whole, an influence for good. But it does not change the fact that in their own writings on history, AIO certainly does not reach for this balance. Their definition of Christianity is narrow, to the point of cutting out many modern Christians, let alone earlier religious movements. I’m also not saying all the AIO-style Christians defended slavery and all the hippie Christians attacked it, but there’s a general trend here.

Mrs. Hodges says that this is “what we accused the Nazis of doing.” But the problem wasn’t the act of revising, just as Hitler’s problem wasn’t the gift of eloquence and Communism’s problem wasn’t the idea of regulating businesses… oh wait, AIO’s staff probably thinks the last one was the problem. Well, moving on. The problem happened when they lied, and cut out everyone who disagreed with the lie. And AIO is portraying the cutting out of Mrs. Hodges as an attack on people who disagree. That’s not what is really happening. In our society, there is still back and forth over education and textbooks. Sometimes I agree with what goes in and sometimes I don’t. And, most tellingly, I don’t think anything that Mrs. Hodges complains about is a serious inaccuracy. In some cases they are overcorrecting, but even there, society has so much of the opposite perspective… kids are going to hear your side too, Mrs. Hodges.

And here we get into my real problem. She makes an argument, a very good argument, that there’s something suspicious about a textbook that constantly picks and chooses what to include and what not to. Well, that can apply to the whole of AIO. They constantly pick and choose pro-Christian perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-traditional gender role perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-white perspectives. And when society presents them with alternate perspectives, they pick the most extreme example and cry foul.

Final Ratings

Best Part: This time my favorite part wasn’t a single scene, but an element of Mrs. Hodges’ character. She isn’t an aggressive person. On the contrary, she is very sweet and easygoing. This episode gradually revealed an inner strength to her that was both surprising and realistic. They say “beware the nice ones” for a good reason. Often the people who are softest on the surface have the most strength inside.

Worst Part: Jack’s skewed, scaremongering description of revisionist history.

Story Rating: Truth is, in terms of basic plot structures, this is one of the better ones. While it’s a bit obvious where it is going, it is tense, it engages the reader, and it uses Lawrence’s subplot as a good tension reliever. Hey, I split up the moral and story ratings for a reason! B+

Moral Rating: As with so many of these political themes, I have to split the difference between the ostensible moral message, and the underlying political ideas. The basic idea that authority should be respected in some cases and challenged in others is dead on, and they introduce some ways to tell the difference that are reasonable and accessible to kids. That’s an incredibly important set of ideas. But underneath it, they try to whitewash the racial and cultural imperialism that has marred our country’s history for so long. That’s incredibly damaging. So what the hell should I give this?

Well, if I’m analyzing this episode in isolation, halfway between an A+ and an F- is a C. If I’m analyzing it in the context of other themes, I’d have to weight the F side and give it a D-. Do with that what you will.

Sticks and Stones and Pens and Swords: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill Maher,

You’ve been behaving yourself lately, as far as I know. You’re a bit of a professional troll, so behaving yourself is a relative term, but you’ve stayed within the bounds of your own bell curve. I’ve been waiting for such an opportunity to talk to you.

Previously, after various PR disasters, I’ve drafted open letters and standard rants to talk to you, most recently when you called yourself a “house n*gger.” Each time, though, I’ve gotten sidetracked to another topic. I have found myself not talking about the particular recent crisis, but a recurring problem that has, for years, blocked me from properly enjoying your show. A problem that underwrites each of your individual controversies, as well as asserting itself throughout your show. A misconception you cling to almost obsessively, and that I have heard many of your fans repeat.

You love the idea that your words can’t hurt anyone.

For example, when you gave an interview to Milo Yiannopoulos, you and he jovially agreed that humor is all just about bonding and jokes are harmless. You even said, “when people laugh, they know it’s true.” You said that, to a man who regularly makes jokes at the expense of transgender people. Who encourages his fans to hurt trans people and even outs them to this hostile audience. So do you agree with the content of his jokes? Do you think his audience’s laughter means we deserve everything he believes about us?

Probably not. Probably you would engage in some special pleading to get out of those accusations. Pardon me, I was getting ahead of myself.

See, most of the time, when you say your words are inherently harmless, you are defending yourself against critics. Someone is saying that something you said is damaging or unfunny or otherwise unacceptable, and you are defanging that assessment. By saying that words cannot possibly cause real harm to anyone, you are making your critics out to be overanxious handwringers. But, by your own logic, why would you even bother to respond?

In other words, if your words cannot cause real harm to your critics, or whoever your critics say you are harming, then their words in turn cannot harm you. If words never hurt anybody, you shouldn’t care when people criticize you.

Well, maybe you are unconcerned. Maybe you just mock your critics because you are a wordsmith and professional troll, so you respond to anything so long as you have a sufficiently witty barb. But I am inclined to think you are concerned, that you think your critics have real power that you must defend yourself from, and I don’t think that defensiveness is unwarranted.

There’s always chance that, for example, when person A points out that your joke or your interview was damaging to person B, some members of your audience will think, “hey, I like person B! Bill Maher sure makes a lot of unnecessary jokes at person B’s expense. I now feel bad for laughing at those jokes.” If this goes on for long enough, people will stop watching your show, to avoid that “I shouldn’t have laughed” feeling. Hell, it’s why I no longer watch, and I’ve heard some people say they are finding it harder and harder to stay a fan.

If this trend continues, you will lose your audience, your ratings will plummet, and HBO will have to decide whether or not you’re worth the loss. There’s a good chance they will decide it is not. And as your style of humor is naturally very contentious, you might find yourself struggling to find another venue that will support you.

That would be inconvenient for you, as you don’t seem to have many skills beyond “sarcastic wordsmith.”

So you fight back, with this weird little magician’s trick. You, afraid of the harm caused by your critics’ words, will claim words are harmless, and that therefore you should never be criticized for your words. With enough wordplay, you disguise your true intent, your audience laughs, and personal financial crisis is averted.

It is fundamentally absurd for any human to claim words do not have power. We survive by the power of language. We use language to gather information, to pass it on to our descendants, to form social bonds that protect us. Words are an evolved life skill, selected for just as fangs and claws and tails are. They don’t deserve to be dismissed as frivolous baubles.

That is not to say that freedom of expression is not important. But we should respect the right to free speech, not like someone who guards a lamb, but like someone who releases a hawk. Words are the tools we use to construct governments and societies, and the ones we use to fix it when it is broken. Therefore we give free speech sovereignty over the law. This does not mean we give people license to say anything without consequence. When we use our words to criticize another person’s words, we are using them exactly they way they should be used. Words are like diamonds. We use them to cut each other, because no other tool is up to the job.

As someone who criticizes your critics, you are not a defender of free speech. You are simply a user of it, and your critics no less so. You are both sparring on equal terms under the law. And, for the record, if your critics do someday put you out of business, it will not be because they are against the game of social discourse. They’ll just have won it. A boxer who claims his victorious opponent is trying to ban tournaments isn’t making an insightful point, but being ridiculous and a sore loser.

You make your living off of the words you say. Respect the power of your tools.

Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

Activism, Self-Care and the March for Science

A confession; although I’ve been looking forward to this for months, I nearly did not go. Lately I’ve been low on spoons, and I kept asking myself what I could really contribute. One more body? If I showed up and there was a massive turnout, I would not be necessary. If I showed up and there wasn’t, I would not be enough to fix it. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I showed up. History is always happening, but these days it is happening at a rather more grueling pace.

Still, couldn’t I make up my absence with more concrete action, some other day?

In the end, what convinced me to get out and brave the rain wasn’t thoughts of what I could do. It was the realization that I needed the march more than the march needed me. In the first hundred days, the liberals have won more battles than they’ve lost. But they have had to fight hard, there have been losses, and there’s still plenty of time for the tide to turn. I want to take a break. I’m scared that if I do, that means everyone else will be too, and we will all be blindsided by the next move. I needed to get out there and see clear evidence that my people are still out there.

So I showed up, meandered, listened to speeches and read people’s signs. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder; I don’t much like having to interact with people. But I do like being around them. I’m a passionate crowd watcher. At the march, I was surrounded by xkcd shirts, brain hats, Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes, Lorax references and political math puns (apparently if you’re pro-choice, you vote Banach-Tarski in 2020… I was barely geeky enough to get that). There were buttons proclaiming that trans is beautiful and black lives matter. Some people blew bubbles in the rain, and watching them shimmer against the grey sky was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen.

And so many beautiful, dorky, incredible signs. I jotted down a few of my favorites;

  • “I only seem liberal because I think hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure, not gay marriage.”
  • A wordless portrait of Rosalind Franklin framed with plastic tube double helixes
  • (under a dead on Oregon Trail pixel drawing) “You have not died of dysentery. Thank science.”
  • “Donald, you’ll learn soon that Mar-a-lago is only 10 feet above sea level.”
  • “The earth is enormous and fragile, just like your ego. The difference is we can live without your ego.”

And my personal favorite…

  • “Science matters. Unless it’s energy. Then it equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

When I came home, I felt lighter. I also felt empowered, not least because I signed up for email lists to get more ideas for anti-fascist, pro-science and environmentalist activism. I got a reminder of just how many awesome weirdos are out there to fight ignorance and bigotry with me.

Take care of yourselves guys. Pace yourselves, join a team, sign up for a mailing list, and don’t be afraid to show up without knowing what exactly you’ll do for the cause, or how long you’ll even be able to stay. It’s okay. Just be there, to remind yourself that we aren’t doing this alone.

The Electoral College and the White Supremacist’s Advantage

In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen truly awful executive orders. We’ve also seen a historic rising up of people, organizations, and businesses. Even normally lazy and intractable politicians are taking the hint. This isn’t shaping up to be the smooth ride Donald wanted.

While this encourages me, it isn’t actually him who scares me the most. He’s the current manifestation of something that has been around a lot longer, will probably outlast him and is a lot more dangerous; the white supremacy movement.

How to create a truly diverse and equal world is a complex conversation with many different valid perspectives, but any decent human being should agree that it should exist. If your fundamental goal is to deny the humanity of anyone based on their race, language, nation of origin or ancestral ethnicity, you are not a legitimate political movement. You are an organization of hate. In recent years, white America has patted itself on the back for racial progressiveness, all the while ignoring dog whistling, southern apologists, and the piles of evidence for ongoing institutional racism. Now that white supremacists have put themselves back in the public eye, they have an opportunity to put themselves back on the table as a political perspective that we treat as normal. That cannot happen.

It is well known that your odds of being racist inversely correspond with your actual experience with people from different races. This effect can be mitigated by taboos against discussing race, institutional racism and socially acceptable racism, but in general, when people are allowed to socialize with other ethnic groups, discuss their differences and also find common ground, the idea of institutionalized racism becomes abhorrent. As America moves towards both greater demographic diversity, and also a greater social conversation about race, white supremacy loses more and more footholds. This excellent development means that, as time goes on, they only have a few regions of the country where they even have a chance to spread their ideology.

Simply put, they are better off in rural regions than urban areas.

This advantage doesn’t come from any moral superiority of city dwellers, but simply the fact that in a city you become more and more likely to run into people who are different from you on a daily basis. You are more likely to get inoculated against white supremacy, even in a society where racist institutions still exist. Rural areas are more isolated, and so easier for white supremacists to infect.

Now, the fact that they are so isolated should give white supremacists a disadvantage politically. This is where the Electoral College comes in. Because of the Electoral College, every Presidential election, voters in highly rural get their votes weighted double or treble over voters in states with major cities. With every Presidential election, they get a chance to control the public conversation about race. They get a chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices by proxy. They get a chance to dictate global policy. Without the Electoral College, white supremacists today would have no chance of putting their platform on a global or even national scale. With it, well, we are all seeing what has happened.

I think we will defeat Donald Trump. He’s too easy to mock and rally against. What scares me is the prospect of someone taking advantage of the galvanized white supremacist movement that he created. I worry that someone will come along who is smoother, more subtle when it comes to concealing their crimes, and altogether far less easy to mock. Not only do I think this is possible, but right now I think it’s inevitable.

What isn’t inevitable is that person’s victory. Even now, with so many racial problems still infecting our country, I believe our population has become too diverse for a true white supremacist to win the national popular vote. But as 2016 has proved, it’s possible for even a very unlikable one to win the Electoral College.

Activism against the current threat is wonderful, and we should keep doing it. But we should also have an eye on the future. The Electoral College is life support for neo-nazis. We need to unplug it.

This is part of an ongoing series on why I care so much about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If I’ve convinced you that the Electoral College is something to be concerned about, or just want to know more, please check out the NPVIC’s site. If you want to take action, the best way is to call your state governor and representatives and tell them you want your state to sign the NPVIC. On their homepage is a search bar, where you can type your zip code and find out who they are. 

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

November 9th, 2016

I don’t know what happened.

I’m writing this at ten minutes to 1 AM. Unless a miracle happens between now and dawn, Hillary Clinton will lose the election.

I don’t know what happened, but I can guess.

People were complacent that someone else would do the right thing. They knew one thing would feel morally superior and one thing was what most people needed to do to protect us as a whole. Instead of casting their vote in the best interest of the nation as a whole, they did what they could pretend was morally superior. Or else they just stayed home.

People swallowed a myth about the lesser of two evils. True in it’s substance, woefully inaccurate in it’s scale.

People let themselves be swept up by a story instead of fighting for the issues that will really matter to us over the next four years.

People turned out to be depressingly more bigoted and hateful than I wanted them to be.

I am scared, and sad, and feel like I haven’t even fully processed the weight of how bad this is. It will probably take a while before I do. Eventually, though, I will have processed this.

I will see injustices; I have no illusions. Real people will be hurt. In some situations, I will be one of them. In others, they will be people different from me; women, POC, and Muslims in particular. Things will not be fine.

In the meantime, I will love my partner, my sister, and my best friend. I will keep talking about injustices and protesting them. When I can do something to help, I will.

And eventually, I will regain my hope in the American people.

It’s just not going to happen today.

An Open Letter to Gary Johnson, on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, the GOP and LGBT Rights

Dear Gary Johnson,

Google, in it’s infinite algorithmic wisdom, has decided to throw an ad of yours my way, several times over the last few weeks. It can be summarized as, “vote for me, I supported gay marriage before Hillary Clinton did.” Initially I treated the way I treat most sidebar ads; I glanced then ignored. Then I found myself mildly irritated by it, and every time I saw it, I thought a little more about that irritation. And now here we are, with me ranting on the internet.

First of all, I looked up the date you came out to publically support gay marriage. I got December 1, 2011. Hillary Clinton supported civil unions but opposed marriage back in 2003, but changed to fully supporting equal marriage rights in March of 2013 (references in same link). So congratulations; you beat her by a full fifteen months. A baby went from lying in a crib to kind-of walking in the time it took for Hillary to catch up to your courageous public support of my love life.

Second, it doesn’t really bother me that Hillary Clinton played it safe back in the day. She’s been politically active for a long time, and her stances on numerous issues have evolved with the times. I’m okay with that, because I’m not naive. In her case, I’m especially inclined to forgive, because while she’ll bow and pander and obfuscate to get power, she then uses that power to do awesome stuff. She has fought hard for healthcare, environmentalism and women’s rights.

And no, it doesn’t bother me that you weren’t always openly pro-gay either.

That brings me to my third point. Your accomplishments, as far as LGBTQ rights go, consist of, well, saying you aren’t against them. The tide of public opinion on gay marriage turned quickly. You jumped into the water a year before Hillary Clinton did. But while you paddled in the shallows, she struck out swimming.

She even started working for us ever unpopular transgender people. As Secretary of State, she pushed through legislation that enabled trans people to get passports that affirmed their gender without jumping through medical hoops. Imagine life with an ID that can out you, that can expose you to violence. Imagine needing a surgery to get that ID changed, and needing a job to pay for the surgery, and being denied the job because your ID outs you as transgender. Long before I knew who was responsible, I knew a trans woman who carried her passport with her all the time. She carried it because she didn’t “pass” well, because she sometimes did get attacked, because the security of a gender affirming government-issued ID was something she needed daily. The passport bill is the kind of work Hillary is best at; small, not too glamorous, but with significant practical benefits for real human beings.

To this day, if you go to her plan on her website, you see trans issues explicitly spelled out. She will fight for our rights in bathrooms, as she will also fight gender conversion therapy, appoint Supreme Court Justices who will uphold our newly won marriage rights, and continue to vocally, openly support us.

I couldn’t find any evidence of your support for trans rights, or that you’ve even mentioned them. I don’t see what you say about conversion therapy. You are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. When you pick the new Supreme Court Justice, which will be your priority? Do you already have a list of highly qualified judges who are your fellow libertarians? If you can’t get one, would you appoint someone who is socially and fiscally liberal? Or will your primary concern be appointing someone in favor of “small government” even when that means making the government too small to protect people like me?

Those are the questions that concern me, a person who has to live in this country while being queer. Not “who liked us before we were cool?”

Fourth, why the hell are you criticizing Hillary Clinton at all? She’s not the person I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the party who, this year, reached new lows in their vehement opposition of LGBTQ rights. I’m scared of the people who are actively anti-gay marriage, not the one whose support of it is only three years old. I’m scared of the party that grins approvingly at conversion therapy and would refuse to let me adopt a child.

I’m scared of the fucking Republicans.

It’s possible you’ve got ads targeting the GOP and appealing to young, gay-friendly Republicans, and I just haven’t seen them because Google knows I’m not a Republican. It’s possible.

Although I do see an awful lot of pro-Trump ads these days though. So Google is letting Trump, Clinton and you being anti-Clinton through, but not you calling out Republicans on the most anti-LGBTQ platform yet? Yeah, that’s definitely more likely than you calling out the kettle and ignoring the pot.

What the hell, man?

All this together makes me think that, honestly, you don’t give a shit about people like me. You don’t see our rights as worthy of real time and action. But you’re happy to take credit for liking us, even if that means stealing votes for somebody who will actually make us a priority.

I think you can see why I’m a bit pissed.