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Monday, September 20, 2010


Why I'd like to see more men smacking sexists around

A few days ago a blogger I always find interesting, Greta Christina, posted a video of herself giving a rather good talk about diversity in the sceptical movement, which you should check out here. I'm not a member of the sceptical movement myself, but her comments are broadly applicable to all sorts of situations and pretty good sense, so I enjoyed listening to it.

But it got me thinking. During the Q&A, there was a discussion of how to deal with someone who's being unconsciously racist or sexist, and one of the big suggestions was that you should help them save face. Now, there's a good tactical argument for that - it's easier to admit something if you can save face doing it - but having been embroiled in various online arguments about sexism, kyriarchy and privilege, I found myself wondering about it. At least in terms of the benefit of any given community, which is what the talk was about.

Online at least, 'privilege' appears to be fightin' talk to a lot of people. White, male, heterosexual, cisgendered people: basically people who've never really been on the other side of the privilege divide, and so don't have the life experience that teaches them that yes, privilege is a real phenomenon, that it doesn't mean the individual who has privilege is evil but it does mean that some people have it easier than others and that you should probably check your assumptions and listen if somebody tells you it's different for them. And while these are the people who are presumably trying to save face by going through the denial-and-anger stage of response when you suggest to them that some people have it worse than they do, is helping them save face always the best response? Particularly if you're trying to keep your community welcoming to diversity?

Because here's something I've noticed about discrimination. Let's take racism as an example. There's the racism that burns a cross on somebody's lawn, and most of us agree that that's bad. But there's another kind of racism, a less dramatic kind that, being ethnocentric, many of us are prone to: encountering a situation where race is an issue, and being tenderly sensitive to all the tiny nuances of feeling and motivation and circumstance that the white person is undergoing while showing far less empathy towards the non-white person - and thinking you're being fair and compassionate. Forgiving somebody the same race as yourself for doing something crappy to someone of a different race, and thinking that this settles the issue rather than acknowledging that maybe it's not your place to pronounce the final judgement on the rights and wrongs. Thinking, in short, that a big dollop of understanding for the side that happens to look like you makes you sweetly reasonable.

And while that might be an under-the-radar racism for the person doing it, it's not going to fly under the radar of people who have to deal with racism all the time because some people really don't respect people of their race. They're going to notice.

And if nobody calls that person out on it - if people are tenderly sensitive to how terribly difficult it is for the poor person who's making this mistake, but not equally sensitive to how hard it is for the other guys to be on the receiving end of it - then they're going to put people off.

I'm a white person in a predominantly white culture, so I'm not entitled to appoint myself spokeperson for victims of racism here (anybody who has been on the receiving end of racism and who feels like sharing their views, please feel free to take over and correct me if I'm wrong); when I say 'they', I mean 'generic they, sometimes including me', because I bet you anything I've messed up on this plenty of times. But I can speak to an experience I've had several times when it comes to sexism. It's a subtle pattern - but its effects aren't subtle, and I think it's worth calling attention to it.

Here's how it goes.

You're in an online conversation, and the subject of privilege or sexism comes up, as, in an unequal society, it sometimes does.

A man or men get extremely defensive, and start arguing that really there's no such thing as privilege, that the effects of sexism on women aren't that important, that he/they feel upset at such talk, or some other version of 'Screw your struggles with injustice, I don't want to hear about them, and my individual feelings about this matter more than your whole gender's problems.'

A woman, or a few women, challenge this. Often politely, with attempts to explain rather than just to blast the guy or guys. (Important side-note: The number of women who do this depends on who's feeling strong that day - because here's a piece of info that's familiar to most women but not necessarily to men who haven't been told: any woman who challenges a man on sexism knows she's in for a huge, huge fight. It's revoltingly common to act as if pointing out sexism is a worse offence than doing or saying something sexist, to cast the person who says 'That's sexist' as the aggressor who Started Something and the person who said the sexist thing as the victim ... and in order to deal with that whole imbroglio, a woman has to be very confident, prepared to hold her own in a battle and willing to be disliked. It's like that saying about how for every mouse you see, there are twenty-five that you don't: for every woman who says 'That's a sexist thing to say', there are almost certainly a lot who are equally troubled by the sexist comment but who just don't feel up to bringing down a firestorm on their heads.)

A battle results, in which the man or men insist on denying the women's experience, throw in a whole lot of unpleasant remarks that are nasty for women to hear while remaining under the impression that they're the big victims here, and generally act in a wearying way. The tougher women hang in, dealing with all the stress and distress that listening to your gender demeaned for the millionth time brings with it, and often hiding their distress because when you're talking to someone who doesn't respect women, the last thing you want to do is confirm all his buried assumptions by looking weak.

The men in the group, for the most part, sit it out. You might get one here and there, but on the whole, even though they probably don't agree with the sexist opinions the other men are chucking about, the majority of the men leave the fighting to the women.

And here's a variant: occasionally the sexist guy gets the point enough to retract something he said. And when he does, all the other men weigh in to congratulate him, shake his hand and generally tell him what a great guy he is to change his opinion.

And it's a pattern that really, really annoys me.

Those men were nowhere when the women were doing the hard and exhausting work of convincing the guy to stop being a jackass. They have no words of support or thanks for the women who did that work. Yet the minute the man reduces his jackassery just a bit, they're all over him.

Probably not out of deliberate sexism. But this pattern reinforces sexism even as it attempts to reward non-sexism, for a very simple reason. By saying nothing when the guy's being a jackass and falling all over him when he stops, the men - who are the people whose opinion a sexist guy is, deep down, going to take seriously - send a subtle but clear message: being non-sexist is above and beyond the call of duty. We'll do nothing to penalise you if you do it, but we'll reward you if you don't. Non-sexism isn't a minimal requirement, it's being a great guy who can expect special treatment if you take even a baby step towards it. And if you aren't being that great a guy, well, nobody who counts really minds. It's just a shiny extra feather in your cap.

(This effect can work if women weigh in to congratulate him as well, but there's a particular twist when it's mostly men doing it: it reinforces the unconscious sexist's assumption that it's men who get to decide when a subject is closed. With a whole bunch of guys slapping Sexist Version 1.2 on the back, it becomes very difficult for any women who are still upset with his behaviour to say anything more about it without looking ungracious. The back-slappers probably don't intend to close off the women's options, but they are acting out the traditional role of men as referees of public discourse, the ones who pass the final judgement on when a matter is or isn't settled, the ones whose opinons really count. And that's only going to add to our unconscious sexist's sexism - especially because it's very much in his interests to accept a model that lets him think of himself as a great guy.)

It also carries a corollary implication: women who work hard to promote equality deserve nothing, but men who make a small shift from total jerk to somewhat less of a jerk deserve a lot. There's no need to reward the women for doing the work of making him shift, but the man needs lots of petting and praise. The unequal and male-favouring distribution of support and endorsement is a community being fair. One man's feelings matter more than all women's feelings ... Which is pretty much the assumption the guy throwing the tantrum was going on in the first place. He can walk away with a slightly revised opinion in some areas, but his ideas about what slice of the pie he deserves actually confirmed - because while listening to him was a punitive experience for all the women around, he doesn't get seriously punished. He gets a carrot for letting up on giving everybody stick. Men matter more than women, and more specifically, he matters more than women.

And that's the thing about privilege; that's its whole foundation. Privilege - and I speak as a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class person here, so I've got privilege coming out of my ears - means being able to get away with stuff, with suffering no negative consequences for not thinking about what it's like for someone less advantaged. If you suffer no serious consequences for saying something sexist (and if you don't respect women's opinions, women taking you to task is a less serious consequence than men doing it), you're getting away with it. You don't have to change your basic opinion that it's safe and okay for you to disregard women.

Helping someone like that save face? That's a problem. It means, basically, working hard to keep them in the position of unchallenged security that led to them being prejudiced in the first place. Losing face, or the threat of losing face, is a powerful social motivator. If their face hadn't been preserved so often in the past, they'd probably know better than to say offensive things now. They'd know there was a cost attached.

This is all going to affect communities, because while you're working hard to help the prejudiced people save face, there are people watching who, through their prejudice, they've insulted. If you're trying to respect the dignity of someone prejudiced while doing nothing to support the dignity of the people they've degraded, you're still valuing the dignity of the man, the white person, the heterosexual - of That Guy - more than the dignity of people on the other side of the line. (And it's not as if you're operating in a world where face-saving is an evenly distributed resource. I can tell you from experience, it's not as if unconsciously sexist men are eager to help women save face when they want them to knock off this feminist talk. I'd bet money that unconsciously racist people aren't all about helping non-white people save face, or that homophobic people aren't lying awake at night wondering how to help gay people save face. Helping you save face treats your credit as something you should consider yourself entitled to, which is exactly what prejudiced people don't think about others.)

Helping someone save face might gradually unstick them from their prejudices, sure. But you have to decide what your priority is: unsticking one individual from their prejudices on the do-it-slowly-and-painlessly principle like you were removing a plaster, or having a community that doesn't favour certain members over others. And spending a whole lot of time gently working on the dignity of someone who did something wrong, while showing no such consideration for the victims of their prejudice who didn't do anything wrong, is a very uneven distribution of community resources.

And people who are used to getting a smaller piece of the pie are going to notice. Because they've been here before, many, many times.

I often try to explain things politely, at least as a starting move, but when it comes to diversity in communities - well, I won't name names, but while I'm someone who's perfectly prepared to go ten rounds with people on a cause I believe in, I nevertheless have in the past dropped out of communities, or chosen not to join them, precisely because of this pattern. There's a place for educating the unconsciously prejudiced ... but it's a place that favours the unconsciously prejudiced, and we have plenty of those already.

Sometimes you need to draw a line between what's good for the individual and what's good for the community. It might be good for the individual to be gently persuaded of the error of their ways - though I'm personally not too starry-eyed about that, as a lot of people aren't persuadable - but what's good for that individual and what's good for a community aren't the same thing. Sometimes educating that individual is done at the cost of the community, or at the cost of other members or potential members of the community - and if the educatee tends to be someone privileged (which, in a discussion about prejudice, is highly likely), then that's going to discourage diversity, because sometimes people have just had enough of listening to prejudiced talk and don't want to stick around for some more.

In short: if you really want diversity, there's something to be said for patience, but there's also a whole lot to be said for just bouncing the jackasses. If they're serious, they'll learn and come back - and getting bounced can teach you a sharp and much-needed lesson - and if they're not, we're better without them. And in the meantime, turning the place into a gentle, supportive school for them while making other people listen to themselves being insulted? Not favouring diversity.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Nitrous oxide

Content warning: this post discusses a bad birth experience. If you've had a bad birth experience and are prone to flashbacks, take note. To quote the Birth Trauma Association: It is estimated that, in the UK alone, this may result in 10,000 women a year developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, as many as 200,000 more women may feel traumatised by childbirth and develop some of the symptoms of PTSD. If you're one of those - and I'm one of those too - you may prefer to skip it.

I've added this warning late in the day after a commenter requested it. To anyone I distressed before the warning went up, my deepest apologies.

Drugs being one of those things that writers often like to write about, here's a post about something that happened to me lately. To wit, at around the mid-point of my 40-hour labour, I was given gas and air.

Now, you're supposed to take gas and air only during the contractions, but contractions are a natural process and induction ain't, so what I got was constant pain, and the only way to get rid of it was to keep taking the gas until I was finally given an epidural about twenty-four hours after the induction began. The second day of labour, the medical staff tried to stop me inhaling the gas so constantly (to my deep fear and distress, as life without it was pretty much beyond my exhausted endurance by that point) but at two in the morning, the night shift midwife simply put a tank of gas in my room and left me to it, so I spent a lot of time high. And as the pain came back unless I knocked myself out completely, I mean really seriously high.

Interesting experience. And one that I hope I won't have to repeat.

This is the way gas and air works: you inhale it, and feel a little drunk and fuzzy after a couple of breaths. It doesn't numb you out very thoroughly, though, unless you keep on inhaling. Then what happens is that you climb and climb until you hit a dizzy plateau where suddenly your whole body is high. Pain vanishes (with reservations), and so do the edges of your body unless you consciously start looking for them. The closest normal sensation is that of having a limb fall asleep: nitrous oxide gives you full-body-and-mind pins and needles.

Which I, at least, experienced as a kind of white noise, a ringing in my ears that got into my mind - but also as racing thoughts. Gas and air is supposed to relax you, so it may take other people differently, but I found my mind going haywire. Now, I'd had gas and air before, at the dentist's as a child, and the effects were a little different - it made me giggly rather than racy - so body chemistry and the emotional state you bring in presumably have a lot to do with it. In the hospital I was stressed out, to put it mildly, so my scrambling brain might well have been reacting to that. In any case, here's how it went:

The brain, as I've said before, is a rationalising organ, and faced with this fuzziness, my brain tried to make sense of things. Possibly the racing thoughts were a measure of just how hard it was having to struggle, because the effects were as follows:

1. A sense of frantically trying to work something out.

2. A tendency to leap from one 'insight' to the next: no sooner did I feel like I had worked something out than my mind would decide that yes, that was all very well, but really that signified this - which was all very well, but really this signified that...

3. A preoccupation with infinity.

4. A tendency to manufacture false memories of childhood and earlier life.

I'm fairly sure, for example, that I never colour-coded my homework by scribbling in certain boxes with a brown pencil when I was eight, but my brain was very bound up in that 'memory' for a while, particularly the scribbling sensation (which I think was a way of expressing how buzzy my nerve endings felt). I don't think I used to end comprehension questions with the phrase 'of the people' and abbreviate 'people' to 'ppl', nor to write sentences that referred to things being 'of the people of the people', which I'd write like a mathematical notation - ppl to the power of ppl. I don't think I used to visualise a blue sky seen through a narrow car windscreen at the end of a tunnel when I was falling asleep as a child either, but my brain 'remembered' it vividly - to the point where I'm honestly not sure if that was a real memory or not. Meditation became a subject that occupied me: I did have some interesting experiences at meditation classes in my late teens and early twenties, but whether they were the same as the thoughts about mindfulness I was having on the gas or not, I really don't know. My brain was, I think, making stuff up and insisting that it was not only true, but somehow significant, key experiences, even some kind of guide as to the real nature of life or myself.

At the same time, thoughts tended to spiral off very quickly into a kind of recursive superlative. I got the idea in my head that when I was a child, I'd had the thought that you could feel something so strongly that the only way to express the feeling (either physical or mental) was to trail off halfway through naming it and scream instead. My brain supplied a written notation for this which my keyboard can't mimic: substitute a dot for an asterisk, and the word 'mindfulness', for instance (which I kept obsessing over) would be written 'mindfuln*****'. Every thought I had, I quickly finished by writing it out in my mind as an infini***** version of itself, and then sped on, trying to work out the next thing.

Underneath all this gibber was another attempt at working something out: I wanted to work out what effects the gas had on me, and whether any of these sleeting thoughts were either useful insights or curious symptoms. Gas and air tends to make you forget everything that's happened more than a few seconds ago unless you concentrate, but I was concentrating. I wanted to tell my husband what the effects were. I figured he'd find them interesting. While I was going round and round with my fizzing infinities, I was also trying to balance these insights by asking myself what I knew to be true, and the fact that I loved my husband was one of them. I couldn't remember him very clearly, nor slow down my spinning brain enough to actually recall what love felt like, but I knew it was a fact. (In retrospect, a fact probably best expressed by the fact that I was holding on to the plan of talking to him later as a way to steady myself while my brain was going crazy.)*

So anyway, there I was, on my own at two in the morning, counting the minutes until eight o'clock when the hospital would let my husband back onto the ward - and I stopped checking my phone in discouragement after I found that what seemed to me a long period of time had actually resulted in me checking the darn thing twice inside of a minute. My brain was trying to juggle philosophical insights, but my philosophy has always been that no esoteric insight is worth anything if it detaches you from reality. So at intervals, I returned to reality to give my thoughts some ballast. I knew I was in labour, and that I'd agreed to an induction I didn't want for the safety of the baby, and that I'd agreed to take gas and air that I didn't particularly want because I couldn't deal with the pain -

- and crash, my body would find the pain it had previously lost in the fuzz.

The gas, you see, didn't actually get rid of the pain. It just filled my brain with so much static that most of the time I couldn't see it. But every now and again my circling thoughts would come back to the point where I decided to check reality and sort of remembered how to do it, and when that happened, I found that reality contained a lot of pain.

So I'd gasp at the gas again, deliberately sending my thoughts back out running, because, in one of those recursive chains of logic that kept unpeeling in my skull anyway, it seemed the only way to deal with the pain was to forget that I was supposed to be dealing with it. But of course, having forgotten, I kept forgetting that reality was something I'd regret checking, and then check it again.

And round and round I went, until I passed out. (And woke up long enough to be sick on the floor. Then passed out again, and woke up with a sore throat from breathing dry gas for hours.)

In short, the effects of the gas were exciting in their way, but there was something horrible about them, a kind of pay-your-soul price. In order to get away from the pain, I had to cut loose from my anchors and allow myself to go into a slightly crazed state of mind. And if I tried to order it, I was punished by a return of the pain. Nitrous oxide is a jealous analgesic.

In vino veritas, perhaps? Did the gas reveal elements of myself that are usually submerged? I think I was wrestling with about three different layers of identity: an adult woman trying to maintain balance on what was really important to her, a young woman reaching after spiritual insights, and a little girl who wanted to get praised for doing her homework. None of these except perhaps the first were any kind of mother identity - a medicalised birth doesn't help put you in that frame of mind at all, and neither does being out of your skull, and it was only when my son actually appeared, twenty-four hours later, that I started getting my head around it. In the meantime, the gas kept shunting my brain back into the past, into pre-pregnancy identities - or at least, into false versions of them.

Did I learn anything from the experience? While my brain was trying to have profound insights at a rate of knots, I think the main things I actually learned were - well, not so much lessons learned as opinions re-confirmed. I don't drink or use drugs, and the nitrous oxide experience reminded me why: I don't enjoy the sensation of an alien force taking control of my perceptions. I'm sceptical of anyone who says they've had a spiritual revelation on drugs, and the nitrous oxide gave me an example of that: I felt like I was reaching for insights, but the gas confirmed that it's possible to have the sensation of insight without any actual insight to back it up, because most of the thoughts I had were pretty much garble, or just ways of saying 'Wow, I feel kind of buzzy' and 'Yeah, trying to stay coherent here.' Talking to my husband is one of my ways of coping with stressful situations, and I dealt with the stress of the gas (plus being left alone in early labour all night) by thinking of what I might say to him later.

These were all things I knew, and the gas just gave me a graphic demonstration of them: I didn't take out anything I didn't bring in. The main new thing I learned was that if I ever get up the courage to have another child, I should go in with a written set of requests about pain relief - because, while I was actually able to understand and reply to questions better than I would have been on alcohol, I gave the impression of being drunk past comprehension. It took me a bit of time to double-check I was clear on everything, but nitrous oxide did not completely knock out the rational part of my mind any more than it knocked out the pain: it just buried them under an avalanche of mental chatter, and given the right effort, they could be dredged up. So the main thing I learned was pretty much 'How nitrous oxide affects me'. Not a very deep revelation, but hey, I always thought that if you want depth, you might as well stay sober.

Having said all that, without the nitrous oxide, I don't even want to imagine what that night would have been like. And if I were a woman in a poorer country, I wouldn't have had to imagine it, because proper medical care wouldn't have been available to me. I'm currently soliciting donations to The Center For Reproductive Rights, which campaigns to give pregnant women access to legal and medical support; if you can afford a charitable donation right now, please give them a thought.

*It probably says something about our relationship that when he was allowed back into the hospital next morning and I was given gas again, I was dizzily trying to explain its effects to him while I could still remember them as a way of coping with the stress and pain - while he coped with the stress of seeing his wife in this condition by listening sympathetically, patting me on the back, and also taking out his iPhone to record what I was saying, in the hopes I might find it interesting to hear later. A big reason we married each other was that we've always enjoyed conversing.

This is what he records me as saying: '...to indicate that it had reached the sort of infinite level ... extension ... or possibly the highest level of sensation ... like, so pleasant you'd scream, so angry you'd scream - which is like, "Don't do that, agghhh..." [this is me quietly demonstrating 'so angry you'd scream', not actually telling someone not to do something], sort of white noise of excessive anything ... [inaudible] produces a sensation of white noise in the brain [inaudible] ... for example, it tries to spell things, but can't be bothered it just sort of spells, like, the first syllable and then goes dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot, but not on the bottom, at the top, to indicate that there's white noise going on...'

He also notes that I told him my brain had invented a word, the definition of which was 'a unit of quantity, in which the quantity is infinity', sort of an equivalent to 'score' or 'dozen'. The word was 'plenchment'. Don't ask me.

I don't sound trippy on the recording, and I certainly don't sound insightful. I sound exhausted.

Monday, September 06, 2010


World Fantasy Award article

I mentioned before that Alison Flood of the Guardian was covering the World Fantasy Award nominations? Well, here's her article; you can read what I said in it.


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