Comics, Threats, Censorship, Free Speech

Having written this, I don’t think it says anything new, so let’s categorize this as a summary of recent events for convenience sake, rather than a blistering think piece.

A. The Killing Joke Cover – A recent sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Recently, DC comics announced a bunch of variant covers celebrating the Joker, and one was released that recalled The Killing Joke, a famous if unevenly celebrated comic by Alan Moore.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the cover, expressing their ideas that it was too far afield from the current Batgirl comic, and that it generally promoted the wrong idea about the comic.
  3. Some other people reacted negatively to the criticism, directing harassment and threats at the people who had criticized the cover.
  4. DC and the artist decided to pull the cover, citing, in part, the fact that it had generated harassment and threats.

Now various misogynist assholes are crying censorship!  But not about the company’s decision to remove its own artwork, but rather about the fact that protest got it removed.  That protest, in their mind, is censorship.

Here are two interesting and useful takes on the discussion from Shoshanna Kessock and Zac Thompson.

B. Female Thor – A slightly older sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Marvel announced that a new iteration of Thor would be a woman.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the news.
  3. Other people argued with them.
  4. Marvel decided to go ahead with the plan (and seems to be making a tidy sum)

Had Marvel decided to pull this comic, would they have cried censorship?  There’s no way to know, but my gut says they would not have cried censorship.

C. Threats vs Censorship – On the recent misogyny, threats, and censorship.

There’s a fascinating feature on BoingBoing about “How imageboard culture shaped Gamergate.”  It makes it much easier to understand how many otherwise pleasant people could adopt such an horrific behavior profile online.

But it’s crucial to think about different kinds of suppression of speech.

  • Censorship is, of course, when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by the government.
  • Intimidation (in this case) is when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by means of threats and harassment.

The enduring irony of #GamerGate and other prominent “defense of that thing I like” movements is that they cry censorship while perpetuating intimidation.  Without irony or a sense of distance.

The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Not threats, not intimidation. The marketplace of ideas needs to be won with ideas.  Any other tactics are unethical, and using them degrades the value and quality of your position.




Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Mea Culpa

For your consideration: Apologies.

It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic.  But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:

  1. This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
  2. Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
  3. TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story.  (2/19/2015)
"Sorry Explored" by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)
“Sorry (Explored)” by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:

  • The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
  • Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
  • Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.

It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind.  Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs).  Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.

But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:

First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows.  A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call.  So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal.  We expect a personal apology.

Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.

Brian Williams' Apology
Brian Williams’ Apology

Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built.  The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.

I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.

  1. Are apologies of this size and frequency new?  I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
  2. Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies?  In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
  3. Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before?  If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?


On Trigger Warnings and Empathy

Neil Gaiman’s recent short story collection is called Trigger Warnings.  Scott Kenemore (author of Zombie, Indiana among many others) wrote about how horror is supposed to cause feelings of discomfort:

in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.  Any opportunists in our ranks have long since decamped for the greener pastures of YA.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters. (Read the rest here: We ARE the triggers)

I posted this in reply:

You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.

But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.

But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle them (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).

By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.

To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.

On modern humor


A few observations without a conclusion.

1. “College Kids Can’t Take A Joke” by Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (link)
Clarence Page writes about how Chris Rock doesn’t perform for college audiences any more because they’re too sensitive. Page writes:

I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who manage to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.

But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life — like race relations.

This reminds me of some essay I read a few days ago and can’t find in which a comedian explains how he doesn’t resent having to be more careful about what audiences will tolerate, as often the intolerance comes at the expense of lazy humor aimed at othering people.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  But I think at the heart of his disdain for ‘over-sensitivity’ is the failure to recognize that sensitivity is a good thing — it’s often tied to empathy.  There’s a difference, of course, between being sensitive to how people feel and being unwilling to discuss difficult things.  I hope it’s the latter Rock is discussing.

2. Clarence Page part 2 – Bill Maher protests

There’s another part of Page’s essay that drives me crazy.  Page connects Rock’s lament about over-sensitive college students to this:

…the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel as a protest against his views on Islam, which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response.

As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

Page calls this censorship, to which I say “Bullshit.”  The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Among that speech can be “Hey Institution I Like, please don’t pay someone saying odious things to come say them to my face at an event celebrating me.”   One of the results of saying controversial things is that some people will tell you to fuck off, as these 4,000 protesters did.  They aren’t saying “Bill Maher should not be allowed to write or be on tv anymore,” they’re just saying they don’t want to be there when he does it.

As to the snarky reply about hearing things that don’t upset you — they clearly already heard those things, have assessed their value in the give and take of conversation, and told Maher to shove off.

3. Leslie Hall (link)

I like Leslie Hall a lot, particularly for her powerful comedic and musical performances that both revel in and define stereotypes about her body.  I mentioned yesterday liking the song “Tight Pants / Body Rolls,” which is both a powerful claiming of herself as a musician and a self-depreciating look at her own imperfections.  Clearly much of the humor comes from Hall’s stage persona, a cuddly 80s-quaffed power diva, but her self-assured song style (as in “This is How We Go Out”) elevates her act far beyond a gimmick, even as she lovingly infuses many songs with nerdcore aptitudes (as with “Craft Talk”).

4. Jokes about Race

As the issue about Rock brought up, one of the touchiest spaces in modern comedy is in thinking about race.  The “post race” moment we find ourselves in results in an odd experience — the comedic angle that “we’re not racist so we can all laugh together at this racist joke, right?”  It’s this attitude that pushed me away from tosh.0 and makes it less fun than I’d like to play Cards Against Humanity.  I always end up with a hand full of cards playing on race stereotypes because I don’t think they’re funny.

I wonder if Chris Rock would lump me in with those over-sensitive college students he doesn’t want to perform for anymore.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I want to be part of the digital revolution!

Hallie and Jim

This season’s The Newsroom has re-told the story of the Snowden leaks on a smaller scale, exploring the idea of the reporter being jailed for contempt of court on refusing to name their source.  While this has been interesting, I find the plotlines about the intersection of the Internet and the news far more compelling.

Hallie’s work for a gawker-like blog makes Jim upset because her pay depends, to a degree, on traffic.  She begins adopting a more personal writing style (including writing about a fight she had with Jim) which doesn’t seem to be about news so much as about entertainment.  But Hallie makes key points to Jim — first, that audience concerns drives television news too, and that their ability to tell certain stories depends on their audience share.  Second, she asserts that a more personal writing style will connect with the readers.  I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in the digital age, the audience must be much more concerned with the people writing its news.  The automatic credibility obtained by working for ACN, for instance, doesn’t apply to Internet writers, so by building a personal connection with her audience, Hallie is amplifying the connection she makes with them.  Jim’s luxury of being able to only write “real news” is failing, hard. (It’s in her argument with Jim that Hallie shouts “I want to be part of the digital revolution!”)

The most recent episode had two more stories focused on the Internet era.  The new owner of ACN, played with perfect arrogance by B.J. Novak, demands programming and reporting changes that have angered the ‘pure journalists’ of the show but have pulled the network’s ratings up.  At the crux of this episode is their app, ACNywhere, which allows people to post celebrity sightings.  Sloan finds this awful, and invites the arrogant man who created the app on television to eviscerate him.  The episode perfectly captures the tension between the connectedness of the modern age and the dangerous nature of big data and its affordances.

Last, in a highly charged and strongly criticized sub-plot, Don was ordered to do a story on a website where women are invited to share their experiences of sexual assault where the police or other authorities did not pursue charges against the womens’ attackers.  The sub-plot attempted to explore the dangers of unfettered publication on the web, and the possibility for people to be tarnished by that story.  But in failing to adequately address the question of how to cover rape, its real effect was to make a hash of the public debate about rape and our terrible handling of it, both legally and socially.

Sonia Saraiya at Salon makes a convincing argument that the show’s season-length plot about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ is capped by the leaker story, the ultimate citizen journalism case into which all these concerns flow.  It wonders about publicity being directed at those who don’t deserve it, worries about the unforeseen consequences of releasing information into the world, and makes us think about the nature of truth in the digital age.

Consent, entitlement, and zombies (Deadgirl, part 2)

Trigger Warning: this post discusses sexual assault and harassment.
Spoiler Alert: this post discusses plot points in Deadgirl in detail.

This is not a review of Deadgirl.  For that, you can see this post.  Instead, this post reflects on some resonances I see between the ideas at work in the film and recent flare-ups of misogyny we’ve seen in the last few months, particularly with regard to #GamerGate.

First, I’ll lay out a few scene descriptions.  These are awful, but without them it’s hard to make the leap to the next argument.

1. Upon finding a tied-up zombie girl (without significant decay, so looking more like a drugged girl than a corpse; I use the term ‘girl’ here because that’s what the boys call her–it’s unclear how old she’s supposed to be, but I would suggest late teens to mid twenties), a group of boys argue about what to do with her.  The first encounter ends with Rickie objecting to JT’s intended rape of the girl, but leaving the JT to it rather than objecting more forcefully.  At this point, Rickie believes the girl is alive (not a zombie).

2. Over the course of the film, three more boys will find the zombie girl and of the five, only Rickie refrains from raping her.  The last two boys do so specifically because they’re prodded into it.  The group clearly operates on a mix of bravado, machismo, untethered morality, and peer pressure.  They’re also significantly guided by a strong-willed sociopath who quickly leads them into the most depraved acts.

3. Late in the film, two of the boys decide the zombie girl has become too decayed to continue raping, and they decide to kidnap another woman and turn her into a zombie girl.  At this point, clear lines have been drawn between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘evil’ ones, but the sliding scale of that morality is slippery and fungible in the film.  Of particular note to the discussion here is JT’s final speech to Rickie, suggesting that they were destined for a life of poverty and denial from the women they want, and suggesting that taking what they want is the only way to proceed.

At the heart of the new misogyny, particularly the MRA and PUA communities, lies an assumption of entitlement.  It’s a suggestion that men have a right to women who will sleep with them, and that feminism is a plot to deny men that basic right.  At its heart, it’s a philosophy that imagines women not as individuals with equal rights, but as objects that exist to serve men.  When a toxic community–like PUAs–foster these ideas for one another, they drive one another ever further into that mentality.  The boys in the film go from tentatively touching the bound zombie girl to desiring another and planning to kidnap a woman to make her into one.  It feels intensely similar to the ‘techniques’ shared by Pick-Up Artists who believe sexual relations to be a game, and who cultivate a disregard for womens’ humanity as a basic part of their rhetoric.

Indeed, consent stands as the unspoken issue in the film.  The seemingly-drugged state of the zombie girl gives JT the opportunity to rape her, and their discovery that she is, in fact, dead gives them the excuse to keep doing so.  But aside from Rickie, the characters seem to attach no interest at all in whether what they’re doing is wrong.  In fact, the girl’s nudity implies, to these boys, consent.  By the end of the film, this sense of entitlement has grown such that they’re willing to kidnap women to get what they want.

The film also raises a point that resonates with the argument made by anti-porn and anti-media-violence advocates — that familiarity with a trope decreases sensitivity against it.  In other words, treating women as objects regularly conditions us to treat women as objects.  In his essay from Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, “Zombie Gladiators,” Dale Jacquette argues that even in a world of zombies, it would not be in our best interest to kill zombies for sport or entertainment.  Because zombies resemble humans, the regular exposure to their brutalization would inure us to the brutalization of other humans who aren’t zombies.  We see this theme throughout zombie cinema — people who spend a lot of time killing zombies become more willing to kill regular people who get in their way.  (The Walking Dead turns significantly on this idea.)  Deadgirl suggests that the misogynistic and exploitative relationship the boys have with the deadgirl taints their ability to relate to all people, making them cavalier about life and willing to, as I mentioned above, kidnap another woman to get a new “deadgirl.”

As I watched the movie and saw the way the sociopathic leader could taunt and cajole his followers into acts of incredible depravity, I couldn’t help but think of the slavering attack hounds of #GamerGate who pile abuse and hatred on women in gaming.  Like the boys in deadgirl with the zombie, #GamerGaters have stopped seeing their critics as human beings, they’ve lost control of their moral compass, and they’re reveling in the debauchery they’ve wrought. Like Rickie, they’ve failed to sever ties with the awful human beings they’re associated with, and they continue to try and salvage the situation.

The real question is what to make of the people who still imagine #GamerGate can productively be about anything else. When I read the continued defense from #GamerGaters of the movement, claiming to decry the behavior of their colleagues, I can’t help but think of the final sequence in the movie:

After JT stabs Joann, Rickie tries to drag her to safety.  He holds her, telling her he loves her.  Joann coughs blood in his face and groans “Grow up.”

The psychopathy of teenage boys: Deadgirl

DeadgirlTrigger warning: this post explores issues of sexual assault.

Deadgirl is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen.  I knew, from what little I’d read, that it would be hard to watch, but the film’s surprisingly believable dive into the torments of unbalanced teenage boys cuts to the core.  It’s awful, and stunning.  I want to wash my brain out with soap.

The film revolves around two teenage boys (Rickie and JT) who find a zombie girl tied up in a secret room in the back of an abandoned asylum.  Their struggle about what to do with her (including using her as a sex toy) becomes the center of the movie.  The main moral force–and the central viewpoint–in the film, Rickie, wavers in his willingness to keep the dead girl secret when she seems to be looking at him, sometimes expressing distress, but then devolving to the growling animal state of the conventional movie zombie.  Add to this the growing problems that come from hanging out with zombies and you have a compelling film.  A few thoughts:

  • The early sequences of the film involve the struggle among the friends to decide what to do.  At play are the bonds of lifelong friendship and the peer pressure of teen groups against the meagre moral compass of one of the characters.  The story complicates quickly as they discover the girl is, in fact, a zombie and thus less human in the eyes of some of the boys.  The early sequences feel like they are about frat-house rape, in which the victim has been drugged and the boys cheer one and egg one another on.
  • As the film progresses, it shifts into a fiasco movie, with the boys finding themselves in more and more trouble as the secret horror they’re trying to keep becomes harder and harder to contain.  This results in some lighter scenes in between the extremely dark sequences that make up the bulk of the film.
  • We also come to the horror trope of the mildly-villainous person who goes mad with power as the story goes along.  JT’s descent into madness works very well, and reminds me of 2006’s Slither, which revolves around Grant’s increasing mania (though to be fair, JT is just an amoral bastard rather than being controlled by an alien slug like Grant).
  • The cinematography is this film is particularly well done. Harris Charalambous composes shots that walk the border between voyeuristic and creepy (though lean toward creepy), giving the audience Rickie’s perspective (the curious teenager who hesitates) rather than JT’s (the more willing to break taboos).  As the film progresses, the girl becomes less sexualized and more brutalized, even as the boys around her are becoming degraded and debauched by their continued association with the zombie.  Few movies have used visual metaphor to represent moral taint so effectively.
  • Last, the film effectively explores issues of entitlement and detachment that sit at the root of the modern misogyny.  The attitudes expressed by the boys in the film sound all too familiar for people paying attention to the rampant rise of public sexism and harassment culture, particularly among young men and boys. (I will explore these more thoroughly in a later post.)

There are a few movies that ponder what obligation we have to zombies as beings.  Day of the Dead tackles the idea of zombie-as-person in the Bub storyline, and the extras on Dawn of the Dead include a sequence with a bunch of frat guys trying to rape a zombie (it doesn’t end well for them).  Romero’s films regularly feature stomach-churning sequences in which humans descend into depravity by torturing zombies for amusement — hanging the zombies up for target practice, etc.  Dead Alive also approaches the question of the zombie-kept-alive from a different angle, the one of filial obligation.  But as far as I know, this is one of the only films that wonders about zombies as sex slaves (setting aside porn or soft-porn movies, of which a brief google search suggests there might be many; I did not click any links from that search, so I leave that to one of you, intrepid readers).

I didn’t want to watch Deadgirl.  It’s an unpleasantly horrific movie.  But much of its horror comes not from the debauched and vile things the boys in the film do, but the all-too-believable psychology behind why they do them.  As to whether you should see it?  I really can’t say.  I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I also know it will stick with me for a long time as a crucial and disturbing zombie film.

3 anecdotes that shape my thoughts on #GamerGate – Boy Scouts, a Cat in the Trash, and a Clockwork Orange

If you don’t know what #GamerGate is, you should be glad.  It’s awful.  Here’s a summary if you don’t know.

Here’s my TL;DR for you:

1. Over the last couple years, a few feminists have been pointing out that many video games perpetuate sexist stereotypes about women, and make little room for women in their stories and gameplay.  The locus of this conversation has been Anita Sarkeesian and her Feminist Frequency video channel.  When Sarkeesian decided to make a series of videos about women in games a couple years ago, some members of the “gamer” community lost its mind, and many members of it began harassing her relentlessly, triggering the Streisand effect and getting Sarkeesian far more money than she would have gotten originally (full disclosure, I pitched in $10 specifically because of this harassment).  The abuse and harassment has not stopped for Sarkeesian in the time since her project began.

2. Sometime recently, the ex-boyfriend of a game developer named Zoe Quinn posted a long rant about what an awful person he thought she was, and she suddenly became the object of all sorts of viciousness and abuse from the net’s most visible denizen of ne’er-do-wells, 4chan’s /b/ forum.  As part of this vitriol, accusations were made that Quinn used sex to advance her games and/or get favorable reviews from game journalists.

3. Hence, #GamerGate, a scandal about games journalism and corruption in game reviewing.  Supposedly.  Except that the hate, vitriol, harassment, abuse, and threats against women are inextricably linked with the people mad about how game reviews are written.  And the loci from which the discussions of the scandal spring are the same, so there’s no way an outsider could understand or see how the individuals inside those groups imagine them to be different.

My intent in writing this piece is not to argue the merits of game journalism corruption, nor to condemn the harassment of women in the gaming industry (which I do hereby condemn) but rather to think about the way the denizens of #GamerGate have handled the accusations that it’s a front for women-harassing assholes.  I have three anecdotes and a thought to share.

1. I was a Boy Scout as a kid, and I have a lot of fond memories of the organization.  But in the last twenty years, a conservative arm of the group has taken over leadership of it and made a number of terrible policies excluding gay leaders and scouts.  I find these decisions appalling, and not in keeping with either the spirit of inclusiveness that is supposed to be at the heart of scouts, nor with the non-demoninational morality the group claims to have.  Hence, because I disagree with these prominent choices associated with the group, I’ve withdrawn my support of it, and won’t be involved with it.

2. In 2010, when a lady was caught on video throwing a cat in a trash can, 4chan found and published her identifying information in less than 24 hours.  Apparently they sent threats and other horrible things her way while they were at it, but my point here is that when they’re angry, this roving group of nuclear id can bring powerful pain down on people they don’t like.  If they really cared about the individuals harassing women in the name of #GamerGate, they would self-police.  Send a threatening tweet? Feel the fury of 4chan.  They have shown themselves to be resourceful, active detectives of the digital sphere.  Failure to act against bad actors in their midst speaks volumes.

3. Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange features a third act (or fifth?  I can never tell which is which) that Stanley Kubrick left out of the film.  The narrator serves his time in prison and tries to return to his old ways, only to find that he’s outgrown them.  He finds that uncivilized behavior, while appealing to youth, creates a false present-hedonism that hampered his ability to be a human being as he grew.  It’s a moment of growth that’s missing from the film.  We learn that groups of young men are particularly good at getting one another to do awful things, but in the long run, those awful things undermine society and the very humanity of the people committing them.

But then I saw this comic (via @granitetide), and it sums up much of what the casual observer will think about #GamerGate.


A final thought:

As Ken White at Popehat has often written, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Individuals who use their power to try to stop other people from speaking should be opposed with all the strength we can muster, as hampering free and open dialogue cuts to the core of what makes America great.  But the constitutional right to say whatever you like does not mean such statements are ethical or moral. Words have meaning, and have an effect on the people at whom they’re directed.  To associate with people who are acting unconscionably is to endorse that behavior.  The #GamerGate label has been poisoned from the beginning.  It was always-already infused with women-hating harassment, and any attempt to claim a higher ethical purpose cannot be extricated from these roots.If you don’t like how games journalism works, write about games journalism.  If you don’t like the tale that Sarkeesian is telling about how games work, critique that tale.  But to threaten her and her supporters, to harass and frighten opposition across the web, and to demand that people join your worldview or face terror is to forego freedom for tyranny.

Archbishop John Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

"Hands together" by Danny Hammontree
“Hands Together” by Danny Hammontree
(cc licensed)

Archbishop John Nienstedt asked Jaime Moore, the longtime music director for St. Victoria parish in Victoria, MN, to resign after Moore married his longtime same-sex partner.  Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

We’ve long understood that the Bible is a hot mess of contradictions.  Aside from confusions introduced by its translation into other languages, there are clear contradictions between the new and old testament, or in which things we’ve decided are or are not still important to God. (See The Year of Living Biblically for a good discussion of this.)

But over time, as the secular, enlightenment understanding of humanity has evolved, we’ve come to see that the ancient view of “sin” was grounded in the specifics of the time those books were written, and that in order to properly understand why something is or isn’t wrong, we need to continually re-asses and explore that issue.  For a good example of how we’ve come to reinterpret, from a modern perspective, old “sins,” consider slavery.  (The Iron Chariots wiki is a good place to start.)  Miscegenation (the ‘mixing’ of the ‘races’) is another example, something whose position was first defended, then refuted by the religious faith people had.  See The Oatmeal for a scathing and hilarious comic rendering of this idea.

Which brings us to the modern moment.  Gay rights in the U.S. have reached a tipping point where, as John Oliver suggested, it’s not about which state will legalize gay marriage next, but rather which will be the last to do so.  And so even the Catholic church has begun to wake from its slumber, like Smaug hearing Bilbo stumbling around in the gold pile. Last spring, Pope Francis said:

“Rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” and “We shouldn’t marginalise people for this. They must be integrated into society.”  (The Telegraph)

This seems to me the moment for leaders of the Catholic church to join the rest of us in the 21st century (hell, the last two decades of the 20th century).  They ought to take a deep look at the past issues of human rights (particularly race relations and slavery in the U.S.) and ask themselves how this issue is different.  Even if they still understand homosexual acts to be sinful (but gleefully eat lobster), the supposedly inclusive message of Jesus and the recent comments by the Pope would suggest that this is the opportunity for the church to respond not with shaming or shunning (or marginalizing), but with love.

Instead, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to stand with right, but to stand with tradition only.  For shame, sir.

Full disclosure — I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist. My mother attends St. Victoria parish and our family been lucky enough to count Mr. Moore among our friends for more than a decade.

Flash Boys – in case you thought maybe the market wasn’t rigged

Flash Boys by Michael LewisFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
by Michael Lewis; narrated by Dylan Baker

Flash Boys is two books at once.  First, it’s a fascinating tale about a few different innovators working in the financial markets.  These men spotted an opportunity to create a better wall street, to fix a problem that the market would, hopefully, reward them for.  Second, it’s another reminder that the primary motivator on Wall Street is for the people who work on Wall Street to make money, and that the money invested there by the rest of us is just a prop they use to do so.  In case you didn’t learn that lesson from The Big Short.

A brief precis: Lewis tells the story of High Frequency Trading (HFT) through a few stories about people fighting to undermine it.  Essentially, HFT is a market trading style that uses the inherent latency in the space between the different stock exchanges to make money.  Here’s an example of the most basic way this happens: Say you want to buy 100,000 shares of Apple.  Your broker goes to the first exchange and finds 10,000 shares on offer, including 100 shares being sold by a HFT.  After you buy up the 10,000 shares there, your broker’s pokey computer sends a request to the rest of the stock exchanges looking for the other 90,000 shares.  In the 1/3 – 1/2 of a second it takes for your order to move through the market, HFT computers have rushed ahead and bought up all the shares, and are now selling them for a tiny fraction more (say, 1 penny per share).  You buy the shares from them, and they’ve just made money off their speed advantage in the market, without adding any value to the exchange.  Now multiply that by every trade made on every stock market in the US, and you can see how they’re making billions of dollars, basically by cutting in line where most people don’t know there’s a line to cut in.

A few thoughts:

  • The first lesson Lewis teaches us in the story of this burgeoning force fighting against High-Frequency Traders is that regulation usually only solved the problem it’s meant to.  But it almost always creates new loopholes through which different ways to cheat can be exploited.  And since the incentives on Wall Street are so massive, someone will always exploit said loopholes.
  • The second lesson is a reminder that banks are there to make money, not to serve the good of the market or even of their own clients.  The level to which the banks and the exchanges have altered how they do things to make it easier for the HFTs is appalling.
  • The book has some hope, though, unlike The Big Short, which just feels depressing.  The new exchange being created throughout the book (which opened this year) seems like it has the potential to change things as the clients, the investors who’re paying a speed tax to HFTs, notice what’s going on.

Once again, Lewis does a fantastic job telling a complex tale in a gripping way.  Dylan Baker’s performance is quite strong, and adds great nuance to the tale. Highly recommended read.

See also: The Big Short, Moneyball, Panic!

A few thoughts on The Quantum Rose

The Quantum RoseThe Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro, follows the blossoming love of Kamoj and Vryl, a woman and man from two vastly different cultures on vastly different planets.  They’re pulled apart by cultural forces, by diplomatic obligations, by jealousy.  They’re attracted to one another on a deep level, they resonate.  Also, Asaro reveals at the end of the book that the chapter structure is also a parable for particle physics.

A few thoughts:

  • Like Ian M. Banks’ books (Consider Phlebas & Surface Detail are two that I’ve read), Asaro gives us a story within a consistent, much larger galaxy of adventure and stories.  This tip of the iceberg approach works well because readers can jump in wherever, and then back track if they like what they see.
  • This book has two distinct sections — the first 60% or so takes place on Balumil, where a “Beauty and the Beast” story blends with a tale of domestic violence.  The second 40% proceeds to Lyshriol for a tale of political intrigue and passive resistance protest.  Personally, I thought the tensions set up on Balumil made for an intense opening, and I think the move to the second planet halfway through is a bit of a cop-out.
  • Asaro does a great job of touching on the colonized experience. Kamoj wrestles with feelings of anger over how space-faring cultures are treating her people, Jax is angered by the invaders’ impositions of their legal system, and there are cultural blunders all over the place in the beginning of the novel.  Some of it is a little heavy-handed, but it’s a welcome facet of the book nonetheless.
  • The domestic violence and complex relationship between Vyrl, Kamoj, and Jax — Kamoj’s jilted fiance — makes for intense reading.  It’s not my favorite, personally, but I think Asaro does a good job capturing the complicated feelings people in abusive relationships face.  There’s a particularly great scene where people are asking Kamoj what she wants to do with Jax right there, completely unaware (or unwilling to admit) what kinds of pressure he can bring to bear on her.
  • Asaro includes lots of great little moments — like when Vyrl reveals that he’s a ballet dancer, but is ashamed of it because on his planet men don’t dance.  Kamoj encourages him to do so anyway. Or when Kamoj discovers there is a voice-activated computer in the house and becomes wary that it is watching them all the time (even in their marital bed).

But the biggest little moment for me was when, long after this should have been mentioned, the narrative casually mentions that one group of the people in the novel have differently-shaped hands and feet than do the others (who are basically human, in looks).  From page 344:

Eight. So it was natural.  At first Kamoj had thought that Lord Rillia, Del-Kurj, Chaniece, and Shannon had deformed hands.  But everyone else she saw here had them too.  Instead of four fingers and a thumb, they had two sets of opposing fingers, a total of four digits, all thick as thumbs.  A hinge down the center of their hands let them fold their palms together, so they could hold and manipulate objects.

This comes out roughly 30 pages after she meets these people.  I’m sorry, but if you met a group of otherwise normal people who had hands that folded in the middle and had four thumbs instead of four fingers and a thumb, you would remark on it.  Since this section of the novel operates mostly from Kamoj’s perspective (though in third-person omnisicent, mostly), we should have heard about it before this point.

I didn’t really enjoy this book very much — mostly because the romance angle is too heavy in the first half.  This isn’t a criticism of the book so much as a note about its place outside my personal preferences.  My book club members tell me that the romance elements are more muted in the other books, so I may try another one at some time.

Privilege and humor – Whose experience is being mocked?

5 Minutes There’s been quite a bit of commentary lately about privilege.  It’s a concept that finally seems to have some mainstream bite, and deserves serious consideration.

In case this is new to you, the basic idea of privilege in this context is the idea that different people have different experiences in society because of factors outside their control such as skin color, sex, economic status, nationality, first language, and many more.  The difficulty of this concept for privileged people to accept is that they don’t see the extra friction involved for the unprivileged, so it can be hard to understand or empathize.  I like John Scalzi’s explanation here.

Four things that have come across my transom in the last couple days.

1. Privilege tournament – YUCK.

The most hurtful thing about Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” (which invites readers to vote on NCAA-type brackets for who is the least privileged “category” of people, black, Hispanic, gay, etc.) is not its contempt for civil rights discourse, but that the prideful display of a white man’s humor is more important to a large liberal media outlet than compassion for people who suffer the dehumanizing effects of discrimination.  Gawker, of course, presents the Tournament as an above-it-all humor piece, and this is exactly the problem: Gawker believes it is speaking from a place of objective remove, but it is, in fact, acting out emotionally. The site is either willfully naive about the daily pain experienced by people whom society devalues or, worse, resentful that white men are being wrongly denied equal sympathy. Either way there’s nothing objective in this perspective.

Not only is white male humility in discussion of race/gender/sexuality absent here, but in its place is a vicious, sneering resentment at the suggested need to be humble. When a white man decides that a conversation about privilege has gotten out of hand, gone to absurd lengths, and needs some comedic cutting down, he is reestablishing white, male dominance, plain and simple. Who is asking who to laugh? Whose experience is being mocked?… (Salon writing about Gawker)

2. Whitewashing – a term for the overwhelming default use of whites as main characters and the assumption that white male is the default.

Seriously, it surprises me that people still don’t get that “whitewashing” doesn’t just mean “taking a character of color and turning them white,” but also applies to “focusing disproportionately on the stories of white people,” “glossing over or altering parts of a story to make it more palatable or make white people look better,” and “treating ‘white’ as the default race”…

Because that’s the thing. People often assume that when someone’s race isn’t explicitly specified, they’re white. People insist that Katniss Everdeen must be white because it is possible for them to rationalize that idea in their head. People think of white as “raceless” and every other color or ethnicity as “raced,” and that’s what we call “eurocentrism.”

And that’s the thing about whitewashing. It’s this idea that a “person” is white, and a “person of color” is black or asian or arab or latin@ or whatever they might be.

It’s why people call John Stewart the “Black Green Lantern” but just call Hal Jordan the “Green Lantern.” It’s why Miles Morales is called “Black Spider-man” but Peter Parker is just “Spider-man.” If you want to throw gender into the mix, it’s why Jennifer Walters is the “She-Hulk” but Bruce Banner isn’t the “He-Hulk.”

People think “character” is white and “character + black” is black. There is no default race….
(rapteriffic  via Geek Girl Playground via Jeanne)

3. Junot Diaz on men writing female characters, and whites writing minority characters:

If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.

And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity…. (Diaz via Mason Johnson via ofgrammatology and others)

4. Clark at Popehat has been writing a series mocking the overwrought press coverage of the government shutdown.  His pieces document his daily life, the non-trauma of going to the store for some milk and so on.  While there is a bit of truth to them, I also cringe at the ingrained privilege in the pieces, the callow joking idea that if the shutdown isn’t a big deal for him, it must not be that big a deal.  I wasn’t surprised at one piece that makes the point about the apocalyptic tales, but he’s done four as of today, and frankly they’re getting a bit grating.


Should someone’s politics influence your enjoyment of their art? (The Ender’s Game conundrum)

Ender's Game image
In a school full of mostly adolescent boys, you really think there won’t be any experimentation?

I acknowledge up front that nothing I say here will be particularly revelatory if you have been following or thinking about this story for very long.

Books and movies you encounter during your formative years often get a pass on critical thinking, at least they do for me.  I’m fond of a number of movies and books that I enjoyed as a yout (five points if you get that reference) but, on reflection, just aren’t all that good.  In fact, some are worryingly bad.

The biggest of these is Ender’s Game, a book long beloved by me and many of my fellow geeks, but whose quality and reputation have been called into question by the pressure arising from the new movie coming out this fall.  A quick roundup of the commentary that’s affected my thinking about Ender’s Game:

I’ve discussed this issue many times with my students, stemming from the basic question: should a person’s politics influence how you feel about the art they make?  I have a variety of responses

  1. Yes, of course it will influence your enjoyment of the work.  What you know about the author will inevitably color how you receive their books.  You’ll be hyper-alert to the issues they’re associated with.  For example, Watson was particularly bothered by some of the homophobic and racist banter the children used in the book.
  2. But there are innumerable pieces of art (particularly collaborative art like Television or Cinema) made by people with whom we disagree politically.  Are we to research the politics of all our artists before we engage with art?  This sounds, frankly, totalitarian.  It also suggests that people are only their most objectionable views, and their art must come from that place.
  3. What about art you encountered without the external knowledge of the artist?  If you like it first (as I did with Ender’s Game), there can be a sense of loss when you discover the artist’s failings, and it’s distressing to have to reconfigure nostalgia for something you enjoyed as a kid.

The Internet seems mixed about whether friends of LGBQT should boycott the film or not.  On one hand, it’s strongly associated with the author of the novel, so its success is his success, and on some level, his financial reward.  On the other hand, hundreds of people have worked on this film, and to suggest that OSC’s political views ought to decide whether we see the movie or not is to give in to a kind of totalitarianism, especially since Lion’s Gate has denounced Card’s homophobic stance and is holding a benefit for the community.  The Nathan Simpson at Queerlandia brings up a great point — they could short-circuit the boycott by revealing whether Card’s financial connection to the film is a fixed point (as it USUALLY is, particularly on a property this old) or if ticket sales will affect his finances.  Woe be to them if he gets a percentage.

Personally, I plan to see the film.  Ender’s Game was a key book in my childhood — it spoke to me as a nerd and intellectual, it told an exciting story, and it helped shape my thinking about friendship and leadership (though, as PZ Myers points out, it doesn’t provide a good model to think about politics and war). But I will also donate the cost of my ticket to an LGBQT ally organization, preferably one connected to the fight against NOM, as they are the focal point for Card’s activism.

Dr. Morris Fishbine, OR Another reason to love Columbia College Chicago

Check out this clip from A Thousand Clowns:


I’ve had several students who go by something different than what the roster says.  Sometimes this is an expected change, like an Anthony who goes by Tony, or someone who uses their middle name.  Other times, it’s more complicated.  I’ve had three students who used names that were unrelated to their given names or family names — Chewie, Blue, and Maverick.  All remarkable people: interesting, self-aware, and without fake affectation.  They chose their own names.

Today I’ve learned that my policy of respecting a student’s personal nomenclature has been dictated as College policy.  Our Interim Provost writes:

The Columbia College Chicago community strives to be a welcoming environment that takes very seriously the various identities of our students. Names are a central element of identity formation and expression, and Columbia will now make it possible for students to easily use a preferred first name on campus.

Students may now request a preferred first name change here.  This means that the students’ identities during their academic career at Columbia will be attached to their preferred first name for Loopmail, Moodle, class rosters, Campus Card, and most of sections of Oasis. Their full legal name will appear in documents related to financial aid, academic records, and transcripts.

Please be aware that students may present themselves with a name that is different from the one that appears in certain documents. For example, the transcript name could be John Doe and the e-mail name could be  Please remember to honor the student’s preferred name.

Special thanks to IT, CiTE, Admissions, Student Development, the Records Office, Student Engagement and Culture, and the Office of LGBTQ Culture and Community for working through many challenges to make this change possible for students.  We would also like to thank our students for inspiring us to become a better institution.

How many of your schools have such a humane policy?  Kick ass.

See also: Convocation? No. ConvocAWESOME


The Undead Gourmet

An essay I wrote for Philosophy Now magazine has just appeared in the magazine.  Here’s the teaser:

The Undead Gourmet

Brendan Riley asks: is it okay to kill a zombie just because it wants to eat you?

“I’m just trying to eat as few people as I can before we leave for Portugal tomorrow!”
Zombie Honeymoon (2004)

“What are they?”
“They’re us.”
Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When the tall ice-blue zombie in the checked shirt chomps into his girlfriend’s neck during the opening sequence of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), we feel bad for her and revolted by him, but we don’t feel judgmental. Nor do we feel judgmental when someone terminates a zombie. These attitudes comes part and parcel with the basic assumptions of the genre: zombies are not people, but they are inherently dangerous, representing a distinct threat to the order of the universe, and must be put down. Zombie stories establish these ideas over and over again, depicting survivors struggling with guilt, at first unable to kill zombies who used to be family members, and yet driven to do just that. (link)