The Matter

Labels can be limiting and as far as that goes I can agree with those who disdain them, saying they do not like creating or existing in boxes. Fine sentiment. But some labels are useful to accomplish the ripping apart of boxes and the freeing of those trapped in them.

I am a feminist.

Nothing new in my saying that, but times have, superficially, changed, and now a lot of people seem to claim not to know what that means anymore or, worse, claim that it means something which it does not.

Below is a TED Talk by novelist Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Here, in easy to understand (even for those who may be obdurately opposed to understanding) language, she gives a thorough primer and explication of the problems of being a woman in a world where men are the privileged sex and where more and more the simple truth of what she describes is being disingenuously yet ingeniously denied.

I have written often about where I stand on this issue. First and foremost, everyone is a person first. Sex and gender are important but should never be a limiting factor. What I am free to do as a male should be open for anyone. (What I am free to do as a white male should also be open to anyone, but that is another, albeit related, issue.) This is very difficult for some people to understand, for reasons which Ms. Adichie touches on.

But for all those who wonder in mock dismay what is the matter with all these women complaining about the lives they live, the culture, keep talking about rape culture, the glass ceiling, sexism, harassment, objectification…yes, I say “mock dismay” because I’m beginning to believe that you actually do know what it’s about, what the matter is, but you just don’t want to take responsibility for changing things—or, you just don’t want things to change. So you intentionally misunderstand.

Enough. This isn’t rocket science. Testicles do not make you superior or give you a pass for idiotic behavior and bad choices. They aren’t a membership card in an elite club established by divine proclamation. Just because your mommy told you how special you are doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t apply to you and just because your daddy may have acted the king of his domain doesn’t mean you inherited the privilege.

Of course, the capacity for ignoring such things is one of the true indicators of a kind of genius. But I can’t help feel that it’s wasted genius. I see the behavior of certain males and all I can think is, “Man, what the hell is the matter with you?”

Well.

You Don’t Really Mean That!

Kevin Sorbo, who came to public attention portraying a mythical strongman on television, has been saying things about atheists lately.  He thinks he has a good bead on what makes us tick.

It began when he wondered why atheists are so angry at something we claim doesn’t exist, i.e. God.  Because atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about him/her/it and being outraged about the subject.

This is deflection.  It misses the point.  Atheists are not angry at god—clearly, since we do not believe god exists.  We’re angry with god’s promoters and acolytes who keep shoving a nonexistent something-or-other in our faces and telling us we’re everything from “mistaken” to the cause of civilization’s collapse to…well, several other things one is shocked to hear come from the mouths of self-professed “good christians.”

Part of this seems to be standard in religious practice, the deflection of just about everything onto the god of choice.  It’s god’s will, it’s in the hands of god, etc.  So obviously when an atheists gets angry at the politics and social practice of devotees we can’t possibly be angry at them for the kind of activism that grinds the back teeth, we must be angry at their deity of choice.  After all, they’re only doing what god wants them to do, so how can they be held to blame?

Which is a goodly part of what drives us to distraction.

I have never had a pair of atheists knock on my door to tell me the good news of the nihilistic way of life.  I’ve never had an atheist tell me I got over a serious illness because they got together to use thought waves to communicate with the cells of my body and effect a cure.  I’ve never had to put up with an atheist telling me a certain political situation was the way it was because of a corrupted condition endemic to being human.  And I’ve never heard an atheist insist on the efficacy of magic over science.*

Insofar as the record on public action in this country goes, it is no surprise that religious thinking dominates, since it’s a matter of sheer numbers.  But it would be well for people to remember what has been justified in the name of religion in this country.  Slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the eradication of native American culture, and the persistent insistence on irrational laws and punishments which have now resulted in our having the highest per capita incarceration rate of any developed country (which can only be explained by a devotion to some notion of sin that refuses to take into consideration genuine remediation, social context, or common sense).

Atheists are not angry at god, Mr. Sorbo, we’re angry at the impenetrable cluelessness of believers who let their children die rather than take them to a doctor, who continually see nothing wrong with setting aside the First Amendment to their advantage (but, in some cases, absolutely worship the Second Amendment), and who insist on relegating women to second-class status because, well, equality isn’t Biblical.  Let’s not even start with the debate over alternative sexualities and the question of gay marriage.

Before you protest that these people are a minority, I will agree with you, but they are a minority which enjoys massive tacit support from a broad and often passive culture base which, while disapproving many of their tactics nevertheless approves their source of inspiration and at least some of their motives.

“Well, we’re not all like that,” comes somewhere in the same conversation as “our church is different.”

No, it’s not.  In one very significant way.  Religion by definition defines unbelievers as flawed, blind, somehow crippled, and in need of fixing.

That’s what makes atheists furious.  It’s patronizing.

Now before atheists who read this nod sagely and come away feeling in some way virtuous about themselves, not so fast.

For our part we tend to adopt a superior attitude every bit as condescending and misdirected as the true believers we disdain.  Often we refuse to acknowledge the ineffable and relegate many attributes of moral systems to what we consider superstition.  At times we use our position as self-designated rationalists to pass judgments on others we deem less enlightened, and even if we tend to keep such judgments to ourselves (with notable exceptions) they nevertheless affect our behavior towards others.

That said, if anyone has a reason to be miffed…

What can be truly irritating in both camps is the aforementioned process of deflection.  Atheists are not angry at a god that does not exist but at those who insist one does and take that insistence as permission to push their beliefs on us.  The believers manages to not see the difference because, as they claim, they are doing god’s work, so it seems to not make sense to them that we make a distinction between the believer and the thing believed.

Believers get justifiably miffed at atheists who judge them and conflate that judgment with the philosophical position that seems to allow such judgment.  Atheists think themselves acting out of reason and fail to understand that they’re being boors, which is not justified by rationalism.  Rationalism in this case is just an excuse to be an ass.

Hence both sides engage in the time honored sport of talking past each other.

Not all believers act like Mr. Sorbo or those who think their god has given them permission to disregard all other philosophical positions and forget—stridently—what pluralism means.  Not all atheists are judgmental louts who treat believers like unenlightened primitives in need of education (which can lead directly to the kind of proselytization the atheist is bitching about in the first place).

But they seem to be the loudest ones in the room.

 

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* I’ve heard a lot of non-christians do and say these sorts of things, but that’s another problem, which is the conflation of all alternative beliefs into the “atheist” camp.  For the record, pagans are not by definition atheists.  Nor are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, or any other non-western faith.

Mythicism

I’ve been trying to come to terms with Ferguson since it began.  The shooting of Michael Browne sparked a response that surprised many people and the counter responses have been equally surprising among certain people, not so much among certain others.  Every time I start to write something I find what I intended to say had already been said better elsewhere.   My response, whatever it may have been or will continue to be, is not out of any isolated, singular place.  I am part of a community and how that community responds necessarily becomes part of my own response.

There’s a fund for the police officer and his family, which the last time I noticed was mounting to a respectable six-figure level.  I scratch my head and wonder what it’s for.  His family?  Sure, they shouldn’t have to bear the costs of his actions.

Another statistic I noted with deep ambivalence is that while Ferguson is 60% African American, voter turn-out in that population in that community is about 6%.  This helps explain the racial composition of Ferguson’s elected leaders and especially the police department.  Certain people are, however, using this as an excuse to continue to blame the victim and shift the responsibility back onto those who are supposed to be served by those officials when that service fails. Regardless of the voting statistics, it is the mayor’s and the police department’s job to serve the community as a whole, but we all tend to carve up factions into even smaller bits in order to avoid responsibility.  A deeper question here is why those voting rates are so low and that opens the door to bigger questions some people don’t want asked and others are tired of dealing with and still others are simply blocked from resolving.

In the confusion of response and counter response, I’m reminded once again of the single sacred thing that is at the heart of American social reality—property.  We become apoplectic when property is damaged in the course of social upheaval or criminal action.  We have mixed feelings about it in all instances, but burning a business—anywhere, anytime—triggers a deep, visceral revulsion in Americans that goes back to our origins as a nation.  Of course it’s powerful—if it weren’t, it would be useless as any kind of statement.

But many of us stop paying attention to the why once the torch is lit and we then see the unfolding of shifting issues.  The initial issue is displaced by the response, which becomes a new issue, which is then overwhelmed by the next response, which becomes still a third issue, and so on until one day we look around and realize that the primary issue has been lost in the fracturing landscape of antiphonal reaction.

We lose sight of the fact that this entire thing is about abuse of power.

Let me tell you a story. You can consider it a parable of sorts, though it happened, something I witnessed at a very young age, though I was old enough to get what was happening.  (I’m avoiding names, even though this happened so long ago the principles are either dead or have forgotten the particulars.)

I used to hang out at a certain local business as a boy.  Among the clientele of this business were many police officers.  There was a certain excitement in this, being close to people who, at that time in my life, I saw either at a distance or only on tv.  The business owner knew them by name, had cordial relations with most of them, and in return his business was given a bit extra attention by them.

Occasionally, though, one would come in who was different.  It was evident in many difficult to describe ways—mannerisms, speech patterns, choice of topic—and I could tell that these officers were in some way less reliable.  It must be hard to work every day wielding the kind of power and authority a policeman has and remaining grounded, humble, connected to the people you serve.  The violence that comes with the job over time erodes idealism, hardens you to ordinary surprise, banks your sympathy at often miserly rates because it’s hard to do your job and retain an intact core of humanity that must nevertheless be there for you to function.  Protecting people requires sympathy, but it can become muddled in the contradictions inevitable in protecting people from other people who in their turn need (and deserve) your protection.  You could sense when this core had disintegrated or, perhaps, was never really there to begin with.  Instead, there was only a shell that resembled this necessary core, and the shell didn’t last very long in the daily radiation of The Job.

In any event, one evening an officer well known to us brought in another—a county—officer to introduce and have some work done.  It was a night I happened to be there and most of the conversation was the normal sort.  But then this new officer made an odd remark.

“I go through eight-cell flashlights like water.”

Hmm?  Why’s that?

Cocky grin, conspiratorial stance, leaning on the counter, hand on hip.  “Well, I get these assholes I pull over, traffic violations or what-have-you, and they get mouthy.  Y’know?  Surly.  I have to teach ’em manners.  Kinda hard on the flashlight.”

There was a deep silence for a time. Then the owner said, “What, do they resist arrest or try to attack you?”

“Oh, hell, nothing like that!  Just get smart with me.  You don’t talk to a cop that way.  I remind ’em who has the badge. Good thing I don’t have to pay for the flashlights.”

Silence extended.  The owner—who was not someone who spoke lightly about such things, was a veteran, worked hard, and had a deep and abiding respect for law enforcement—said: “You ever did that to me you might as well just shoot me.  Because I’d find your ass and that’d be the last flashlight you ever cracked over anybody’s head.”

Two interesting things of note in this:  one, the other officer, a city cop, backed the owner up.  He, as everybody else in that room that night, recognized that what was happening was not between a citizen and a cop but between one citizen and another who happened to be wearing a police uniform.  The owner was talking to an asshole who was hiding in that uniform, who with that admission of abuse and, most especially, with the actions he described had lost any legitimate claim of authority.  What this county policeman was bragging about was a blatant abuse of authority.  In fact, he had been lucky up to that point that no complaints had been filed and charges made.  Clearly he was picking his targets well, like any bully.

The other thing to note is that everyone in that room that night was white.  Later I thought it over and wondered what would have happened had the shop owner been black.

This was also in 1965.

In the interim, the entire spectacle of the the Sixties occurred.  Populations have shifted, demographics changed, generations have grown up to a new arrangement.

Or so we thought.

What we have witnessed unfold in Ferguson was an exercise in the myth of authority, the idea that the one with the power, in charge, so to speak, ought to be unquestioned in his or her actions unless those with even more authority call those actions into question.  The cop is always right.  Well, the cop has the gun, certainly, which we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, is no substitute for being right.  But the myth does not stop there.  The other component is a little more difficult to pin down, but it has to do with what that authority is in service to.  People may be forgiven if they think it is in service to them.  It is not, except by convention.

It is in service to order.  To an idea of public conduct.  You can understand this when you realize how often of late the police refuse to permit recording of their actions and have been harassing and barring the press.  Calling their actions toward people into question renders their mission to preserve order problematic.  Showing their shortcomings is also disorderly.  At least, in their view.

I suspect that what in previous generations could be seen clearly as racism or classism today has been obscured by the abstraction of such things into less definable tropes having to do with public displays, property rights, permits, and an idea of public action that segregates certain activities and de facto labels them disorderly.

This can be anything from something as obvious as a riot to an individual insisting the officer take his hands off her so she can explain who she is and what she’s doing there.  In every instance, the police are following an idea that their commands are absolutely essential to order and any contravention of them is by default disorderly and therefore subject to immediate remedial action, which can be anything from pepper spray to a full court beating to a shooting.

The problem with this is that the definition of “orderly” is so subjective and conditional as to be meaningless.

And where boundaries are loosely defined or entirely absent, chaos is but a heartbeat away.

That county cop and his eight-cell flashlights was enforcing an idea of “order” that seemed perfectly consistent to him, I’m sure.  Backtalk, surliness, “being mouthy” to a cop is disorderly and requires “correction.”  The cop forgot who he was working for and why.  Or never knew in the first place.  It’s too easy to assume that all the people who never cause him to pull them over are good citizens and that those who do are automatically less so.  We hear this casual relation to right and wrong all the time in phrases like “Well, he must’ve done something wrong or they wouldn’t have arrested him.”  Why, in a country founded on the revolutionary principle of innocent till proven guilty, we have such difficulty understanding how this is backwards thinking I will never understand.  Unless it goes to that sacred relation to property which is sibling to order and which is a substitute for genuine moral awareness.

The other lesson I learned from that long-ago encounter was this:  we will never have an end to this kind of abuse if the police themselves refuse to call out the bullies in their ranks and start siding with the citizenry against the wrongs done them in the name of seamless authority.  All this does is widen the fissure between the people and those they have hired to protect them.  All of them.

All. Of. Them.

The Power of the Dark Side

Depression is one of the most seriously misunderstood phenomenon dictating human choice.

For the record, I have never been so seriously depressed that I contemplated suicide.  I’ve been seriously hurt enough to do so*, and I think there’s a difference, but when you’re in the midst of it I don’t know that it matters.

I have been depressed.  I put up with it on a fairly regular basis.  But when I say depressed I’m pretty sure it’s not the same thing, by degree or otherwise, as what it means when we talk about clinical depression or organic depression wherein the disorder stems from a physical illness, an injury or disease.  I’ve had down days, bleak moods, raw nerves, the kind of bone weariness that comes from disappointment.  It never lasts, I come out the other side in a few hours or a day or two, and while maybe I’m not spinning cartwheels of joy at the wonderfulness of life I’m at least not looking at kittens and feeling hopeless.  Anyone with expectations that get regularly thwarted has this kind of foul outlook that relates to depression.

Not wanting to get out of bed or leave the house for weeks on end…that’s different.

Feeling that the entire universe is nothing but a weight conspiring with its various aspects to suffocate you…that’s different.

Being unable to respond in any but a negative way to anything, especially what might be wonderful news or good fortune or simple pleasure…that’s different.

Thinking that the only cure for the constancy of abysmal pointlessness to any attempt at engaging even with yourself is death…that’s different.

The structure of our social routines is such that the depressant learns to mask it, to say nothing, to imitate what is expected.  Hence, getting help can sometimes be delayed simply because no one sees and tells you that it’s okay to admit to being out of control of your emotions.  (Because sitting on them, ignoring them, pushing them down so no one else notices, that’s not control.)  Because we are raised in a culture that says such conditions are caused by weakness, by moral ambiguity, sometimes even by selfishness, the depressed will live with it rather than admit the problem and seek help.

It’s not easy to know.  We’re getting better, but it’s just hard.  When your friend shrugs your concerns off with a “I’ll be all right, just…” and we don’t press the issue because we don’t wish to presume, it can be devastating later when tragedy happens and you wonder if you could have done something, anything.

It’s particularly hard when dealing with the facade of success.  That person is on top of the world, has money, fame, a cool car, a great mate, smiling all the time.  What do they have to be depressed about?  Hell, if I were in their place I’d be the happiest s.o.b. on the planet, because isn’t it worse not having what you need or what you want?

Making the mistake—again—that material goods are adequate replacement for a normally functioning limbic system and a sense of well being.  Sure,  struggling with constant want can be a bitter thing and sour anyone’s mood, but if the depression came before the recognition of want, having more is not likely to cure it.  Granted, understanding the difference can be like trying to describe a particular shade of white laid against new-fallen snow, but the difference is there and very real and can have unfortunate consequences if not recognized.

It is crippling.  Just from my admittedly limited and not particularly deep experiences with my own periodic episodes of being depressed (as opposed to depression, which is chronic and worse), you can wake up and wonder why you should bother with trying.  It’s like moving through thick, humid air in a gravity well half again as deep as the one everyone else is in.  I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for anyone living with that day in, day out, twice or three times as bad, and nothing—nothing—mitigates the bleakness of just breathing.

We shrug it off.  All of us.  “Oh, she’s just having a bad day, she’ll be fine.”  Or, more tragic, “I dunno, I just can’t talk to him anymore, he’s always bummed about something.”

Maybe those observations are true.  But then again, the dark side may have taken hold.  We should all pay attention.

We all make use of masks.  Sometimes it’s a self-conscious act and we know it and everyone around us knows it.  Sometimes, it’s job related.  Sometimes it’s diplomatic.  But once in a while, the mask is standing in for us in ways that are wholly unhealthy.

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*Yes, I once, for a long and much too melodramatic night, sat with a pistol in hand and weighed the merit of ending it. Because I was hurt, as badly hurt as I’d ever been, and it seemed, for seconds at a time, that nothing would end that pain or be worth having after I got over it.  Why didn’t I do it?  Well, that’s hard to explain concretely, but I’m pretty sure it was because I had—and have—good, good friends who I did not want to hurt by that kind of a purely selfish act.  I began thinking of how they would feel and I eventually put the pistol away and have never since come anywhere close to contemplating such an act.  I can only wonder what I would have done had I believed myself truly as alone as I’d felt at the beginning of that session.  I suspect the deeply depressed cannot make that leap.

 

Why Is This So Difficult To Get?

This is going to be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

We keep seeing more incidents of sexual harassment  emerging into the light of day within the science fiction community.  There are people who have been behaving poorly for a long time and finally they’re being called on it.  Why this is such a difficult concept for some people to grasp eludes me.  The excuse-making is both ancient and pathetic.  This is science fiction, these are supposed to be people who are ahead of the curve when it comes to social grasp, we like to pretend we live in the future.

Well, that may explain a couple of things.  No one adopts behavior out of the blue.  Some people have serious organic problems others have a wispy grasp of the reality and still others just don’t consider what is not wholly inside their heads worth due consideration.

Ann Leckie has penned a first-rate explanation of one of the problems with a dandy analogy.  Yes, this.  It describes so much on so many levels.  (Not only about sexual harassment, but with similar dynamics, this is one of the reasons I stopped going to live shows—the security protocols that became common after about 1980 just became too invasive and I realized I didn’t really like being in a crowd wherein every 10th or 20th person was so drunk that they had no sense of boundaries anymore.  Some people—a lot of people—will find excuses for themselves that make putting up with it worthwhile, and it is a shame this has to happen, but on the other hand, no, it doesn’t have to happen if we’d all just grow up a little.  People by the millions attended movies for decades without feeling the need to bring beer into the venue or carrying on a private drama, loudly and in public, or indulging behaviors better suited to…well, some I never did find a place where they would be better suited.  Movies are different than concerts, you say?  In what way, I ask?  Are you there for the show or to be seen?  Anyway, back to my main point.)

Of course, now, we hear the bleat of pain of the attendee who doesn’t understand that a convention is not there to be a smorgasbord of sexual opportunity and wonders why, if all these women aren’t there to have sex, how come they dress in those costumes?  I mean, really, if they aren’t looking for it, why are they showing it off?

As if there could be no other reason to cosplay than for the sexual edification and enticement of strange boys with illusions of their own desirability and prowess.

Also as if the costumers are the only ones or even the majority who are having problems with this.

It seems to me, though, that this is partially a legitimate question.

Let me take a brief detour through a short history of the treatment of sex in science fiction.  Really short.  Originally, SF was a genre marketed to adolescent males of a certain disposition (we call them nerdy today, a label I dislike for a variety of reasons, but it serves).  At the time—1930s through 1950s—these were also young men who were inclined toward the technical arts.  A lot of engineers and more than a few scientists claimed to have been inspired by reading Golden Age science fiction.  Now, a survey of the covers of the major magazines of the period would suggest a lot of semi-clad females were being creatively ravaged in the pages within, but this was not the case.  These were as sanitary in that regard as Good Housekeeping and Readers Digest.  Which, of course, irritated many of the writers, who saw themselves as writers first and foremost and chafed under the assumption (by the publishers) that all this neat stuff they were writing about was exclusively for kids.  They wanted to write adult stories that appealed to adults and part of that had to do with sex.

There is a law of some kind that states that the more and longer something is suppressed the greater the excess of it will be when the chains come off, sort of an inverse reaction, and when after the 1950s sex was no longer taboo, there was a lot of it in the stories.  Often for no reason other than suddenly it could be there.  The 1960s…well, the Sixties, what more can I say?  Not just in science fiction, but everywhere, in everything.  The Sixties was drenched in sex partly because the previous decades had been so buttoned-down about it.  (One of the things about Playboy that seems difficult for us to “get” today is that this was liberating.  Prior to what Hugh Hefner did, the prevailing attitude was that women did not have a right to their own sexuality, that any woman who took control of it and unabashedly enjoyed it was somehow trash.  Hefner blew the doors off that canard and helped usher in the sexual revolution, one facet of which said that women owned their sexuality and no one had a right to judge them for it.  This is why, contrary to the stereotype, men were more troubled by Playboy than women and in some circles waged a war to shut it down.  This will be important later.*)

In any event, all of a sudden, people in SF stories were having a lot of sex and it was not in traditional (read: 1950s) forms.  Much of it was absurd.  For a time, the idea of the domestic contract ran through a lot of stories, the idea that marriage could be reduced entirely to a short term contract that, when done, could either be renewed or both parties could go be with someone else—with no emotional downside.  More importantly, sex was treated as a purely physical function by many writers, something one did the same as exercise or swimming or attending the theater.

A lot of this went away.  With the increased number of prominent women writers, some rationality was introduced, and by the end of the 1970s a lot of the bizarreness that attended stories from the Sixties went away—or at least was treated with the kind of understanding of how people really are.

This left us, however, with an æsthetic that has never quite gone away and has, in an embarrassing way, manifested most visibly in comics, with the absurdly sexualized appearances of female superheroes.  It’s an æsthetic that is unfortunately difficult to deconstruct in such a way as to leave the cool aspects intact while getting rid of the toxic elements that tie sex to entitlement.

I said “partially” a legitimate question.  It has to do with role-playing and if what we’re looking for is some version of a future to live in where we can be “that way” then we have to understand what impulses are being acted out in so-called real life.

Nah!  It’s a legitimate question primarily so we can dismiss it.  People are expected to know the difference between stories and real life and mostly do.  This is another elaborate excuse because nothing in that suggests a disconnect from common human decency and mutual respect.

I suppose I could riff on how the surfaces of things deflect comprehension and distract from even the attempt at deeper empathy—or empathy at all—but that would perhaps elevate the problem to a level where it cannot be effectively managed.

My default behavior, from the time I became aware that girls—well, girls—has been that the female is in charge of the sex.  It’s her call.  I don’t know where I learned that, it just seemed natural to me.  They have the power, as far as I’m concerned, and that seems to me entirely natural and, for the most part, has been entirely congenial.  If she says No, that’s it.  Discussion finished.  Move on, there’s nothing more to see here.  I may not know why she said no, it may have hurt a little, disappointed me, but oh well.  (Conversely, as one ages, one realizes that one also has exactly that same right—to say yes or no.)

I have never assumed that I have a “right” to someone’s body.

Which is where a lot of this seems to be breaking down.

We are not, I hope, talking about anywhere close to a majority in this, but as Ann’s essay makes clear it only takes a few—and then the tacit cooperation of the rest—to poison an environment.

Here’s a stereotype:  “Oh, she doesn’t really mean no,  women don’t know what they want, you have to take no as maybe and then keep at her.”

In certain venues—locker rooms, for want of a better description—men who fail to recognize this can find themselves derided as less than.

Less than what, I eventually realized, I never knew.  But less.

I think this is part and parcel of that other stereotype, men who never ask directions.  As if asking is somehow unmanly.  Getting lost on a back road, though, is one thing—forcing yourself on an unwilling woman is quite another.

But asking right out is dangerous for a certain kind of mentality because if the answer is No, then all future opportunity is cut off.  Being ambiguous, refusing to acknowledge that they way you are doing something is offensive and, in some cases, frightening, all because you don’t want to risk that definitive No, that’s not very manly, either, if the adjective has any meaning outside of a bad joke.  I’ve come to the conclusion that men who don’t ask—clearly and unambiguously and politely—are a specie of coward.  Most cowards, when given the opportunity, can become bullies.  And bullies have no regard for anyone else in their quest to fill a void which they blame on others but really is of their own making.

Now, while it might seem kind to try to make space for someone like this under the assumption that really they mean no harm—maybe they don’t, not consciously—and that rehabilitation can only occur within a community, a couple of things make this simply weak-kneed avoidance.  Going back to the theater analogy, you don’t tolerate the asshole who won’t shut up during the movie or the play because it’s not about him, it’s about everyone else.  You’re not going to “solve” his problem by tolerating him in the audience, you’re only going to make the experience miserable for everyone else.  No one has a right to be an asshole.

But we add a layer now to the problem and assume that the person in question has some power.  He (or she) important and throwing them out may have other consequences we won’t like.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

That.  If that’s the excuse, then you ruin it for everyone and the asshole never learns.

But I’m not even concerned with the asshole learning anything.  I just want him/her to cease the behavior that’s making everyone else uncomfortable.

“But if so-and-so hadn’t said anything, no one else would’ve known and no one would have been uncomfortable.”

Does Omelas ring any bells?

This is not only entitled thinking—the kind that says your party is more important than someone’s well-being—it is cowardly thinking.

Why is this so difficult to get?  You establish a clear policy and those who violate it get tossed.  I have a hard time imagining a convention establishing a weapons policy—no real guns—and then choosing to look away just because a big time writer or editor decided to show up with an AR-15 across their shoulder.  Cons have had policies about even fake weapons for decades now and have enforced them without getting all uber sensitive.  But once more, when it comes to sex, reason abandons us?

People have been banned from conventions for decades because of inappropriate (and often criminal) behavior, so it baffles me that a sensible policy over harassment cannot be devised and enforced.  Instead, we get a lot of hand-wringing and mumbling and excuse-making.

Look, this isn’t about the predator’s problem.  That’s not in anyone’s job description to try to fix at a convention.  This is entirely about what is allowable conduct in the theater.  To argue that it spoils the æsthetic is evasive—if so, then it’s time to change the æsthetic.  Victims of harassment already know they don’t feel safe around the predator, but to then double down and make them feel unsafe among the people they look to for protection as well—because the predator is not dealt with once the problem is known—can call everything into question.  Especially when “everyone” knows what the problem is and no one seems willing to do anything about it.

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*The Playboy thing is difficult for some of us who remember a time when what they did was relevant to a larger issue, which was exactly the “who owns female sexuality” question.  It has become problematic because the culture moved on and at some point Playboy became the opposite of what it initially tried to be, which was in some sense countercultural.  Today it’s pretty much just another “girlie” magazine (what we called them back when I was a newly-emerged adolescent on the prowl for cheap thrills) but there was a time it meant something else.  The whole point of the erotic content was that (a) sex is not “dirty” and (b) sexuality was and is the sole property of the individual.  Secondarily, it also called the whole standard American model of what “good girls” were allowed to do and be and for that matter the standard issue American lifestyle into question.  But it’s a relic now and context has changed.

We Were Just Talking

A couple of decades of online conversation has revealed many thing about our culture, about our selves. One is how little most of us seem to consider what we say before we say it.

I recently saw the term “flaming” used in a description of certain problematic exchanges in a forum I till recently frequented.  I’m sure it’s still in current usage, but I hadn’t thought of the term in some time because I long ago vacated forums and chatrooms where this was a common problem.  One of the more congenial things about FaceBook is that while flaming (and trolling and all such related hate-baiting tactics) still happens, users aren’t locked into the thread where it occurs. With multiple conversations going on all the time among many different arrangements of “friends” it is not a problem requiring something like a nuclear option to deal with.  You just stop commenting on a poisoned thread and move over to a new one, often with the same people.  True, the flamer might move with you, but the mix-and-match nature of FaceBook makes this less convenient.

Unlike a dedicated forum with a regular membership, etc.

You can find one, filled with like minds and congenial conversation, which can run on for some time till one day someone you thought you “knew” (solely from the interactions in the forum) says something wholly baffling and even hurtful, but certainly unexpected and baiting.  Or a new member shows up and after a few days or weeks turns into an aspersion-casting, logic-defying, unreasonable twit.  Such people indulge, usually, in the ancient schoolyard game of “let’s you and him fight.”  They get everyone stirred up, create a toxic situation, and then, often, leave.  “My work is done here.”  People who were once friends, or at least friendly, are now on opposite sides of issues they had no hand in either creating or aggravating.  Mistrust, defensiveness, and a new attention to certain words and phrases dominates the forum and arguments flare at the drop of a phrase.

Partly, it seems to me, this is one of the unfortunate factors in what we know to be human nature.  Some people are only enjoying themselves when they create a mess.  In my opinion, it’s the same kind of mentality that gets off on obscene graffiti, incendiary phone calls to talk shows, or gossips who spread rumors about people they hardly know.  For such people communication was invented in order to sow discord.  People getting along nicely is something they cannot abide because where’s the fun in that?  In a way, this is related to the more refined pleasure of honest debate and philosophical enquiry, wherein positions are taken and defended in order to find a higher accord.  But it has the same relationship to this as Tae Kwon Do has to a drunken fist fight in a bar.

Another part of this, however, is less perverse but more difficult to define and that has to do with the difference between written discourse and casual conversation.  Two people sitting across from each other—at a barbecue, having a beer, over dinner, what have you—just talking do so within a set of protocols that, when transferred to the written word, are at best “loose.”  We rely on a whole suite of cues that have nothing to do with the actual words we use.  Tone, inflection, regional accent, body language, gestures, facial expression, and the all-important momentum of the exchange work to add multiple players of interpretive possibility to the dialogue only the better fiction writers seem able to encode in words on the page.  They manage this by careful attention to which words and how they are placed within a scene and contextualized according to the emotional framework set up.

Which means that great care is taken to achieve a particular effect.

Not something the vast majority of people “chatting” in forums, online, get anywhere near doing.

Instead, we type our words and send them out knowing in our own heads what we meant and unaware that without the full holistic surround of an actual face-to-face conversation such intent is completely absent and the person reading them may have a completely different set of circumstances dictating how those words will be interpreted.

It’s amazing anything meaningful gets transmitted and received at all.  But it does, because many of us, maybe even most of us, learn over time how to write a dialogue, which is a different thing than when we’re talking.

Some never figure out the difference.

Hence the thoughtless ingredient thrown innocently into a stew stirred by many hands, resulting in a soured moil of potential vitriol.

The great essayists make it look easy.  Just write, like you’re talking to someone, and your meaning will be conveyed.  Right.  Of course it will.  The reason we regard great essayists as great is that they make it look so easy.  We can read it and understand it, it ought therefore to be within our power to do the same thing.  It’s just talking.  Do that all the time.

But putting words down is very different than speaking them.  For one, they remain there, precisely as written, to be gone over again and again, to be reinterpreted, again and again, to be copied and pasted in responses that can be shoved back in our faces angrily.  Embarrassment, defensiveness, or egotistical refusals to understand why what we said wasn’t understood for what we meant, all this can feed into an impossible collection of antiphonal postings that quickly have nothing to do with the original topic and are now about hurt feelings, impatience, and perhaps even past events that have nothing to do with the present “conversation.”

Letter writing is even more considered than most of what passes every hour on the internet as epistolary exchanges.  Until mailed, the letter is not finished.  It can be reread, reconsidered,  reviewed. It can be thrown away and begun again.

Theoretically, so can something about to be posted to the internet, but it would seem we treat it more like that face-to-face at the picnic than as letter-writing.  So we dash it off and hit SEND and then what happens happens.

Unfortunately, those words, unless deleted by an administrator, are always there, unlike the unfortunate way you said something at the picnic, which can vanish from foggy memory as soon as the topic changes.  People looking for something to focus on can find them and use them against you.  You were not, no matter what you thought, “just talking.”

Still, even this is instructive for those who will be bothered to learn.  A thoughtful reconsideration of how we say things reveals how much of our conversation is less actual information than ritual.  It could potentially teach us how to say things we really want said instead of just mouthing sounds that are the conversational equivalent of greeting cards.  Understanding the host of assumptions supporting a sentence would be a very good thing for us to learn.  Because even at the barbecue sometimes someone says something so void of any real substance and yet so potentially inflammatory that you know the speaker really doesn’t have a clue what that sentence really means.

Or maybe they do.  And that is instructive as well.  In either case, we should consider our response…carefully.