Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah explores lots of things in this extended interview. But these paragraphs stuck out to me this morning.

I think there is sense that we need to deeply interrogate people’s practices all the time without saying what it all means or admitting how complicated everything is. But people are like family members that come around, and while you may not agree with all the decisions that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the context in which they operate. Even if you don’t get down with them really.

What’s strange to me is how angry people got that I was expressing love for another black woman who is seemingly different than me. I read the comments, I wanted to reply, I am sorry that you cannot see past all of our divergent personalities to see why I still get her. Understanding someone is not at all the same thing as agreeing with them. It was almost threatening to people that I was expressing understanding with someone who may be different from me.

She’s referring to her writing about Beyoncé and dealing with all of the naysayers hating on her particular flavor of feminism. But this sentiment applies in many other places as well. Feminism and social justice are wide and varied fields. The movement is not uniform. How do we expect privileged groups to shift their world to include us, when we can’t even manage to shift ours to include other marginalized people who’s tactics are a little outside our comfort zone? I feel like we’re finding out we were actually comfortable in our little cubby at the bottom of the ladder. It wasn’t great, but it was familiar. If we want to climb up, we need to move and stretch. We’re using muscles we’re not used to using. And we’re feeling the aches and pains.

The journey to understanding the movement

I’m beginning to understand that a big barrier some privileged people have is a deep misunderstanding of what it takes for real change. While I applaud the sentiment, some of us understand that just being “nicer” to each other is unlikely to effect real change. The people fighting for social justice understand that this fight isn’t about being polite, or getting your feelings hurt. Not at all.

We are talking about oppression. We are talking about constant and lasting harm that is being done to a whole class of people. If you think this is about feelings then of course it looks like overreaction to you. The challenge for you is to see that there’s more. The challenge for you is to really understand that other people’s experiences and context are significantly different from yours. If you can do that, you’ll be able to start empathizing with how someone could come up with such a different response than yours. You’ll start to understand where all the passionate anger comes from instead of assuming it’s just “politics” or “man-hating”.

The only question you need to answer in order to start on this journey is “Do I really care to understand?” If you do, you must start by listening. There is no fast track. And you don’t set all of the rules of discourse. This may be a hard pill to swallow. But this is the shape of the movement.

Privilege and Prejudice vs. Education and Judgment

I’m writing this on the heels of the latest internet debacle involving women and allies vs clueless and insensitive men. I’m not going to spend any time on that. Instead it resurfaced a lot of my ideas about how this cycle continues to play out. I’m not going to do this topic justice here, and I’m not sure I really have a thrust for this post. But I need to get some thoughts out.

There are many topics we could drill down to. The first question I have in my head is how do you get good at making people aware of their privilege? Privileged groups are many and varied. But when it comes to big, societal problems such as sexism or racism, owning up to that privilege is an incredibly hard thing for a person to unpack. Understanding privilege, and then understanding the harm it can do, and then learning to recognize it is something that takes a long time and is very difficult for even those of us on the receiving end. For a person to then be expected to come to grips with their own part in the system is a tall order. But that is what is expected. Just because we admit that a thing is hard, doesn’t excuse people of privilege from our responsibility to grapple with it.

But when women or minorities recognize privileged behavior, what exactly should our focus be? When you awaken to the ways in which discrimination and prejudice constantly affects you and those around you, you can’t help but be hurt, frustrated, and angry. It’s easy to lash out at individuals or generalized groups. It’s easy to convince yourself that they “should know better”. We often use incredulous statements like “this still happens in 2013?!”, as though we expect to reach a point where people will stop being affected by bias and social conditioning. I fall into this trap sometimes, but I’m trying to get out of it.

Our responsibility is to educate, and to agitate for justice. As many times as it takes and for as long as we can stomach it. We will fail, we will get discouraged, we will sometimes give up. We are human, and none of us can bear up under the weight of oppression indefinitely. But the need for that work is unlikely to end soon. That’s why we need more allies. The more numbers we gain, the easier it is for us to keep up the pressure.

What are the tactics of turning people into allies? This is one of the sticker issues. The response to discrimination and prejudice often come with judgment, shaming, and even personal attacks and harassment. Are these okay? Even some people who would like to call themselves allies are made really uncomfortable by seeing a bunch of angry people “gang up” on one individual. It goes against our sense of fairness. It sparks people’s empathy for that person ( I could probably do a whole post about empathy). That’s why those who are blatantly in the wrong always end up with at least a few apologists on their side.

I don’t have all the answers there. I know my personal feelings about how far I think it’s appropriate to go. I think judgment is a natural response. It’s a manifestation of the very values we are trying to promote. Judgment is how humans tell other humans that they do not approve and expect better. Nobody wants to feel like a bad person. But even without being labeled, if you are doing harm or spreading bigotry, you deserve to be called out. Sometimes people won’t be too constructive about it, and perhaps you’d like to rail against that. But the judgment is warranted.

Public shaming is harder to contend with. I see shaming as a tactic to encourage people to accept judgment. Shaming isn’t the same as condemning someone. It’s about actively creating an atmosphere where they can see that their behavior is not tolerated by those around them. I think it can be a really useful tactic if the person under scrutiny actually cares about the opinions of those around them. But unfortunately, shaming is often harmful and has the opposite effects from what was intended. Often with modern internet shaming, we are expecting a person to respond to the judgment of a bunch of strangers. Regardless of whether the person may deserve it, I don’t think this tactic has a high chance of working. We respond to people we relate to or people we respect. We want to keep their good will, so we make ourselves open to what they have to say. But when we have no existing reason to listen to someone’s accusations, then our instinct when attacked is to shut down, to defend our sense of self-worth. Especially if we haven’t first done the work of allowing honest self-reflection.

Some people might feel as though public shaming isn’t about being super effective at converting individuals. That calling out bigotry is our responsibility, whether the target responds or not. I believe this too, but there’s nuance here as well. As I said, the goal is to educate. Not just the source of the prejudice, but anyone who may be listening. There are always way more silent lurkers than there are those who participate. I’m of the opinion that those silent lurkers are usually more open. They are often silent because they are uncertain about where they stand. That uncertainty is the space where education can bloom into understanding. That is where allies are born.

Finally, there is a distinction in my mind between public shaming against discrimination or prejudice, and sharing public sympathy. The internet has done wonders for bringing like-minded people together. Sharing our interests, concerns, and troubles with others who understand and sympathize has always been therapy for humans. But this kind of community can also raises the hackles of people of privilege. For them it becomes about exclusion, reverse discrimination and a perceived hypocrisy. And they don’t respond well when told that it’s not about them at all. This is an non-constructive and unwarranted response. But it’s one we have to deal with.

It’s not easy to parse apart the benign from the antagonistic. And that’s to be expected, because we are not all the same. The people effected by discrimination and prejudice are multi-faceted. Some of us are smart and angry. Some of us are uninformed but persistent. Some of us are patient and forgiving. Some of us are also silent. We all need to find our own ways that we want to influence change. We don’t have to all agree on what those are. In fact it is impossible. And people of privilege will knowingly or unknowingly pit us against each other by treating us as homogenous. It’s important to note that we do the same to them. That’s another thing humans often can’t help doing.

This is enough of a brain dump for the day. I’ve mostly been speaking through my viewpoint as a minority and an ally of women. Next time, I’ll try hard to speak through my position as a person of privilege. I suspect it’ll be more difficult to be even-handed. But practice makes perfect.

A programmer, among other things

I’m a programmer by trade. I’ve been a working professional for going on 9 years. Not long after I started, I became a programmer by nature as well. Programming is a part of who I am. I live in the tech world, both online and off. Many of my friends are programmers and that is the primary thing we share in common. I program for fun, to relax, when I can’t sleep, when I’m procrastinating. I dream about programming. Not all the time of course. I don’t mean programming is exclusively who I am and what I do. But to most who are not programmers and perhaps don’t understand, it would seem that it takes up an obscene portion of my life. That’s pretty much right.

But tonight when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts turned to other things. I started to think about what else I might be. If I could no longer be a programmer, what’s the next thing that would consume me? I thought, “whatever it is, I should write about it”. And then it became obvious.

I love writing. Having something good to write about brings me so much enjoyment. Stringing words together in ways that are cogent, eloquent, tactful, concise, persuasive, approachable gives me just as much personal satisfaction as developing elegant solutions in code. Not feeling inspired to write makes me annoyed with myself and I feel guilty. Being inspired or compelled to write on some topic, and not being able to formulate thoughts gives me anxiety.

I think about writing. What I mean is that I take all of my writing seriously. I think hard about almost all of the writing I ever do. Being a vocal citizen of the internet means I communicate via text a tremendous amount. For most people, even those who end up typing as much as I do, it’s probably safe to assume this isn’t a huge cause for concern. For me, it’s great, and also a burden. I am preoccupied with being able to express myself well through writing. It takes up an obscene portion of my life.

I have 3 separate blogs. I saw no other choice, because I wanted to control as much of the context for the audience of my writing as I could. I’m on twitter a lot (understatement). Even with only 140 chars to fill, I often quibble and even agonize over the composition. I write to craft thought-provoking streams of consciousness that span multiple tweets. I write to craft helpfully descriptive messages to my coworkers via emails, or more likely Yammer. I’m even on google plus, and other random places on the web, crafting huge paragraphs of text that I’m sure no one will read, though I’m often pleasantly surprised. While you’re waiting for me to hit Send in an IM, I’m editing and re-editing, rethinking and reformulating, reconsidering and sometimes not posting at all because it didn’t meet the approval of some stern internal critic.

As an aside, I realized with some chagrin that one of the reasons I don’t really dig facebook, other than my usual pretentiousness, is that I don’t feel the audience would really appreciate how much time I took to craft my posts. I don’t mean outwardly appreciate it mind you. I’m not looking for verbalized critical praise from my FB folks, or anybody really. This is a completely subjective and internalized feeling that nobody gave a shit. And so I rarely share there. My internal writer made me stop.

That’s another thing. It took me a long time to refer to myself as a writer. Even to myself. The truth is I still don’t feel comfortable saying it to other people. Being a writer, as in “I am a writer”, is quite a weighty thing. To me, and people like me, it carries with it a sense of mastery and accomplishment with language that for the longest time, I didn’t find myself worthy of. Even trying to apply the label to myself, I immediately started to create tiers, of which I was the lowest of the low. If I dared to call myself a writer, I must surely be the basest form of such a thing as this.

But that only served to provide further evidence. Who but a writer would take such a thing so seriously? I was given this quote by a good friend of mine; the first person I knew personally who I believed when they called themselves a writer.

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

This quote stuck with me, even though at the time, 15 years or so ago, I had no idea that I would turn out to be a writer. But the case started building really early.

In high school, I ended up in english class for gifted students. I thought this was super weird as I hadn’t done anything to achieve it. But whatever, I had friends there too. We were given creative writing assignments. Write whatever you want as long as it’s completely made up and it’s an actual story. Characters, narrative, beginning, middle, and end. I sat paralyzed in front of the blank page and panic started to build. My friends started scribbling furiously. Filling paragraph after paragraph without breaking a sweat. Did I mention we only had 30 minutes or so?

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just write down some bullshit and get it over with? I had time to kill while I pondered this, so I read some of the… ahem, “narratives” that my friends were spewing forth. I was disappointed. Here I was, a high school kid, focused in the maths and sciences, who didn’t even *like* english and literature classes. And I found myself turning my nose up at the schlock I was given. I didn’t even know enough to think the word “schlock” at the time. But indeed if I had known it, I would’ve reached for it instantly.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized why I had been paralyzed. I couldn’t write because I wasn’t inspired by any material. And I find it uncomfortably difficult to turn out writing I feel doesn’t meet some minimum bar. This was as true then as it is today. But back then, I actually chalked it up to the fact that I must not be creative. I started to internalize the bullshit about being “left-brained”, and so creative writing and art and music must be just “not my thing”.

Literally for the rest of my high school career, I did increasingly worse in language arts classes. That day in gifted english, I did actually manage to churn something out. I was first and foremost a good student, you see. But it took no small amount of anguish. You can imagine it being infinitely more frustrating because I didn’t really understand where it was coming from. And after that incident and a few more, I kind of gave up on the part of school that involved writing. I didn’t turn in work for english classes, and I failed more essay assignments. My senior year, I came this close to not graduating, even with a three point something grade average, solely because I had cut too many english classes. A lot of times, I skipped only english and showed up for the rest of them. My excuse was that it was first thing in the morning, and I was tired.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I started my journey to becoming a programmer, and found computers, that this was able to change. It turns out that writing with pen/pencil is “not my thing”. I can’t stand it. It feels clumsy, and it doesn’t go fast enough for me to spill things out of my brain and onto the page. But when I got a keyboard; when I learned to touch type; when I learned how to edit text swiftly and deftly. Oh man. All of a sudden, writing became a joy. I had thoughts flowing out of my fingers with ease (okay maybe not ease). And when I read it back to myself, it didn’t suck. I edited a few things and read it again. And it sucked less. I kept following this impulse, and eventually, my short, stubby digits turned out something that received the highest praise I ever give myself for something I wrote. I don’t mind if people read this.

The weight lifted off my shoulders was immense. I started to feel like a whole person. One who could be analytical and logical enough to be a programmer. But also had some form of creativity. By god, I was well-rounded! Of course, these days, my whole view is more nuanced, and I hope more balanced. I realize that I’m not an artistic writer in some traditional sense. I write for writing’s sake. I don’t sit down and write novels or seek to get things published. And my shoulders aren’t completely free of sandbags. I’ve still got that inner critic who makes writing anything much harder for me than it should be. I also realize that this is okay. I don’t get near as much anxiety around my writing and whether it meets some objective definition of “good” or not. I still agonize over it, because that’s part of my process. But I like to think it’s in a mostly healthy way.

Most importantly, I realize I may never really produce anything of note as a writer. I may never be gainfully employed as a writer. I may even lose my shit, quit my cushy programming career, go try to be a REAL writer… and fail miserably. And that’ll probably be okay too.

Sometimes I like to write. Sometimes I like to program. Sometimes I try not to do either of those things for as long as I can stand it. Cause sometimes in life, you gotta mix it up.

The thing about guns

We’re all still shocked. I know. The most recent incident of senseless gun violence in Connecticut yesterday is just about the worst you can imagine. 20 children dead. I don’t have children, but it still breaks my heart. In the coming weeks we’ll hear many  more details about what happened. We’ll be able to dissect it from every angle and try to make sense of it. But right now, for me, it’s simple. The number of guns in this country and our lack of strict control over them is a problem.

That’s a simple statement. It doesn’t say this incident was a direct result of our gun policy. It doesn’t say we should ban all guns immediately. But it seems clear that there’s a pattern here. We may have to argue about what the pattern is exactly. We may have to argue about what action to take. But in my opinion, that is the work to do here. We need to figure this out. We can’t keep saying “what can we do?” or “there’s nothing to be done” about the fact that 20 innocent children are dead and so many families are grieving.

I’ve been talking about this with friends and acquaintances. I’ve been debating with those people who say “we should focus on mental illness”. No, this is a false choice. We can and should do something about the way we treat the mentally ill. But it’s not only those we traditionally think of as mentally ill that perpetrate these massacres. If we took everyone on the fringes of society and treated them like crazy people, we’d have an entirely different problem. I’m not even convinced we can correctly identify the fringes of society anymore. The point is that talking about mental illness and how to properly treat it is a long conversation. It has dozens of tangents that will take us away from addressing yesterday’s tragedy. We should most certainly try to get at the root causes of things like this. But that’s not the only thing we should do. We also have to ask if there are other ways this could’ve been prevented.

I’ve talked to the people who say guns don’t kill people. That madmen will do violence regardless of the weapon. This is certainly true. But what other weapon allows a madman to kill 26 people before anyone even knows what’s happening? If we put this madman in your child’s school and give you the choice of whether he has a knife or a gun, are you gonna say “oh it doesn’t matter”? It does matter. It matters because circumstances matter. Because the things around us affect our state of mind in a very real way. I responded to this in a facebook post earlier and it was a moment of clarity so I’ll reproduce it here.

I take issue with the idea that more guns don’t have an effect on the level of violence. Yes some people who want to do harm will find a way to do so. But guns make it terribly easy to do so and on a wider scale.

Guns have a very real psychological effect. They make you feel invincible. They increase the probability that you’ll take matters into your own hands. Once you fire a gun and hit someone, it’s much easier to do it again in rapid succession.

We can take a self defense class to learn how to defend against a knife. Show me the gun defense class. Should kids have bullet proof vests at all times?

And the self defense thing doesn’t hold up either. If someone threatens you or your family, a sane reaction is to want to deter them from doing that and make them leave. Not blow a golf ball sized hole in them and cause them to expire. So “gun control” could even start with not allowing average citizens to own a glock because there is no legal reason that they require one. The fact is, owning that glock makes you feel justified in blowing a hole in someone. Maybe even unconsciously itching to do so.

There are non-projectile self defense weapons that are illegal today. Because they were deemed “too lethal”. The only reason we haven’t extended that same common sense to gun control is because this country has a sick fascination with them.

I’ve talked to those people who argue for that we are overreacting. That this incident and the dozens of others don’t constitute any pattern. They want to see more facts. They want you to scour the internet and cite credible sources. And then they want you to spend time picking apart and debating each one before they will concede that something has to be done. I have no patience for these people. First off, when 20 kids are dead, there is a lot of reacting to be done before it becomes overreacting. Second, I’m left asking why you feel strongly enough to take the side of those who wish to possess killing instruments above those who only want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. But okay, I’ve been trying to read a few facts myself. I shared this one earlier and it was more than enough for me. Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States, with a choice quote.

“If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing….Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not.”

I don’t have all the answers. No one does. It may be that we’ll take a few missteps. It may be that some people will feel like their rights are being violated. That’s not new. We should always be having this conversation in the context of our country’s dedication to civil liberties. But civil liberties have always had to be balanced with public safety. Our public will never be completely safe. That’s not how the world works and nobody here is naive. But we have to take steps. Instead of denying the current climate, instead of arguing for arguments sake, everyone who cares about victims of random gun violence needs to help us figure it out. And if you don’t care, or you think other things are more important, well, we’re not really talking to you.