Human Beings are Cruel Things–The Internet Didn’t Create That

There seems to be a new, public wave of hand-wringing over technology changing us, making us mean or cruel. People cry out that the only reason women receive rape and death threats online is because of anonymity; there’s belief that bullied kids would never kill themselves before the internet; there’s a panic over the shaming that many (especially white men) face for revealing their racism, privilege, bigotry. But as Tabatha Southey points out, we–we humans–are cruel. We have always been cruel. We almost certainly always will be cruel.

Lately, humanity has been flattering itself that it was better and kinder before the Internet – as though we never slipped anonymous notes through locker doors in high-school hallways that were echo chambers in themselves, as if we never wrote on actual walls.

I had a growth spurt at 10; by 11 I’d reached menarche and developed breasts–the first out of my school and friend group. By the time I was 12, I was referred to as “Bazoonga Breasts” by everyone in junior high school, because most other girls–and certainly not any other 6th graders–had not developed to the extent I had.

I didn’t hear anyone, except teachers and family, refer to me by my given name for almost two years.

To hear us now, you’d think no one ever ever crank-called late at night, dialled up even before dial-up to offer abuse, stared into other people’s windows through our own twitching curtains.

When I was 13, everyone I ate lunch with, spent time with on the weekends, socialized with, and thought was my friend decided they liked another guy better than they liked me. molg-butterfly-wings-stickerThat guy was mad at me, so convinced everyone to send me letters telling me how worthless I was, how much they hated me, how much everyone wished I would just kill myself.

I took a decent swing at it.

We were never bitches before BBS. We never took our children to public hangings. The way it’s told now, we never publicly shamed anyone, put them in the stocks, or hurled rotten vegetables at them in the street. We never quietly dropped anyone off the guest list at a time when, new social spheres being difficult to access, a true precipice might well lie below.

When I was 20, the people I thought were helping me leave an abusive, violent relationship–the people who had helped me orchestrate fleeing in the middle of the night, getting into a motel room, fending for myself for several days–stood me up. We were supposed to meet at someone’s house and then caravan to another state; they purposefully didn’t show up, leaving me to either return to my abuser or make a 700 mile drive I’d never made before on my own. When I called to ask where everyone was, they told me they’d left hours earlier.

They thought it was funny.

They had, in their words, punked me.

We didn’t start the flame war. Scandalous satirical pamphlets were once cranked out by writers and sold at train stations, like so many primordial blog posts. Political cartoons have a long and vicious history. Incivility is our legacy, not our invention. It is part, but only part, of who we are. And have always been.

No, the internet hasn’t made us cruel. The internet has simply made it impossible to deny the reality of our nature, amplifying what was once small and local into a chorus people can no longer ignore, and are forced to confront with eyes that want excuses for the baseness of our very being.

Inclusion is the Core of My “Radical” Feminist Agenda

I’m tall, I’m a natural blonde, and I have green eyes. I’m also anywhere from “pleasantly plump” to “obese whale” depending on your scale of things, and I’m invisibly disabled. Needless to say, I receive a lot of comments about my body, both directly and indirectly, on a daily basis, and am frequently reminded of how I am–or am not–valued on the basis of what my body looks like and what it can or cannot do. I “should” be thinner, healthier, ignore the people who think I should be thinner, healthier; I “should” embrace who I am, change who I am, be a ‘better’ version of who I am, achieve health at any size-the list goes on, and on, and it often seems and feels like everyone has, and feels comfortable, voicing their opinion on what my body should look like and be capable of.

Would there be any less pressure if I wasn’t fat? After all, some people might want to argue that the comments come because of my weight, and the fact that I am so close to “the ideal” for a woman (tall, blonde, fair) that if I could get get thin, it’d all be fine.

Well, Cassey Ho’s recent “The ‘Perfect’ Body” video should put that idea to rest:

And if I were thin, I think it’s safe to say that the so-called “radical feminists” would simply say that being a thin, tall, blonde, fair woman is merely contorting myself to a body approved by a patriarchal/porn culture, and criticize me for that, as well. I suppose I might get “points back” for being disabled, but who knows.

Are you getting the idea that I can’t win? Because if I can’t win–if I can’t be my normal hair colour, my normal eye colour, my normal skin colour, all of which are considered damned near ideal for way too much of the world, and thin or fat or anywhere in between-then how is anyone else supposed to win?

Playboy (yes, really) takes this on in their post on Laverne Cox’s nude photo for Allure and the frankly ugly response from “radical feminist” Megan Murphy. To quote Noah Berlatsky, author of the Playboy piece,

Murphy reacted to the photo just as Cox suggests that people often react to black and trans women — with disgust, prejudice and horror. In a short but impressively cruel post, Murphy sneers at Cox for attempting to achieve a “‘perfect’ body as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, and then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption.”

She scoffs at the idea that trans women who take hormones or have surgery are accepting themselves. Murphy suggests that trans women are “spending thousands and thousands of dollars sculpting their bodies in order to look like some cartoonish version of ‘woman,’ as defined by the porn industry and pop culture.

My first thought, reading both Berlatsky and Murphy, is that this comes down to a question of how we define self. Berlatsky, along with most who support trans folks, seems to accept the idea that “who we are” can be a mismatch; your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external representation. For Murphy, it appears that you’re supposed to merely integrate the internal and external, and that if your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external being, that’s the fault of society for placing unrealistic notions on the external being.

Now, this notion of social expectation shaping external being is definitely accurate–if the mismatch you experience is what society tells you your external self should be and what your external self actually is. But where Murphy and most “radical feminists” seem to fall down is comprehending that there’s another option here, the one that trans folk fall in to, where your internal notion of self doesn’t match the assigned external self. When that happens, it’s not enough to say “ignore society” because the dissonance isn’t coming from society; there can, after all, be strong, physical differences between genders that have nothing to do with society and everything to do with biology.1 emp_v_obj-finalSociety might embrace fashion that emphasizes child-bearing hips, for example, but society doesn’t create those child-bearing hips. That’s biology.

But my first thought was a bit too shallow, on reflection. While this is all certainly true-Murphy and her ilk are simply not capable of dealing with the nuance of what it means on a base level to be trans-what it actually comes down to isn’t that, at all. What it comes down to is “radical feminists” not understanding the difference between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification. Which, to be fair, is a difficult concept to understand–but I don’t think I’m totally out of line to say “if you’re going to write critiques about bodies and empowerment, you’d best know what you’re talking about, first.”

I find that the cartoon by Ronnie Ritchie, posted by Everyday Feminism, really nicely captures the necessary nuance of power dichotomies (see right).

My problem with the “radical feminists” is pretty simple, and it’s neatly illustrated by the above response to Cox and a lack of understanding agency and consent: they’re drawing such a tiny, tight boundary around what it means to be feminist, that most people fail. Perhaps even more damning, that tight boundary contains body policing–something that most feminists, one hopes, would tell you is decidedly anti-feminist.

I place “radical feminist” in quotation marks because I don’t actually think they’re radical or feminist. I think that, for the most part, they’re scared women who are trying to define themselves in a way that maximizes their own power, and they do that by trying to keep it to themselves rather than share it liberally–another hallmark of what I think feminism should be about. In fact, I think that along with trusting adults to their own agency, about the most radical thing any feminist can do is include everyone.


Privilege, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday – 2014 Edition

Last week, I ended up spending a day hiding in an unused office at work. I justified it to the one person who asked by saying I wanted to stay away from everyone’s cooties, because I had a couple of visitors coming I didn’t want to be sick for. The reality, though, is that after hearing the racism and classism on display Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t stand to be around my co-workers for one more minute.

An example of what I listened to:

    “People who don’t like Thanksgiving should go back to China!”
    “People who don’t like Thanksgiving should be punched in the face!”
    “Anyone who shops on Black Friday is an idiot who should be sterilized.”
    “Shopping on Black Friday ruins America.”

Charming, eh? Especially when you consider I have a Native American aunt and cousins, my nieces are adopted from China, and my husband (and most of my in-laws) are Australian. When called on this, a co-worker simply stated that he was proud to offend everyone.

While it’s easy enough to dismiss this as yet another example of the questionable environment I work in, it doesn’t take much to find opposition to stores being open on Thanksgiving or people opting to shop on Black Friday. And, as usual, I have relatively complicated thoughts about this. Is K-Mart going too far, saying that people will be fired if they don’t work Thanksgiving? Yes, that one’s easy. But is it equally too far to insist everyone should have the day off, everything should be closed? Well, clearly no one actually believes that, because the only targets for this sort of action are retail stores–when is the last time you heard someone calling on restaurants to close on Thanksgiving or Black Friday?

When’s the last time you heard someone arguing that these mandatory days off work should be fully paid days off?

As I noted last year,

[i]t’s easy to be cynical about holiday sales creep sitting here from a position of privilege that allows me to choose to spend extra money for convenience, and I’m grateful to be reminded of that. Yes, I think the consumer culture is a travesty and it encourages waste and all of the typical things you hear spouted off about holidays sales and creep, but if those sales mean that some of the people waiting outside in long lines in the bitter cold have a chance to grab at something to help make life easier, or maybe even better? Then I should probably just sit down, shut up, and enjoy the privilege that having a middle class, white collar job gives me, without holding others to a standard of living that, until a few years (and an education) ago, I didn’t have access to myself.

It’s all well and good to insist people should have Thanksgiving off work–but shouldn’t that insistence come along with it being a paid day off? Because if not, you’ve suddenly shifted from advocating people have time off that you have, to advocating people be forced to lose money because you’re opposed to being reminded that there are people out there who have to make the choice between spending time with family, or just having a day off, and working to make ends meet.

Many moons ago, I was a waitress with a high school equivalency degree. I worked Thanksgiving and Christmas. I shopped Black Friday if I wasn’t working. I scrounged pennies to buy a new stereo at a Black Friday sale. I idly wished I could have days off to spend with my roommates, friends, boyfriend–the idea of having the airfare to go visit my family, to take that much time off, was such a fantasy it was left for daydreams, not wishes. Even when I was a newlywed, slowly working my way up in the software industry, with a software engineer husband, pennies were literally counted to make sure we had money for groceries (when was the last time you had to calculate that to the penny?).

I’m a newlywed again, and this time I have a sizable education and a comfortable white collar job. My husband is a postdoc at a prestigious Ivy League university, and we can do things like shrug off an expensive cab ride home because we don’t feel like waiting for the train, or idly discuss buying multiple pairs of winter boots so we don’t have to wear wet shoes. For us, convenience is often worth the extra money we’ll spend, which is why you won’t see us out shopping Thursday or Friday. But we can do that math; we can agree that we’d rather be comfortable than cold, and that we don’t need anything so badly a line is worthwhile. We don’t have to worry about punching in a clock, being paid by the hour, or the penalties that come from having jobs that don’t give us paid time off.

We are, in a word, privileged.

It’s worth not forgetting that, especially when pontificating about holiday work schedules.


I realize a lot of people are loathe to click through and read the past, so here is my 2013 post on privilege and holiday shopping.

Thoughts on Privilege and Holiday Sales (Thanksgiving Retail, Black Friday, etc)
Posted on November 26, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk this year about stores open on Thanksgiving, and I was ready to–and honestly, had–join in the general crankiness towards retailers doing so. I’ve never been a huge fan of Black Friday boycotts, because I do understand the idea and appeal of a sale, but grumbling at the encroaching opening times and intense sales? Yeah, I readily admit it.

In fact, I was already in grumbling mood this evening, because I made the mistake of swinging by the store to pick up some staples for the long weekend, and to consider some sort of protein for Thursday. The store was already building to crazy levels of people panicking over the oddest things, and I made a choice, on the spot, to save myself some headache and get everything I could possibly need right then, rather than saving some of the standard Trader Joe’s items for tomorrow. (I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in there.) Yes, I was going to pay more for bananas, but it was a tax I was willing to pay to avoid people at holiday panic.

That was my frame of mind as I hopped off the bus, groceries in hand, and started making my way through the transit center. I got stuck behind two young women and what was five or six very young children between them; they both had strollers and there were other children milling around, one on hip, and so forth. There were repeated references of “come to your mother” and such that made it clear that these young women were mothers to at least some of the children.

If it helps your mental image, they were also black.

I was, in my cranky mood, mostly irritated at being stuck behind strollers in a space not wide enough to pass. But being there, it was hard not to hear them talking, and they were talking about the upcoming sales. (Yes, I rolled my eyes. I’m not proud.) One was telling the other about a sale on TVs and how she was tempted, but there was some other sale going on and her friend was going to the TV one, but it was one per household. The other said she was going to get in line at a store I missed the name of, because they had $179 computers.

That stopped the conversation, and the walking, cold. “Computers?” “Yeah, laptops.”

I managed not to run into them, they saw me and apologized for stopping, and let me walk by them. As I was passing, I heard the one who’d been talking about the TV say, “A laptop for $179? I could do my homework at home. I wouldn’t have to stay at school late. I wouldn’t have to pay for daycare… or I could get another job!”

As I walked off, I continued hearing her talk about how much having a $179 laptop–one her friend admitted wasn’t a great machine, but workable–would change her life, whether she opted to get another job or save the money that daycare cost her, how it might impact her grades. As I rounded the corner and their conversation faded from hearing, it sounded like she was talking to someone else, sharing the news, and asking how much internet at home would cost.

I walked off to jump on the high speed train home, because I hit the right time and the 50 cent fare increase is an annoyance, not impossible. There are buses that take the same route; I ride them sometimes, when I miss the high speed train. The faces I see on the train rarely overlap with the faces I see on the bus, even though the stops are similar, and the train is significantly faster.

I made the choice, today, to spend an additional $10 on groceries rather than deal with crowds and inconvenience. But I had a choice.

I remember being in my early 20s, literally counting every cent being spent on groceries, because my ex-husband and I barely had any money. I remember my father sneaking groceries into my car, and I remember being grateful for holiday sales.

Even then, we owned computers and had internet access.

It’s easy to be cynical about holiday sales creep sitting here from a position of privilege that allows me to choose to spend extra money for convenience, and I’m grateful to be reminded of that. Yes, I think the consumer culture is a travesty and it encourages waste and all of the typical things you hear spouted off about holidays sales and creep, but if those sales mean that some of the people waiting outside in long lines in the bitter cold have a chance to grab at something to help make life easier, or maybe even better? Then I should probably just sit down, shut up, and enjoy the privilege that having a middle class, white collar job gives me, without holding others to a standard of living that, until a few years (and an education) ago, I didn’t have access to myself.

Everyone Likes to Fundraise When it Involves Penguins, Right?

As many of you know, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill been the target of some serious online abuse this past week, all for just saying “hey, that shirt’s not cool to wear to a global, history-making science event.” And yet, in addition to her normal job and troll patrol, she started up the Twitter hashtag #scishirt so that men & women could show folks what scientists wear to work every day – and create a better image for aspiring young scientists to see.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, how about we turn it around and help out some of Jacquelyn’s younger scientists as a thank you? Dulcinea Groff and Kit Hamley are fundraising half their budget for a trip to the Falkland Islands to study climate change. See those cute penguins to the right? If we want to keep them around, we need more information about how their home is being affected by climate change – work few people are doing.

As of this writing – about 7:45pm ET on Thursday, November 20, Dulcinea and Kit are $300 shy of the halfway point. That $5,000 is their airfare to the Falklands. Can we hit that by midnight? One way to find out,..