Life as an Extreme Sport

I Don’t Wear Scarves (Memoriam: Mom)

One of my mother's chemotherapy scarves. Yes, paisley skulls.
One of my mother’s chemotherapy scarves. Yes, paisley skulls.

It was warm and hazy when I woke up this morning, the room oddly yellow for the time of year, motes floating lazily through the dayspring light. Blinking sleepily, I saw Mom laying next to me, saw her smile, saw her stroke my hair and say hello, good morning, get up, you’re going to be late, goodbye, don’t let the bed bugs bite.

I blinked twice.

She was gone.

Don’t cry, there’s always a way
Here in November
In this house of leaves we’ll pray

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.

Childless: My Joy is Another’s Grief; Don’t Conflate the Two

This morning, CNN1 ran a piece on misunderstandings and stereotypes of childless women called “Check your ‘cat-lady’ preconceptions about childless women.” Naturally, it’s full of preconceptions, misunderstandings, and stereotypes of childless women. In particular, the women are still discussed by their relationship to/with children, and the voluntarily child-free are conflated with the involuntarily childless and uncertain.

Let’s take a quick walk through the women interviewed for this story:

  • Grell Yursik, 35: she and her husband have not decided whether they want to have children;
  • Laurie White, 43: refers to herself as “accidentally childless”;
  • Melanie Notkin, 45: says she has circumstantial infertility because she’s single and discusses “the pain and grief over not having children,” promotes maternal instincts of childless women;
  • Kitty Bradshaw, 35: heeded advice to wait to have children (portrayed as bad advice in the story), still dreams of having them and has moved to LA to find a husband;
  • Sheila Hoffman, 64: conscious choice to be child-free.

Women, still defined by the activity of their uteruses. Still defending their ability to be maternal,2 still looking for someone to create a child with,3 still using morally loaded language to justify their childless state as an accident of fate.

In fact, in an article ostensibly about the great life of childless women, four of the five women interviewed discuss wanting to have children and feeling that the circumstances of their lives simply don’t allow it. There are 33 paragraphs in the story, and three—the last three—talk to and about a woman, Sheila Hoffman, who actively made the choice to not have children. None of the paragraphs on Hoffman discuss her choice or how it makes her feel, only the need for role models for women that are not mothers. This, despite the fact that the DeVries Global white paper that at least in part prompted Wallace’s article showed that a full 36% of the 1000 women without children interviewed didn’t actually want children (and another 18% were on the fence).

So why did Wallace’s article spend absolutely zero time on this theoretically large segment of the American population?

Because it’s still not considered acceptable for women to not want children. Even the term being coined for these women, “Otherhood,”4 emphasizes the Otherness5 of women who have decided to skip having children.

What is acceptable is for a woman to want to have children, but to ruefully conclude that she cannot because she is single, cannot afford IVF treatments or being a single mother,6 or has lost her chance for reasons running the gamut from missed love to missing love. Women can and should be apologetic and sad about being childless; it is an accident, or a tragedy, rather than an empowered choice. And that’s reflected in Wallace’s article.

But beyond being infuriating for those of us—a third of the women sampled!—who are cheerful, happy, and decisive about our decision to not have children, the grouping of women who do not have children with women who do not want children is hurtful to the women who do feel that loss in their lives. These experiences—of feeling circumstantially infertile, of accidental childlessness, of deeply wanting a child—should not be lumped in with those of us who happily hug our IUDs, pills, and/or condoms whilst skipping gleefully down the Marvel toy aisle thinking “all for me, all for me.”7 Being infertile, circumstantially or medically, is a serious emotional wound that should not be conflated with a joyful and intentional life choice.

Write about the pain.

Write about the joy.

Don’t write about them at once, because that only does a disservice to both.

Dear @Twitter: I don’t want your head, but can I borrow your ear?

As just about everyone who uses Twitter is likely aware, on Thursday the company attempted to roll out changes to the “block” feature. Instead of the previous policy, which didn’t allow blocked users to follow you or interact with your Tweets, “block” was going to function more like “mute”: blocked users would still be able to follow you and interact with (RT, MT, favourite, etc) your Tweets, you’d just never see it happening. What ended up happening was a Twitterstorm of the likes Twitter itself has never faced (itself a bit of a remarkable thing, all considered).

In the face of considerable backlash, Twitter quickly rolled back the policy to their previous one, which they say is:

Blocked users cannot:

  • Add your Twitter account to their lists.
  • Have their @replies or mentions show in your mentions tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search).
  • Follow you.
  • See your profile picture on their profile page or in their timeline.

Privacy note: If your Tweets are public (i.e., not protected), they will still be visible on your public profile page to anyone, regardless of whether they have a Twitter account or not.

We do not send notification to a user when you block them, but because they will no longer be able to follow you, they may notice that they’ve been blocked.

Now, what you’ll notice here is that there’s nothing about being able to see blocked Tweets. Previously, when a user was blocked, your content was no longer available to them unless they signed out of their browser (in other words, when Twitter didn’t know they should block the content). At some point, it seems that this has changed, although when no one actually knows. But everyone who has had to figure out how block works has been adamant that in the past, Twitter did hide content from blocked users, which is in the TechCrunch article covering the fiasco:

Twitter has introduced a new blocking policy that is materially different from the one that they’ve had in the past. Blocked users can now see your tweets while logged in and continue to follow you on the service, allowing potential harassers or abusers to continue to track your updates on the network, even though you’ve explicitly blocked them. [Emphasis mine.]

Twitter has been consistent in stating that the reason they made their changes to the block function is that some users have complained that by alerting a harasser that they have been blocked, the harassment can actually escalate. This actually isn’t inaccurate, in theory; one of the major challenges when dealing with stalking is figuring out how to de-escalate involvement without making it clear that you are doing so, because realizing that their target it out of reach can make stalkers more aggressive and violent.

Head-in-sandSo, assuming you believe Twitter’s motivations here (and to be clear, many do not and feel that this was a move to appease advertisers), they had the right idea that the current (rather than newly implemented and as rapidly de-implemented) block functionality is not ideal. The problem with their solution is that it amounted to telling people “if someone is harassing you, just don’t look at them!” rather than actually dealing with the harassment of one of their users.

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has gotten in hot water for not policing user behaviour more stridently. In August, Twitter’s senior director of trust and safety, Del Harvey, and U.K. General Manager Tony Wang co-wrote a blog post saying

Twitter has updated its rules “to clarify that we do not tolerate abusive behavior,” adding that they “want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter Rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behavior was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

This was in response to Caroline Criado-Perez receiving multiple threats on Twitter after leading a successful campaign in the UK to put a woman on a bank note.

Harvey and Wang say they will “keep working” to make Twitter a safe place for users and say they are adding additional staff to “the teams that handle abuse reports and are exploring new ways of using technology to improve everyone’s experience on Twitter.”

One can only assume that Harvey and Wang were not consulted when the new Twitter block policy was implemented yesterday, since it actively undermines the work they did in August to reassure users that Twitter actually does take claims of harassment seriously.

With that overview in place, I would actually like to bend Twitter’s ears for a minute.

So, to Twitter: I actually can appreciate the concerns you raise over notifying people that they’ve been blocked. You’re right, that can cause behaviour to escalate. But the solution isn’t to put blinders on the people being harassed, who feel that they need to utilize the block function to protect themselves. The solution is to help figure out how to keep things from escalating. And in this, you could learn from Facebook. (Yes, words I’m just as surprised to type as you are to read.)

Facebook allows you to create a list of restricted users who can only see your public posts. Previous content is still there, and for all intents and purposes, you (person doing the blocking) simply appear to stop updating or using Facebook to the person who is blocked. Would this work once the harassing user was logged out? No, but in most situations, the idea isn’t about a perfect anti-harassment format, but about making things more difficult.

Now, the caveat here is that Facebook has many more settings than simply “protected/private” and “public,” which is why it can provide such nuance to posts. But Twitter, your framework is clearly able to handle deciding if someone should or should not interact with a tweet, and as such, should be able to simply stop showing certain users tweets.

I know, Twitter, that you want to point out that if a user account isn’t protected, then the tweets and information is still public, and while this is true, having to sign out of an account to view someone’s Twitter stream, copy and paste, and do other extra steps to facilitate harassment is, in and of itself, enough to stop many people from abuse. Will it stop everyone? No – but making it easier isn’t the solution, which is what your initial change did.

Your new policy essentially said “we’ll make it so you don’t have to see someone’s bad behaviour” rather than implementing any particular punishment for bad behaviour. This opens up many people, men and women alike, to being harassed, stalked, and abused, and left trying to figure out if it’s worth seeing harassment on their timeline every day, going “protected” and losing the networking-with-new-people point of Twitter, or trusting that other people will alert them if someone who is functionally muted moves from creepy harassment to actually threatening behaviour.

I’m glad that you realized that the Twitterstorm of concern raised reasons you overlooked, and that you rolled the block change back for safety reasons, Twitter. However, people who are signed in and blocked can still see content—this should be changed (and yes, I’m partial to the “stop all content after date/time blocked,” but open to other solutions). But mostly, Twitter, in whatever you do, you need to keep the concerns of the harassed, threatened, and stalked at the forefront. You screwed up once by putting that aside, and then you screwed up again when your CEO, Dick Costolo, said that the point of the change was cutting down on the antagonistic behaviour of people who were blocked.

Guys—and I do mean guys, because this is one of those on-going indications of a lack of female involvement in Twitter—the solution to cutting down on antagonistic behaviour of people being antagonistic, block-worthy jerks is not to appease the block-worthy jerks, it’s to move from block to ban.

And it really is that simple.