Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Which I am Collateral Damage

You know, in the last week, I've been called racist, intolerant, hypocritical, sexist, judgmental, naive, stupid, and hateful.

Oh, not me personally.  You didn't mean me.  You never meant *me* (except maybe one person, who can go to hell anyway).  You would never say those things about your friend Badger, of course.  And when I say, "you hit me with that shotgun blast, there," all I get back is a vague explanation that "it's different."

You meant those other people, with your broad-based polemics.  I am not a delusional, misguided child for believing in a divinity; those other people who believe in THAT god are.  I am not a narrow-minded body-shaming fat hater; those other people who talk about the importance of exercise and good food are.  I am not a racist; those other people who say that race relations are too complicated to be explained in simplistic terms are.  I am not a hypocrite; those other people whose morality is nuanced and based in more than yes or no perfectly consistent logic are.  I am not a sexist; those other people who call out patterns of interaction in gender relations and find problems with them are.  I am not a homophobe; those other people who support civil marriage are.  I am neither a gun nut nor a gun control nut; those people who believe in sensible restrictions without unnecessarily curbing the rights of others are apparently both.

*I* am not stupid; those people are.

But...the line between me and 'those people' seems to be that I am on your side, politically, and they are not. You've Othered them quite handily, using broad statements to explain why they're Just Plain Wrong, inferior and not deserving of basic respect, courtesy, or civility.  From where I am standing, though, I can see their perspective and it's really not that alien.  You've just taken no more time to really understand it than they've taken to understand yours, and while you feel justified in dismissing them unheard once you've classified them as 'thinking wrong', when they treat you the same way you use it as further evidence of their narrow-minded inferiority.

I don't believe in Othering people.  I don't like it.  And a large part of the reason that I don't like it is based in what's happening in my culture.  We divide into armed camps and defend them with lobbed philosophy.  We create classes of people based on thinking, and we dismiss and ridicule 'anyone who could ever think that way'.  Well, on my way to the 'right' opinion I appear to have walked down some 'wrong' hallways, and found value in what I learned there.  Rather prophetically, yesterday's Free Will Astrology e-mail contained a discussion of how it is possible to learn from people who do or think things you don't approve of.  If we only learned from people who agreed with us 100%, Rob tells me, we'd never learn anything.  I couldn't agree more, but this appears to have left me somewhat tainted, and likely to find myself the unintended target of my friends' scorn.

The brush we paint Other People with gets broader every year, as we pull further and further from open, reasoned discourse.  We divide into smaller and smaller groups, with each group priding itself on intellectual or philosophical purity for having come to the 'right' conclusions.  We present false dichotomies to marginalise others' opinions, reducing them to "Well, either you're stupid and I win, or you're a liar and I win."  We create point-scoring nit-picky arguments that fit into captions and onto bumper stickers.  Arguments small enough to fit on a bumper sticker cannot possibly be large enough to explore the complexity created by widely divergent cultures trying to find a living peace with one another under one government.  And when we reduce by furious application of heat and pressure, we lose the most delicate elements of that interaction first:  compassion, kindness, civility, reasoned understanding.

I spent almost an hour before I fell asleep last night, reading over people's increasingly defensive and dismissive answers to my conversations with them.  I went to bed hurt, angry, and sick to my stomach.  If you're one of those people, and you're waiting for an answer from me, this is what you're getting:  no more.  I cannot engage to defend myself against your friendly fire any more today.  Maybe another day, but don't hold your breath.  You're applying opinions by Uzi, spraying poorly-formed and fast-moving bullets of thought in the general direction of those you perceive as enemies.

And you're badly wounding those of us trying to stand on common ground.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On Social Predators and the Abuse of Safe Spaces

There's been a lot of talk lately about Creepy Guys and sexual harassment/assault.  A couple of conversations I've had recently have made me want to make something terribly clear, and explain why it is a large part of the problem.  It's not necessarily the Creepy Guys who break social rules that are problematic.  It's the ones that *follow* them, using them as tools of predation, that make others feel most unsafe.

Throughout my adult life, I've spent most of my time in communities where I was in some way tasked with the safety or conduct of the members of the community.  Online and off, I've been given progressively increasing levels of authority to address the problems of how people treat one another.  And I keep hitting a situation that makes me sadder, and angrier, every single time:

A community develops around a shared idea of openness, respect, and tolerance.  Its members, anxious to preserve a space where people are not judged and ostracized for nontraditional choices, codify that respect and openness into rules for the community.  They appoint people they feel are level-headed and understanding to judge, and maybe reprimand, violations of those rules.  It all goes swimmingly well, because most of what people require is to have pointed out to them that their actions were harmful or disrespectful.  We all do, after all, want the same open space in which we can exchange ideas, and being a jerk gets in the way of that.  For some period of time, we have this excellent space in which we can speak freely and be ourselves.

Into this space comes a predator (I will use 'he' for grammatical clarity, but it isn't necessarily a man).  He sees the structure of the community, and he uses it.  Maybe he strikes up friendships with people in authority.  Maybe he does a lot of work for the group, or picks a side on a cause important to someone within the community.  In an online community, he'll 'like' or upvote the comments of someone susceptible to flattery.  In an offline community, he'll be everyone's buddy and always there to buy a round or take on that unpleasant task.  He has sad stories about the mistreatment at the hands of another group (or groups), maybe a tale of how he made a powerful enemy who poisoned the community and drove him out.  He says things like, "It's so wonderful to be here, where I can be myself, without being judged or belittled."

All the while he does this, he preys on the community.  He builds goodwill and uses it to get favors, trust, money, information.  He takes sexual advantage of community members, or harasses them.  In an online community I frequented, a predator sent me (a community Admin) increasingly nasty sexual fantasies despite my repeated requests for him to stop -- often alongside the same chat room where the two of us were having an apparently civil conversation with several other members of the community.  Within the community, where we had the actual power of established rules, he never stepped out of line and he had some fairly influential friends who defended him as 'socially awkward'.  But around its edges, he drove multiple women away from the group entirely and we could not make him stop.  He acted where we did not have power, and obeyed the rules we had set.  Eventually, I simply blocked him in chat, and ultimately I left the community for a lot of reasons -- quite a few of which can be boiled down to "I did not have the power to tell someone to stop being an asshole, as long as he was an asshole according to the rules and someone was willing to defend him."

In pagan community, we see it as well.  Unwelcome touches around a fire ring, suspicious effects of beverages that *might* just be chalked up to a newbie who didn't know her tolerance, someone who 'wears down' a no until it becomes a "well, OK, maybe."  When we catch it, we call it out, but the predators are so careful to follow the letter of the law.  They're not being overt, they're doing something that just might be an innocent mistake.  We say, "That's not 'a misunderstanding', it's bad conduct," and he says, "OK, now I know," and changes his tack slightly

After several events, we can say "This is a pattern and you don't have a place in this community," but at that point he changes his craft name from RavenSong MoonFlower to RavenMoon SongFlower, and joins a different community to tell a fresh tale of woe and start over again (apologies to any actual RavenSong MoonFlowers or RavenMoon SongFlowers; I don't mean you).  The anonymity that protects a small-town schoolteacher against losing her job protects him as well, because I can't call the safety folks from other festivals and say, "Hey, let me send you a picture of this guy who did this thing," without violating the trust the community has placed in me to protect their identities.  Unlike Readercon, we can't name names openly and I don't know that I would, if we could.  That's a pretty big can of worms.

In the con, fandom, or Rennie communities, he hides out next to the people with Asperger's or legitimate social awkwardness.  They don't see or don't understand social cues, and he ignores them, so from a distance they look the same.  The differences are hard to spot if you're not familiar with some of the conditions, though this article by Arabella Flynn offers some good information about it.

And there is some protection in geeky or 'outsider' communities for people with a legitimate reason to be socially awkward.  No one wants to yell at the kid with Asperger's to stop STARING at you, for fuck's sake, because it's really goddamned creepy -- and just as importantly, no one wants to be seen as the sort of person who'd do that to someone who didn't know better.  So, when people talk about creepy or socially invasive behaviour, the people who defend those who can't help it also end up defending those who are hiding behind them, and the predator gets off watching people try and stop him while others challenge them as discriminatory and intolerant.  When word finally gets around, he's off to another con, another faire, another group.

The communities are different, but the MO remains the same:  use the exact rules intended to create a safe and nonjudgmental space to create a space where you're safe to abuse others at the expense of community harmony.  Exploit the social politics of the infrastructure to position yourself as an unfair target.  Escape the consequences of your actions by abusing the policies that protect innocent people, and move on when it stops being fun.

So, what do we do?  That's the hard part.  I don't really know, and I don't think any one thing will suffice.  We need clearer stated rules.  We need to understand that we have both the right and responsibility to communicate our boundaries.  We need to support those around us when we see that someone is not respecting a boundary, by saying "Hey, didn't she just tell you not to do that?  Why are you still doing it?" loudly and clearly.  We need to stop being so afraid of the idea of judging others that we allow ourselves to be manipulated by even the accusation of intolerance.

Ultimately, we need a cultural change in which predatory behaviour finds no purchase, where someone who disrespects others' boundaries finds himself quickly called out and corrected on multiple fronts.  And if he refuses correction, let him be shunned.  It gets hard to serially prey on communities if you never make it past the first night of a festival, the first day of a con or a faire, the first few weeks in an online community, before someone says to you, "Stop abusing the trust of this space.  Now," and refuses to tolerate you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Harvests and the Agriculture of Life

The Wheel is divided into parts, and each part offers a chance to contemplate a different area of life.  Over the past week, I've been thinking about my life and its harvests, and the harvests I see being collected around me.

Lughnasadh represents the beginning of the harvest season, but here in Austin we've been harvesting for months and are into our second planting season by August, so it's hard to view it strictly as a celebration of the bounty of the field.  We've become so out of touch with the cycles of the land anyway, that few of us really live the rhythms of agriculture -- but life can still be understood by its rules.

The first rule of agriculture is that your harvest depends on what was planted.  Just as you can't plant thistles and expect them to produce blueberries, you can't sow hatred or discord and expect to reap love and happiness.

What this means, practically, is that choices have consequences.  It seems like a lot of people wrestle with this idea.  They seem to understand in the abstract that their choices may turn out badly, but they're always surprised when they do.  For example, as Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A has learned this week, having your right to an opinion doesn't mean you have a right to an unchallenged opinion.  As most of the country seems to be learning in one way or another, choosing to voice your opinion may in fact result in criticism from people who don't agree with you.

It's not just about politics, though.  I see people in my life who scatter love and positivity wherever they go, who seek to live with integrity, to make sure that those around them feel valued and respected, and I see them living not necessarily easier or happier lives, but lives in which they also feel valued and respected.  I see people who choose kindness receiving help when they need it, and people who choose derision or scorn left to their own devices in need.  Most of all, lately, I see that many people around me are living out the set of relationships and circumstances they themselves built.  It's tough for me to say if I am; it's a hard thing to look at objectively.  I know that some things are direct results of choices I've made, but in some parts of my life I can't really tell what's consequence and what's coincidence, and it's possible some of the things I've been tending as my planted flowers are actually just pretty weeds.

Those pretty weeds benefit from the second rule of agriculture:  what thrives, was tended.  In the wild, what thrives is what's strongest, most adaptable, most hardy.  But in the garden, we use different selection criteria and the things that do well are the things we treat with care.  If you neglect your work, your career will suffer.  If you neglect your social life, your friendships will suffer.  If you neglect your body, your health will suffer.  If you want any element of your life to especially flourish, it requires careful attention and management of your resources, but that flourishing may come at the expense of other parts of your life.

A versatile and useful farm has many different sorts of plants.  It has staples like corn or wheat or potatoes, that provide the basic blocks of the diet.  It has green vegetables, to provide vital nutrients.  It has fruit for sweetness, herbs for variety, and flowers for beauty.  It has fall crops like squash, to keep into the winter.  It has winter crops like kale or asparagus, to provide fresh vegetables in the darker months.  It has livestock not only for meat and milk and clothing, but also for manure to renew the soil.  A farmer whose land provided more than enough food might choose to turn some acreage to flax or cotton or hemp, to indigo for dye, or to sugar cane.  A farmer who focused on one crop to the exclusion of anything else, though, would soon find that he was mightily tired of potatoes and lacking some pretty important nutritional components.  He'd be dependent upon his neighbors' prosperity and willingness to trade for his own excess.

A versatile and useful life also has many different elements.  You have to have some staple, some means of keeping the lights on and the roof over your head:  a source of income.  You have to blend family and friends, dreams and needs, art and health, all into some sort of existence.  If you focus on any one area to the exclusion of others, you'll find that your job is going brilliantly but your health is suffering, or your friendships are strong but your creative urges are being ignored.  Like a farmer, you have to find ways to make it all work together, to give the elements of your life the right amount of attention, to carefully tend the things you most want to see bloom.  And if there's something in your life that you don't want there, that you've tried to pull out or kill unsuccessfully, then the only way to be rid of it is to stop tending it: cut off its access to water, to food, to sunlight, and give it no further attention.

Companion planting allows farmers to use fewer resources to get the most.  Tomatoes will thrive if you plant them near basil; with careful planning you can combine areas of your life to greater effect.  If you can manage to be creative in your profession, your career will feed your soul in addition to your pocketbook.  If you and your partner support one another in healthy lifestyle choices, your relationship and your physical health will benefit one another.  Wherever you can find ways to make one part of your life improve your tending of another part, your entire quality of life gets better.

While it's true that what thrives is tended, it's not true that everything you tend will thrive.  That comes from the third rule of agriculture:  we do not run this show.

We are all dependent upon things and people external to us.  Here in Austin, we know very well that nothing grows if it does not rain.  You can collect rainwater, you can irrigate, you can choose drought-tolerant plants, but you simply cannot keep things alive without water by sheer love and force of will.  We do not choose where the hurricane will make landfall, we cannot take another driver's wheel and turn him from our path.

Even more than that, we can't control the lives and choices of those around us.  They may disappoint us, they may make choices that we would rather they didn't.  They might have different politics or priorities, not value the things we value, and disregard things we consider of paramount importance.

I cannot make others love me (or anyone else).  I can't force compassion and tolerance to manifest in my community.  I can't dictate the policies that will guide my country to economic stability and success.  I can't keep aggression and the will to dominate from driving people to war.  Those things will happen, and they will upset my careful plans.  Like locusts or flooding, they destroy my garden and force me to scramble to support myself while I start over.  If I have planned well, I have enough resources -- in money, in friends and family, in stored energy and sheer perseverance -- to rebuild a better garden with the lessons I have learned.  If I have not, or if I am unlucky enough to face multiple disasters together, then I'm in for a lean winter and maybe longer.

It's hard, now, when the sun bakes down in triple-digit temperatures, to think about the winter.  It's hard to look at each harvest and think that it's what I have to sustain me through the dark times.  I see loving relationships I've tended these last years, slowly increasing financial stability, a living space still more lair than home, a job that meets my needs but does not feed my soul, a mind I'm sharpening every day with books and thoughts and intelligent friends, and creativity I'm only just now learning to nurture, and I consider the decisions I have made this last season.

There's a temptation to, as one gathers the harvest, immediately begin thinking about the next year's planting, how I will do better in the next year.  But I can't know, for some time, if what I have is sufficient for my needs.  All I can do now, as I gather my bounty, is consider what part of it comes directly from the choices I've made and the care I've given, and what part of it comes from things I did not anticipate.  Long before I can ever begin to choose next year's seeds, I have to devote my full energy to learning the lesson's this year's growth has taught me.