“Microaggression”

I hate the expression “microaggression.”

Don’t get me wrong– I think the concept itself is important. The idea behind it is that it is often not large overt actions but a never-ending series of small slights and assumptions that keep people marginalized.

We should all try to be more aware of the little things that we might do that uphold unfair systems.

But I hate calling these behaviors “microaggressions” because calling it “aggression” assumes that the person who mis-genders someone, or makes the knee-jerk assumption that the woman is the secretary not the boss, is doing this purposefully in order to harm the other person and keep her in her place. It assumes that the speaker intends to uphold a system that marginalizes other people. They intend to harm you in order to assure their own elevated place. In the vast majority of cases this is not true. These are not microaggressions but microignorances.

Here is why I think this matters.  If you assume a person is behaving with a violent intent– that they mean to do you harm– there are only a couple of ways to respond. You can attack the enemy or you can wall them off and avoid them to avoid being attacked again.

Neither of these responses does anything to solve the problem of ignorance. In fact, if the other person feels attacked, it can have quite the opposite effect, causing them to write you off as an enemy and use that as evidence that their prejudices are justified.

I would like to share a moment from last night’s Equality Town Hall on CNN. This is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, talking about finding common ground with people who have been taught that people like him are sinful.  (An attitude that actually goes beyond “micro” behavior to overt discrimination.) Buttigieg’s view is that faced with people who have a hard time changing their views “we are called to compassion. We are called on to seek out in one another what is best…”

This is what viewing the problem as ignorance rather than aggression looks like.

 

Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?

 

 

The Commodification of Time

I got to musing about time.

I was thinking about that wistful feeling when you think back on a book that you wrote, which meant a lot to you but which failed to set the world on fire. Thinking about the process of writing the expression “invested so much time” flitted across my brain.

I stopped to consider why was I using an economic metaphor to think about time? Time is something I “spend” or “invest.” I suspected that “invest time” was a modern expression and I checked the Google ngram viewer.

Invest Time Gif

As you can see, the expression “invest time” and its variants really gained traction in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. “Spend time” had a bit more use early on, but it seems to have grown with industrialization and really rocketed, along with the expression about investing time, in 1960.

Spend Gif

As I was born after 1960, I found it hard to come up with a comparable, older, expression to test against these. I drew a giant blank. The closest I came up with was to work for many years on something. This lacks the aspect of laboring over a period so it will pay off (another financial expression) later. Reap and ye shall sow.

What I’ve learned from all this pondering is that I find it surprisingly hard to break out of the frame of thinking of time as a precious commodity that can be spent or invested as one would budget a salary.

Maybe Arlo Guthrie has it right:

Playing to the Cameras

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was on the Daily Show. She shared her view that oral arguments before the court should not be televised because the temptation to play to the cameras would change the nature of the proceedings.

Sotomayor believes that partisanship in Congress started to grow when cameras were allowed in. Since then senators have been standing on the empty senate floor speaking “to the camera not to each other… Many senators told me that they felt much of the collegiality died when they stopped getting together in that room and were forced to listen to each other and were forced to sit next to each other and talk to each other.”

Bloomberg today shared a clip of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who has invited a press pool to travel with him on his bus. This is something, they note, has not been done since John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. The candidate pointed out that this means that campaigning hasn’t been done this way “since the social media era began.”

Why have a bunch of journalists, who might not present you as you’d like, follow you around when you can reach the public directly with a tweet?

In both cases, the Senators speaking directly to the camera, the presidential candidates tweeting directly to the public, you’re bypassing confrontation and pushback, and also bypassing the natural empathy that tends to come with face to face conversation. It is much easier to caricature someone’s position and use it to your own ends when they’re not sitting beside you.

It’s not just the politicians though. Voters play to the cameras too. Buttigieg observed that instead of shaking hands, the people who meet him want a photo with him.

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A handshake is just between two people. It can not be shared with a wider audience. We’re more focused on having something to show to the people not in the room than on the quality of the interaction in the room. The unobserved moment may as well not exist.

It struck me that in the social media age we’ve all become adept at playing to the cameras. We have more outlets than ever to share our views with the world, and at the same time, our desire to have two way conversations has dwindled.

You see the result in a lot of disputes where people do not even think to talk to a person directly before going to an authority or the public to complain. “So and so said/did this and it made me uncomfortable and he/she should be fired…” And in response, the problem the organization seeks to solve is often the PR disaster rather than the interpersonal conflict between these individuals. They, too, play to the cameras.

We have an entire attention based economy, where we try to “build platforms” and get clicks and likes. (Chris Hayes had one of the best observations about social media, he called it, if I remember rightly, “weaponizing our human need for affirmation.”)

As I previously mentioned here, Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed.

Because there is nothing everyone agrees on we form little safe zones online where we assume most people will look at things as we do. Within these tribes the range of discussion and thought becomes homogenized.

Is it possible that the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of broadcasting ourselves and that we’re due for a shift back to a culture that values community and face to face interaction over being known to a large impersonal audience? Have we all used our proverbial 15 minutes and gotten sick of it? Time and Twitter will tell.

Blood, Books and Buttigieg

603181_10151230971380948_540901268_nFrom time to time social media seems to conspire to throw things together in a way that sparks a bit of reflection.

Facebook today reminded me of this ad for my first novel, which came out seven years ago.

I have spoken in the past about Angel as a snapshot of a particular moment as cultural opinion shifts around us. (A few years back I realized that laws and culture changed so fast regarding LGBTQ issues that it is possible to pretty much identify the exact year in which the novel is set by a reference to the states in which same sex marriage was then legal. If you’re wondering– is set in 2007.)

This came up in my feed just after I watched a clip of a top tier presidential candidate talking about how the FDA’s ban on blood donation from sexually active gay men effected him personally. (Go forward to 4:43. My apologies, I did not have the patience to try to figure out how to add the time cue in Word Press.)

 

This is something I could not have imagined at the time I was writing Angel, (on and off from 1990-2010) or even when it came out in 2011.

The reason the combination of this clip and Angel ad is serendipitous is that one of the plot points in the book revolved around a blood drive and a minister– the center of his community– who was excluded from joining with his congregation in donating blood.

Until she got sick, Sara had been the driving force behind the annual blood drives. Paul and Sara used to kick off every blood drive as the first donors, leading by example. After her death, Paul continued the tradition himself. Encouraging community service and giving was one of the most meaningful parts of his job. It was a ritual the church counted on him to provide. Having to sit the blood drive out filled him with a profound sense of loss. And it made him feel dirty, like a person from Biblical times who’d been labeled “unclean.”

At the time I wrote the book, the FDA banned donations for life from any man who had had sex with another man. In 2015 they revised the ban to only prohibit donations from men who were sexually active with other men in the previous year. The broad policy seems to be based more on fear than on science (promiscuous heterosexuals are not banned, while monogamous gay men are) and many people have called for it to be revised.

A few years before I wrote Angel, this issue came up at my Unitarian church, which prides itself on being a Welcoming Congregation. (A designation for churches that are welcoming spaces for LGBTQ people.)

The church had regularly hosted a blood drive, and one year, after a gay congregant was not allowed to donate, we had to decide whether hosting blood drives was in conflict with our mission as a Welcoming Congregation.

This is not a simple question. In most cases when a group is excluded they are prevented from doing something that would benefit them. In this case, they are prevented from doing something to be of service to others.

For a boycott to effective, you need your protest to disrupt operations enough to force an organization to change. And in this case, it would mean impacting the supply of blood for emergencies. In a country where less than 10% of eligible donors give blood annually, this is not something we really should be contemplating.

So we were caught with two competing moral goods– advocating for inclusivity, and providing life-saving blood.  It was contentious.

I was against cancelling the blood drive. And when my book came out shortly thereafter describing my character Paul’s feelings of exclusion, one reader from my church said, “You took up the other side.”

This isn’t really true.

I was certainly not against cancelling the drive because I was for exclusion or didn’t recognize how it might feel to be turned away when you tried to give. My argument was that we should continue to donate as a congregation, and that we should use the events as teaching moments, and combine them with a letter-writing drive to the people who actually have authority over these decisions (the people who run the Red Cross drives do not) asking them to change the policy.

Instead we ended up with one of those compromises that, to my mind, solved nothing. We stopped hosting the drives and, the first year, we gave people a list of other places they could donate if they wanted to. In other words, we did nothing substantive to challenge the policy, we just opted not to participate as a way of demonstrating our moral values.

I am not critical of those who felt that this symbolism was important. Symbols do matter. It matters, for example, that the nation elected an African-American to represent us as a country. But that did not put an end to racism, as has become painfully clear in recent years. In fact, there can be a danger in symbolic acts if they make us feel comfortable enough to move on without doing the work to address the underlying issue.

Mayor Pete spoke eloquently about his own exclusion. Always nuanced and practical, he concluded with a call for an evidence-based plan.

“I would direct the FDA to reevaulate it so what we’re doing is consistent with what medicine is telling us and not with old prejudices.”

Not a great bumper sticker slogan, but good policy seldom is.

 

 

 

 

Yucky Framing: “Cracking Down” on Homelessness

According to the Washington Post, members of the Trump administration are in California where they toured an unused FAA facility with a view towards converting it into housing for the homeless.

You can argue about the administrations motivations for this move, its ability to address the problem, the wisdom of using an FAA facility and so on, but finding a place for people who cannot afford homes seems like a worthy enough goal.

What struck me about the newspaper coverage, however, was how this project was described. Trump is pushing for “a major crackdown” on homelessness, the report said.

It is not a “plan to help,” “an anti-poverty initiative” or “a major effort.” No, it is a “crackdown.”

This is not the kind of language we generally use when referring to people who have suffered setbacks and need help. You would not be likely to “push for a major crackdown” on people losing their homes to foreclosure, or a “crackdown” on people not earning enough to pay their medical bills, or a “major crackdown” on people being laid off from their jobs.

By calling it a “crackdown” we’re being asked to see homeless people through a criminal lens. This makes the issue not how we can address the underlying issues and the system that leaves so many people unable to afford a roof over their heads to a problem of these people annoying those of us with homes by sleeping in places that we would enjoy more without their presence. Put another way: the problem is not that they have no place, it is that they’re in our public space.

I find myself thinking of that famous Anatole France line “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Of course, having people sleeping rough in public spaces, or camped in tent cities, poses many complex problems for both the homeless and the people who have other uses for those spaces. The question is, is criminality the best and most useful way to frame and address the problem?

 

Why Wasn’t Wilde’s De Profundis Sent to Lord Alfred Douglas?

One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.

Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals.  I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)

I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.

But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from.  As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.

It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.

I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.

In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again.  (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)

According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away.  Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.

According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.

Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.

If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.