words mean things


A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Hanne Blank at an event for her new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality at the Harvard Bookstore. I enjoyed the talk — the gist of which is that our (where “our” roughly means Western European and Anglo-/Euro-American, and other cultures to the extent “we” have successfully exported our ideas) idea of sexual orientation as a more-or-less fixed component of identity — indeed, as an intelligible thing at all — is an historically contingent construction dating only to the mid-19th century. The history of that idea, the political tactics and strategies, it was formulated to serve, and the originally unanticipated constructions which have been put on it and uses to which it’s been put, can be traced, examined in context, and demystified. It’s a powerful thing, to see a prevailing way of understanding the world, and be able to say, “this is not decreed from on high; this is not unalterable natural fact; this is a human construction that arose for intelligible reasons.”

This discussion of historical constructedness put me in mind of a couple of my favorite short quotations, which you’ll see in the sidebar to the right. Edward Said, from the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of Orientalism: “[N]either the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” And Kai Chang, from his sadly vanished-into-the-ether blog (he maintains a presence on Tumblr, but I’ve never been able to figure out Tumblr) — the Wayback Machine does have an archived copy of the post, at least — “Because the world is not a floating sequence of unfortunate events; it’s an edifice with foundations, load-bearing walls, plumbing, wiring, ductwork; and in order to renovate, you need to study those structures.”

Between them, those beautifully expressed thoughts point the way to a great deal of the foundation ofmy way of understanding the world (itself, of course, alsoconstructed and historically contingent). No social convention, no matter how “natural” we’re accustomed to thinking it is — indeed, “nature” vs. “civilization” is yet another constructed dichotomy which obscures and mystifies humans’ relationship with their environment — is actually somehow encoded, immutably, in our DNA.

Almost a decade ago now, Joel Spolsky described his Law of Leaky Abstractions. The law is, “all non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.” And what Spolsky means by “leaky” is that whenever you deal with an abstraction (he’s discussing software, but it applies much more broadly than that), details of the underlying system (“reality” if you like, or just a lower-level abstraction) inevitably operate in such a way as to prevent the abstraction from being perfect: some of the messy underlying workings leak through. In programming, we talk, and mostly think and act, as though we dealt in pure, logical concepts, free-floating in the air for us to manipulate as we please: but in fact what we ultimately deal in is electrical impulses traveling between transistors on nanometer-scale wires, and that physical reality constrains and warps the gloriously pure logic of our airy thoughts.

We still have to deal in abstractions: even the relatively low-level abstraction of logical 1 and 0 bits moving between ALUs and registers in neat groups of 64 is too much information for a human brain to hold and track all at once, never mind the electrochemical reactions playing out by the billions every second — or being able to also recognize any kind of higher-level meaning. All thought is abstraction; all speech is abstraction; all social interaction is abstraction. We are complex physical systems understanding ourselves through abstractions. And that’s all right! We can’t do away with abstractions; such a thing is so far outside the realm of the possible that even to ask whether we “should” is incoherent. But we do need to be cognizant that they are abstractions and that they do leak: if we mistake abstractions — historically contingent, constructed systems, which serve necessary functions but are not necessarily the only systems that could serve those functions — for uncomplicated, “natural” fact, we are ill-prepared for what on Lacanian terms* would be understood as irruptions of the Real into the Symbolic.

To come back around to Hanne Blank’s book, then: the binary system of “heterosexual” and “homosexual”, and indeed the entire concept of “sexual orientation” as a relatively uncomplicated, fixed characteristic of a person’s identity, is a leaky abstraction (though no less so, of course, than the system of “acceptable” and “deviant” sexual behaviors which preceded it in Western European thought). It’s a nice, simple idea, easy to think about and apply, and in most cases it seems to fit pretty well. But if you start digging you find it doesn’t have any ontological stability. Not everyone is attracted exclusively to one gender. Not everyone is attracted to ANY gender. Not everyone experiences their sexuality as a fixed “orientation” over their lifetime. If you dig deeper, you find it’s built on another leaky abstraction: the idea of “sexual orientation” rests (among other things) on the idea that there are two genders, masculine and feminine; that every person is either one or the other; and that every person is attracted to either one or the other. But gender, too, is unstable, as not everyone identifies with the gender they’re assigned at birth, or indeed with either pole of the standard gender binary, and not everyone experiences their gender identity as stable over their lifetime. Psychology, sociology, even anatomy, are all susceptible to these leaks.

Every level you try to systematize and stabilize turns out to resist that process. The wild multifarious variety of human biology and brain chemistry and all the complex interactions of systems with systems — all the way down, at the very root, to the perpetual randomness of quantum foam — filters up through the abstractions as instability. When we take these neat abstractions and try to impose them on the messiness of lived experience, at best they only mostly fit. Some people can’t or won’t fit into the mold, and some get hurt trying to fit, or more often, by others trying to make them fit. And I think the best way to deal with this, probably, is — if you’ll pardon my repeating myself — to recognize the constructedness, and the leakiness, of the abstractions we use, and to understand them not only as contingent but as provisional. That they are constructed means they are not immutable. We absolutely require sets of abstracting conceptual tools to manage our experience of the world. But there is no reason to presume a priori that the specific sets of tools we have are the only ones that could ever possibly serve the purpose. A worldview is not handed down from on high. It is learned and built up, and it can be revised and replaced as events and information warrant.

Accepting instability lets you adjust and adapt. Moreover, trying to prevent or quash it is an effort doomed to failure.

* in fairness I must admit I know very little Lacan and can claim to understand even less.

Response to Randy Milholland

Randy Milholland, a friend of mine and the author and artist of Something*Positive, asked me today,

Honest question for you: how come you’re bothered by the Penny Arcade stuff but the Redneck Tree never bothered you?

And that’s a fair question. I was going to respond in a series of twits, but 140-character bursts become unwieldy when you need more than a couple of them, so instead I’m writing this post. I don’t want to make Randy wait too long for me to answer him, though, so this is basically going to be a listing of the things I was going to say over Twitter, rather than a more carefully structured post.


First, the Redneck Tree was years ago (almost 9 years, now that I look it up), and my views have changed since then (I like to think they’re better now).

Second, I actually was somewhat uncomfortable with it — just not enough to say anything at the time. If it were a new SP strip, I most likely would speak up. I haven’t gone back to bring it up both because I hadn’t really thought about it in a while, and because I didn’t think it’d be productive to.

Third, Randy’s not running a convention attended by tens of thousands of people, let alone threatening to blacklist critics from that convention.

Fourth, the original Dickwolves strip is less an issue than their response, which was to lie about the criticisms, attack the critics, double down on the problematic content, and insist that they shouldn’t be held responsible for things they did and said. Randy didn’t do any of that (though I don’t recall any criticism of the Redneck Tree anyway — there may well have been some, but I don’t think I saw it).

Fifth, Randy’s never positioned himself as representative of a whole subculture; Gabe likes to act as though no “real” gamers or PA fans have a problem with what they did — see Kirby Bits’s post, where she discusses his use of “some people” vs. “you” — when the fact is that the criticisms are coming mainly from longtime PA readers. The PA response has essentially been to assert the prerogative to define who is and who isn’t a “real gamer” according to whether a person doesn’t or does, respectively, have a problem with the Dickwolves strip and their subsequent actions. That is, effectively, they assert the prerogative to define gamer culture as a subset of rape culture. As a gamer who opposes rape culture, that makes me really angry.

Finally, as I said, Randy’s my friend. I don’t want to have a fight with him, or seem like I’m attacking him, so although there are a lot of things to criticize about the Redneck Tree stuff, if I were going to present that criticism I’d want to be fairly careful how I went about it. I’ll admit, I don’t really care very much whether things I say regarding the Dickwolves mess hurt Mike or Jerry’s feelings, so long as I’m confident I’m not saying things that aren’t true.

So that’s my response, and I apologize, Randy, for the delay in posting it.

Well, I Guess That Resolves Things

Again, probably reading Kirby Bits’s post is the best place to start; I only have my own commentary to add on a couple of points.

One is that Krahulik has been out front, and taking most of the heat, on this issue. That’s probably by design; he’s always seemed more comfortable with confrontation than Holkins. And it’s left room for people (including me — I have certainly always preferred to think that he was in general a more thoughtful an empathetic person than Krahulik) to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about where he stands on the issue. I think at this point, though, Krahulik’s behavior has become hostile enough toward rape survivors that Holkins’s apparent neutrality begins to look like tacit approval, or at best cowardice. Jerry, if you happen to read this, this isn’t actually a complicated question. You can just speak up. Are you for, or against, mocking the suffering of rape survivors? Having a voice other than Mike’s speaking for Penny Arcade, at this point, would probably be a good idea.

The other point, which Kirby Bits doesn’t directly address, is the dig in this section:

I’ve gotten a couple messages from people saying they are “conflicted” about coming to PAX. My response to them is: don’t come. Just don’t do it. In fact give me your name and I’ll refund your money if you already bought a ticket. I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order. (emphasis added)

Sure enough, Krahulik threatened to blacklist anyone so upset or angered by his mockery of rape survivors that they weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable attending PAX.

Guess I’m not so conflicted anymore. It’s a shame — as I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed going to PAX East last year, and I think that the work Child’s Play does is really valuable. But even if I’d still have a good time — which I very well might — if I went to PAX East this year, PAX attendance numbers (among many other factors, obviously) affect Penny Arcade’s clout in the video game industry. So my having fun would go hand in hand with helping to boost Krahulik and Holkins’s profile, driving more advertising dollars to their site, and increasing their legitimacy as representatives of video game culture. I’m not willing to contribute to Penny Arcade’s push to define gamer culture as hostile to everyone but heterosexual, white, cisgendered men. So whether or not Mike has actually put my name on the auto-cancel list at Penny Arcade Expo HQ, I won’t be going to PAX this year.

Child’s Play is a somewhat trickier issue. I worry that on the one hand, if people stop giving to Child’s Play over its association with Penny Arcade, Krahulik and Holkins will yell “look, they’ve got a vendetta against us and they don’t care if they hurt sick kids!”; but that on the other hand, if people don’t stop giving to Child’s Play over this, they’ll point to those numbers as evidence that they’re Good People, and so all the mean things those Nasty Internet Feminists said about them must be false. I think that I’ll continue to give to Child’s Play, myself, because ultimately it’s only an aggregator — the gifts are still picked from wish lists put up by the hospitals, and still go directly to the hospitals. And because even if Gabe and Tycho don’t, people like this woman deserve to be honored.

Why I’m Conflicted About Attending PAX East 2011

Kirby Bits’s excellent post at The Border House pretty much sums it up, actually. As KB notes on her blog, in the two days since that post went up, the “Dickwolves” merchandise appears to have been removed from the Penny Arcade store; that’s certainly a good step, and it deserves some recognition.

But it isn’t really very much — to, months after initially responding to criticism with dismissal, mockery, willful misrepresentation, and attacks, quietly stop trying to turn a buck by trading on rape culture in a couple of instances. (Especially when they’re still trading on rape culture, misogyny, and violence against women as a punchline.) It’s a step — and, again, it deserves recognition as such — but it’s also important to recognize that it’s only one, fairly small, step, and for it to be meaningful they need to follow up on it. If you hurt someone accidentally, and especially if at first you reacted defensively and insisted you’d done nothing wrong, doing something small in the way of redressing that hurt late is better than nothing or never, but if you don’t also make a point of being careful to avoid hurting them again, people are going to find it harder and harder to believe the “accidental” part.

I’ve been a Penny Arcade reader for over a decade (and yes, that means I’ve passed over a lot of problematic material without comment in that time, for various reasons; that’s not something I’m proud of), I attended and enjoyed PAX East last year, I’m a huge fan of their charity work, and I’ve offered praise for Tycho’s relatively thoughtful engagement with difficult issues in the past. So I would like to believe — and I do have some hope — that they will follow up appropriately on this, educate themselves on rape culture, and react more thoughtfully to criticism in the future. I don’t know how likely it is, but I’d like to believe it. (I mean, while we’re at it, I’d also like for Gearbox to have left Duke Nukem Forever to rot, so…)

So ultimately, I’m conflicted about attending PAX East this year. Some friends are going to be in from out of town to go to the convention, and Gabe and Tycho have always been insistent that PAX isn’t about them, it’s about the gamer community. I don’t necessarily think writing PAX off and conceding the space is a productive approach, but it also can’t be denied that Penny Arcade sets the tone for PAX, and at the risk of being redundant, just pulling the Dickwolves merchandise is far from sufficient, and while it deserves recognition as a positive step, it doesn’t deserve a whole batch of cookies or renewed unconditional support.

Of course, there’s still about a month and a half until PAX East, so any number of things could happen in that time to affect my decision on this. One possibility — I did this in the case of Talib Kweli’s new independently produced album, Gutter Rainbows, because I like his music and want to support independent music production, but was troubled by the line “life’s a bitch, it’s how you handle her” in “I’m On One” — is that I’ll go to PAX, and also give an equivalent amount to an organization like BARCC that works to fight rape culture and provide help and resources to survivors of sexual violence. On the off chance that any of my approximately four readers are feeling similarly conflicted about this situation, perhaps they’ll find that approach to be workable as well.

Nouning, Again: The Crux

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:

Recent discussion … has reminded me, too, that this doesn’t apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.  If it were more normal to use “feminist” (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is “a feminist,” which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines “a feminist” and anyone who doesn’t quite match up is “not a feminist,” we could be discussing how feminist he is[.]  These things are matters of degree.

In the time since then I’ve continued to think about the issue, and I suspect that I missed an important point in my original post — even though, with the Neal Stephenson and Jay Smooth citations, it was staring me in the face.  It’s still important to think about “isms” in terms of degree rather than as simplistic, binary oppositions.  But another, probably equally important way to see it is that nouns tends to be about identity, while adjectives are more easily applicable to action.

The original “Nouning Considered Harmful” post was, in part, inspired by debate over whether Barack Obama was or was not “a feminist.”  Now, some sixteen months later, a similar debate is occurring over Sarah Palin’s description of herself as “a feminist,” and the larger attempt by conservative women to “claim” (or “reclaim”) the term “feminist” to describe their generally anti-choice, anti-marriage-equality, pro-capitalist, pro-traditional-patriarchal-family policy positions.

(My responses to this are mainly 1) to note that attempting to co-opt progressive language for anti-progressive policies, or to smear progressive policies with anti-progressive labels, is standard right-wing newspeak procedure; and 2) to quote this excellent Bitch, PhD post: “My point is that it irritates the hell out of me when I see an argument about feminism in which neither side seems to actually remember that feminism isn’t about what women or men ‘choose’ to do: it’s about the way society is structured.” (emphasis mine)  That is, to claim your policy positions are feminist, when you’re actually advocating against structural changes in society that would improve the socioeconomic status of women as a class, is an absurdity.)

But the question of whether a specific person “is a feminist” or not is the wrong question, I think; it’s either a meaningless question, or it’s a meaningful question asked in a counterproductive way.  As I understand it, it’s a basic tenet of anti-oppression thought that people get to define their own identities.  And this can be kind of tricky, it turns out, and lead to some pretty fraught discussions of appropriation and self-definition, when someone like Sarah Palin calls herself “a feminist.”  Because to claim to be, or not to be, or that someone else is, or is not, “a [noun]” is a claim about identity.  People really, really don’t like to be told their identity is something different from what they themselves say it is, and people who subscribe to progressive views tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone else “no, your identity is X, no matter how much you say it’s Y.”  Identity is personal and internal, it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind, so how can anyone else contradict my claims about my own identity?

So this is the crux of the nouning issue, then: if I say “you are a racist” or “you are a feminist” I’m making a claim about your identity, and in some sense that’s just not a claim I’ve got the right to make.  If I say “I’m not a racist” or “I’m a feminist” I’m making a claim about my identity, which I’ve got every right to do, but the validity of which no one but me has any way to evaluate.

If, on the other hand, I say “the policies you support would tend to keep the political, social and/or economic status of women as a class lower than that of men as a class,” or (equivalently) “the policies you support are un- or anti-feminist,” I’m making a claim that can actually be evaluated, because it’s a claim about actions and effects in the world, not thoughts within someone’s brain.

Some further reading, from which you’ll be able to click through to all sorts of blog posts about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist, should you be so inclined: Pilgrim Soul, Kate Harding.

Quick Hit: I've Got My Story and I'm Sticking To It!

Yesterday on my way to work I was listening, as is often the case, to the BBC World Service NewsHour program on my local NPR station, and one segment in particular caught my ear.  They were discussing the aftermath of the Chile earthquake, including President Bachelet sending thousands of troops into Concepción to “restore order.”  Starting at minute 39, presenter Robin Lustig talks with Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology, about “the morality of looting.”

What struck me about this was Lustig’s dogged insistence on established narrative — people who take food and supplies from stores in the aftermath of a disaster are “looters,” selfish criminals out for their own benefit who don’t care about anyone else; post-disaster urban areas (especially those populated by non-white people) devolve into Hobbesian nightmares; it’s correct for governments’ primary response to be “restoring order” by sending in police or troops — in the face of Furedi’s patient explanation that the evidence doesn’t support that narrative.  People act more altruistically after a disaster, crime rates are lower, and those who “loot” food and supplies tend to then distribute them among the population.  But Lustig would be damned if he’d let silly little things like facts interfere with the preferred story.

I Don’t Care If You’re Offended

Updated below to address a criticism.

A little while ago, I got into an argument with a friend.  In the course of objecting to a joke that disparaged women, I said something snide about religion (in this particular case the religion in question was Christianity, but it was a remark about religion in general).  My friend asked whether a Christian might not be just as offended by what I’d said, as a feminist1 would be by the sexist joke.  I pointed out that our society privileges Christianity and accords more power and respect to Christians, while it marginalizes women and feminism, and seeks to prevent their access to power, so the ceteris isn’t paribus, but he insisted that how offended someone is, is something that’s determined solely by that person and how they feel about what was said, and doesn’t get scaled according to the person’s social status.  My position, he argued, was really that I just cared less whether certain groups were offended, than I did about others.

It was an interesting discussion, and it led me to conclude this:

I actually don’t care whether anyone is offended2. Offense is a vague, amorphous concept, and it is completely subjective, as my friend pointed out.  Anyone can claim to be deeply, mortally offended by anything, and it may very well be true; even if it’s not, there’s no way to dispute it.  “You don’t really feel what you claim you feel,” is a line of argumentation that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

What I care about is harm. What I ultimately said in this other argument was:

The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just “offense.”

Now, I think many people who write about and try to fight structural bias are just accustomed to using “offensive” as something of a shorthand for this notion of harmful-because-it-reinforces-pernicious-memes; I know I generally have.  But offense is only defined in terms of how the offended person feels, which means it’s an insufficient concept.  It actually obscures the real problem.  As my friend argued, a Christian may be very genuinely offended if an atheist mocks one tenet or another of their religion, and there’s no way to say that that feeling of offense is less real or less valid than any other.  And to mock another person is certainly not a nice thing — or more to the point, not a kind thing — to do, so one can argue that the atheist shouldn’t do it for that reason.  People are unkind to each other all the time, however, and it doesn’t always do the same degree of harm.  If I make a snide joke which hinges on the scientific impossibility of a dead person returning to life after three days, I don’t cause significant harm.  There is not a widespread perception in US society that people who do believe such an event happened once, a couple thousand years ago, are so out of touch with reality that they should never be taken seriously, or should be kept away from positions of power, or are automatically stupid; there is not a long history of atheists oppressing Christians and denying them their basic human rights3.

Mocking the powerful and privileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for according that power and privilege reverses, rather than participating in and reinforcing, the cultural narrative that justifies their privilege (and that in so doing necessarily justifies the marginalization and oppression of the powerless and unprivileged).  Mocking the powerless and unprivileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for their marginalization does participate in and reinforce the narratives that justify that marginalization.

These things build up.  Over a lifetime, they build up a great deal: these usually-unspoken cultural narratives are precisely the stuff of implicit bias, and we’re soaking in them.  It’s a mistake to object to them as merely “offensive” — tacitly accepting that the inherently subjective idea of offense is of primary importance, which enables the privileged in claiming, confident it can’t be disproved or even argued against, that they’re “offended” by challenges to their privilege: or as Fred Clark has it, empowers the cult of offendedness — instead of pointing out that they do real harm.  They offend too, to be sure; and it’s unkind to offend on  purpose, or to fail to apologize for giving offense.  But the much greater harm lies in strengthening, even though it’s only a little bit at a time, the negative stories about marginalized groups that are woven into our society, both in the minds of the privileged, and of the marginalized people themselves.

That’s what I care about.

1 I’m reporting this more or less as he argued it — I remain opposed to the use of terms like “feminist” as nouns.


2 This is not strictly true, of course. All other things being equal, I prefer for people not to offend each other; and I especially prefer that no one offend me or people I care about.  Not saying or doing offensive things is a reasonably worthwhile goal, as is pointing out when others say or do offensive things and asking them not to.  But prevention and mitigation of harm should always take priority over concern about offense.

3 [Update 2010-01-19]: colormonochrome correctly noted that there is a significant history of oppression against Christians, for example from (speaking very roughly and varying in different parts of the world) about two thousand years ago to, say [note that I am not a historian by trade!] 500-1000 years ago in most of Europe, more recently in some places, and ongoing in others, and I’m sorry that I essentially disregarded that. However, given that in my specific examples I’m talking primarily about US society, I believe my claims hold up in that context. Christians have never been a persecuted or marginalized group in the United States, especially not at the hands of atheists.