Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016

This Meaning is Mine. Get Your Own.

How does one own a definition of a word, whether connotation or denotation? And how does one force ownership of a definition of a word on someone else? I ask this because I was reading an article on Slate, about the fact that a delegate for Donald Trump from Illinois by the name of Lori Gayne uses the Twitter handle "whitepride." The Slate article, while avoiding an outright accusation, pretty strongly hints that the owner of the handle is a White Supremacist. But it also gives her rationale in her own words, thus:

With all the racism going on today, I'm very proud to be white. Just like black people are proud to be black and now, as white people, whenever we say something critical we're punished as if we're racists. I'm tired of it. I'm very proud.
There are different meanings for the word "pride." On the one hand, it can refer to a feeling of worth and entitlement to a certain level of respect, esteem and positive treatment; from both self and others. On another, it can refer to the understanding that one is intrinsically superior and more valuable - a level of self-regard (and expected regard from others) that rises to the level of conceit. And there are others, such as a feeling of esteem one derives from being associated with some one or some thing. Or a feeling of worth or competency that comes from a particular accomplishment. And there are likely a few others that can be added to the list.

Ms. Gayne notes "black people are proud to be black." Being Black myself, I was taught to celebrate my African heritage (even if I was otherwise completely disconnected from any real understanding of same) and to draw a certain amount of esteem from my belonging to Black American culture*; and there is a tacit understanding of Black pride that expects that it refers directly to the first meaning of pride that I listed above: "a feeling of worth and entitlement to a certain level of respect, esteem and positive treatment; from both self and others." I think that a lot of people, on some level or another, subscribe to this - even people some want to understand as White Supremacists, like Ms. Gayne. Where the conflict arises is in the contention that Black pride be allowed a certain, and somewhat exclusive, degree of ownership of the idea that at the expense of White pride, which must therefore be relegated, by definition to "the understanding that one is intrinsically superior and more valuable - a level of self-regard (and expected regard from others) that rises to the level of conceit." And that's what Ms. Gayne fails to understand - if being proud of one's parentage and ancestral history (because that's what it really comes down to) is an unambiguously positive thing for Black people, why must it necessarily be equated with racism, hatred and some of the worst parts of American history for Whites?

And while many of us understand that pride in being a member of a marginalized group (whether that's a racial or ethnic minority, non-heterosexual, non-Christian, female et cetera)is to merely expect the we can feel good about ourselves and simply expect what we are due from others, the idea that this sort of pride begins and ends there is a stipulation. No-one has done the proof for it other than to claim that since pride in being White, straight, Christian and/or male had typically meant the oppression of others 50 years ago, it must speak to a desire for the same oppression today. Which results in the "mainstream" of American society seeing a positive definition of celebrating and embracing what you are that they aren't allowed to access, due to a logic that often comes across as simply "because reasons." And perhaps worse for them, to the degree that those "reasons" are viewed as manifestly self-evident, any questioning of them is viewed as an assault on the fought-for equality that other people have achieved. Even when their understanding that they're being subjected to a double standard seems perfectly reasonable when viewed from a distance.

I think that it is a worthwhile question to ask why there is an expectation that some people can own a given meaning of a word, and saddle others with other meanings. And no, I don't expect that during the time when being some combination of White, straight, Christian and male conferred distinct social advantages that people who claimed one or more of those labels sought to ask that question of themselves, even thought the question was just as relevant then. But simply putting the shoe on the other foot doesn't represent progress, simply change.

* Which made no sense to me. My understanding of allowable Pride had always been "a feeling of worth or competency that comes from a particular accomplishment," and as near as I could tell, simply having Black parents was not an accomplishment. As I snarked to my parents: "I'm Black because you guys are, not because there's an exam or anything. It's not like there was a chance that the doctor was going to come in and say, 'We've gone over your unborn son's test scores and congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. McLin, you're having a Latino'." While my mother found this hilarious, my father was not amused (even though he was the one who had taught me that pride was something that you earned).

Friday, May 20, 2016

No Hiding Place

When I read the headline, "When Will the Internet Be Safe for Women," my first thought was: That kind of presumes that the internet is safe for anyone, doesn't it? According to a Pew study from a couple of years ago, about one-in-twelve people are subject to physical threats on the internet. And when you narrow that down to simply people in the 18 to 24 age range, the numbers jump to about one-in-four. But I don't know that it does us any good to wrangle over who has it worse online or whether or not the internet is just as unsafe for one group as it is for another.

A more interesting question might be "How do we get to a safe internet?" The Pew study identifies six different behaviors: calling someone offensive names, harassing someone for a sustained period of time, physically threatening someone, purposefully embarrassing someone, sexually harassing someone and stalking someone. If we, for the sake of argument, assume that all of the behaviors that prompt people to feel unsafe online fall into one of these six buckets (which is, admittedly, a stretch) then we can presume that if we can manage to expunge these sorts of behaviors from the web, then we'll have a safe internet.

So what stands in the way of us getting rid of these behaviors? The simple answer is that Trolls do their work in secret. But while I think that blaming the anonymous nature of the internet is convenient, it's inaccurate. Calling people offensive names and setting out to purposefully embarrass someone happens fairly regularly on LinkedIn, which is meant as a business networking site where people use their real names - after all, networking is fairly pointless if no-one knows who you are. I'll admit that I haven't seen any of the more serious behaviors there, but presumably people who are attempting to burnish their business image have the sense to stay away from openly illegal (or legally questionable) activity that provides its own evidence.

Given that, I'm going to hazard another guess. It's difficult, I believe to rid ourselves of calling people offensive names, sustained harassment, physically threats, purposeful embarrassment, sexual harassment and stalking because, as a society, we can be okay with them - as long as they happen to the right people. And that leads us back into the quagmire of subjectivity that is "deserving." Because there are times when we find otherwise reprehensible behavior on the part of others useful, even sexual harassment. I know that I've heard my fair share of people noting that, because of the phenomenon of prison rape, that a particular criminal was going to get what was coming to them.

Therefore the crime of the Troll is not that they indulge themselves in behavior that we would rather see exterminated - it's that they direct that behavior towards people we find undeserving of it. And I think that in this, we undermine ourselves, as we attempt to have our cake and eat it, too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Rules

I was talking to a couple I knew, a friend and his wife, over dinner, back when I still lived in Chicago, and the subject of sexual abuse by clergy came up. For my friend, the issue was really simple - people were not meant to be celibate, and attempting to be so was more or less a one-way ticket to mental illness. Being neither in a relationship nor into casual sex - and not thinking of myself as crazy, I was inclined to disagree - after all, if I could handle not having a sex life, it couldn't be all that difficult.

Over time, though, I came to agree with him - sort of. My own understanding of The Rules tells me that for men, the only allowable avenue for dealing with the emotionally-laden parts of life is talking to a Significant Other. When you're talking to other friends or family, there is a certain... fa├žade that needs to be maintained. "Men aren't supposed to cry," is part of it, perhaps the part most familiar to people, but it's not all of it. In any event, it creates a situation in which there are certain things that one just doesn't talk about with anyone you aren't sleeping with on a regular basis, and that often results in bottling up things that other people can vent out (if they have a the right partner). I wasn't of the opinion that it lead to the serial sexual abuse of minors, but to just constantly being weighed down by a burden of personal secrets that could never really be shed.

I don't know if that's still true or not. It strikes me as the way The Rules were written, when I learned them, if you choose to think if it that way, but my understanding of said Rules solidified thirty plus years ago - a lot changes in that time.

In any event, this came up as a result of another conversation I was having with someone recently, in which we were talking about social media and the culture of sharing that it engenders. They'd asked if I ever discussed deeply personal issues here on my blog, and without thinking, I responded, "Of course not. That's against The Rules." But then I realized that other people did reveal personal issues on the internet - enough so that I was often impressed by their willingness to overshare, and so I started thinking about the whole topic again. And I wonder, has the overall nature of sharing simply changed from when I young (Are The Rules different now?), or does the internet have its own protocol that doesn't apply elsewhere?

It is, more than anything else, a philosophical question, rather than a practical one. Three decades of following The Rules have made it second nature, and I'm unlikely to change. So it's the sort of thing that I spend my Saturdays thinking about while running errands or pondering what to have for lunch. But still, one of these days, I might have to track down the answer for myself. Understanding The Rules in a broader context than oneself is a handy part of understanding the world.

Monday, May 16, 2016

What You See

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

George Stephanopoulos: What is your tax rate?

Donald Trump: It's none of your business. You'll see it when I release, but I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.

Renee Montagne: OK. Well, go ahead. Will Donald Trump's supporters care about his taxes?

Cokie Roberts: His supporters probably don't, but other people do. Look, this idea that it's none of your business is really not something that a presidential candidate can say. Everything is our business when somebody is running for president. What we know about the vote for president is that it is for the person, not for the policies.
This Week In Politics: Another Round Of Primaries
The degree to which any aspect of a candidate's life is the public's business is directly proportional to the degree that the "wrong" answer to a question results in more votes than simply not answering the question. Despite Ms. Roberts contention that members of the public "need to know everything about that person," when someone is running for President, the fact of the matter remains that this is only relevant when answering questions is the best way to win the race.

Donald Trump will be running for President of the United States in such a polarized atmosphere that it's unlikely that people will be making a choice between him and Hillary Clinton based on who has the best tax returns. By the same token people who are really invested in having a Republican President (or simply not having a Democratic one) are unlikely to "stay home" simply because Donald Trump refused to answer, one, the other, or even a dozen questions put to them by members the media - especially if they understand "the media" to be part of a hateful liberal cabal that looks down upon them.

Politicians tend to answer questions when it helps them - when the answers bolster their following by giving their supporters the feeling that they've made the correct choice or help them to feel better about themselves. And they tend to stay silent for the same reasons. And Donald Trump, having quite a bit of experience being a media personality, likely understands this very well. And he also likely understands the best answers to give - and the best non-answers. Sure, he has made some mistakes, but I would wager that his answer to George Stephanopoulos was calculated. Time will tell if his math is better than Ms. Roberts. And I don't mean whether or not he wins, but how well he does overall, and the reasons people give for their own votes for and against him. While it's unlikely that a lot of exit polls will ask about tax returns specifically, and so there will be a lot of guesswork involved, there should be some indication as to whether or not people think they understand Donald Trump well enough that he doesn't need to show more of himself.