Book Review: The End of Absence

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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
by Michael Harris
210 pages; Non-fiction

Quick Summary: Harris examines what it means to be part of the generation that knows what life is like both with and without the internet. Through discussions of different technologies, brain studies, and sociology, Harris looks at what life with the internet will mean for future generations that don’t know anything else. He also argues that we need more “absence”: more silence, more time to ourselves, more time to let the mind wander.

Pros: Well-researched
Every chapter starts with a well researched historical event or internet-breakthrough, and he has dozens of sources and interviews for each piece.

Pros: Feminist
Overall I found his approach to be socially-aware.

Pros: Queer
Harris is gay, which seems unrelated, and is for most of the book. I did like, however, that he talked in particular about how gay communities were using the internet.

Pros: Is not “Mightier than Thou”
I think with a lot of these types of technology discussions, it’s very easy to just say “kids these days” or pretend that the internet is making us dumber. I like that the author took both sides into account in every chapter, and also admitted that he is reliant on technology as well.

Cons: Not enough exploration
This might be a personal tick with this book, but I wish he had given more concrete examples about what a more technologically-aware or absence-filled life might look like.

Verdict: Recommended.
I found this book super interesting, although I wish the ending had taken a slightly more active approach. Other than that, it gave me a lot of think about and made me examine my own relationship with the technology that I (almost) grew up with.

The Dream, Part 2: Mostly Questions

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 2.30.35 PMThis past week, I deleted most of my social media apps from my phone, but kept the accounts so I could log on on my computer. Without going into too much sappy-goey-personal stuff, I found I felt a little bit lighter without them. Saturday I barely touched my phone, and I spent most of the day outside, reading, swimming, and enjoying my company. But it felt beautiful as much as it did temporary, like the weekend would end and I would be back on facebook and twitter soon enough. I wonder if that feeling of being present, of enjoying the moment, is a momentary thing, if it can only be beautiful because we know the other world lurks behind us.

I wonder, too, if we are more trapped in technology than we are freed by it. I might sound like that crochety old person shaking their head and saying “kids these days!” while not knowing how to turn off an Iphone…but I think the question is worth considering. We have all these social media apps, and most of the time when we check them, it’s to check our notifications: How many likes/reblogs/retweets/shares/comments did we get on our accounts? Who is noticing us? 

Michael Harris details this idea in his book, The End of Absence: 

In reality, life outside of orderly institutions like schools, jobs, and prisons is lacking in ‘gold star’ moments; it passes by in a not-so-dignified way, and nobody tells us whether we’re getting it right or wrong. But publish your experience online and an institutional approval system rises to meet it–your photo is liked, your status is gilded with commentary….This furthers our enjoyable sense of an ordered life. We become consistent, we are approved, we are a known and sanctioned quantity.

To take a page from Descartes, is the new philosophy, “I tweet, therefore I am”?

Another line of questioning: Do women benefit more or less from technology? Certainly we benefit less monetarily, as Silicon Valley is still primarily men. Are social justice blogs, posts, facebook accounts, a way for marginalized groups to speak out? Or is it just because, with many things, they are given a platform that can easily oppress them (hello, trolls) and they want to turn it into something helpful? I don’t want to downplay the importance of social justice writers who have changed my mind and the minds of my friends. But I think it’s worth examining: Does technology/specific platforms help dismantle or recreate white, cis, heteropatriarchal standards? For example, a facebook page “Black Love,” featuring black couples, got reported and shut down. Facebook also deleted Korryn Gaines’s profile. 

I guess my hesitation comes from the comments section of my recently published article. Did I change anyone’s mind? I don’t know. Did I give words to people who already agreed with me? Sure. And I worry that we place too much emphasis on the power of social media–and not enough power on day to day interactions with people. Just yesterday I was behind a pickup truck parked in the middle of the road. I was annoyed at first, being 3 blocks from home, but my friend pointed out to me the sticker on the truck: it was a blue lives matter bumper sticker, and he was talking to a group of young black men. We watched, unable to hear the interaction, but at the end, the men shook hands and everyone was on their way. I think that interaction in itself is devalued–and I would argue it’s the type of interaction we need to have more. [As I mentioned in my previous blog post/alluded to in my article, people aren’t going to become less racist unless woke people interact with them. Is it the oppressed people’s job to explain things? No, absolutely not. Should we anyways? I don’t know.]

What is the way forward here?

The Dream, Part 1

20b348ac-069f-4827-89b2-8c1ee0213756I’ve been trying to write a piece recently that somehow incorporated Marge Piercy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American Dream, Cuddly Whiskers from Bojack Horseman, and Betty Friedan. Also, technology. Unsurprisingly, I have no realized that doing that in one blog post/article, even if the article was long form, is going to be impossible. The only way forward is piece by piece, so I’m going to start with the bit about technology.


I wrote a piece for the Mary Sue recently about how Bojack Horseman can help us during election years. Perhaps what I should have written was, Technology is Toxic During Election Years, because of the 260+, most of them missed the point (which, if you’re wondering, was simply that we should treat each other with kindness). I suppose that is the deal when you publish something online: it takes two seconds to write a comment, so anyone who has anything to say, says so. It’s not like print media, where you would have to email your comment to someone, or mail it by snail mail back in the day.

Anyways, I am not going to spend this blog post defending my article. I am going to use it to examine where I stand with technology.

In School

I had a lot of different experiences with this, having student taught in one school in the fall last year, and been a long term sub in two other schools in the spring. It’s hard to sum everything up, but what I found most interesting was how my teaching changed once every student had a laptop. My teaching changed, and I don’t think it was for the better. Sure, I used Google Classroom and Google Forms and Google Drive and all the other start-with-caps brand names of platforms. My students used it, I used it, and on we went. But I felt the students less creative, less willing to say anything that might be wrong. When I asked them to talk about a chapter, then submit notes over Google Drive, they skipped the conversation part, and just went right to typing what they thought. I felt like we were all hiding behind our screens.

In my life

I recently aquired a twitter account. It was fun, for a few days, and it’s a nice platform for talking to people you might not otherwise have the chance to talk with. But it’s also just another form of self-assurance: people liking your tweets, following you, retweeting shit, etc. Facebook was another platform that I have grown more tired of in the past week. A recent article for Quartz told me what I feared to be true: posting political articles doesn’t change anyone’s opinion. We all just siphon off the people who disagree with us, either by unfriending or unfollowing; we get into heated arguments over the smallest of things, and this does nothing but stress us out. Or me, at least. It stresses me out. If I’m going to talk to someone, about anything important really, I want it to be face-to-face. I want us to remember what that feels like.

A lot of people go into online conversations with the mindset of “I want to convince this person of X,” instead of “I want to understand where this person is coming from.” And I think this is only exacerbated by the election year.

A note on privilege

I realize that I am treated a certain way because of my skin color, as well as my apparent gender and sexuality. I realize that if I was trans, perhaps some Trump supporters wouldn’t even talk to me. But do I know that? Have I talked to any?

The best example of this is my best friend’s dad. I’ve known him since I was 8, and my bff told me he was voting for Trump this year. Do I still talk to him? Of course. We don’t treat each other any differently because of our votes. Should I stop talking to him, in the name of Social Justice? I think a lot of people would say yes. “Yes, it’s a powerful thing to stop talking to someone because of their views.” I even wrote in a recent blog post that guys can use their privilege to stop being friends with abusers and other shitty people. But here is where I see the difference: If I stop being friends with a guy who abused someone, I am protecting my friend. If I stop talking to my best friend’s dad, who is kind and cooks for us and has never harmed me, who am I protecting? Who is he hurting?

I suppose some would argue he’ll be hurting a lot of people if he votes for Trump. That may be true. I may be hurting a lot of foreigners if I vote for Hillary. I don’t really know. But if we are to create a better world, we need to talk with people who disagree with us. How else will we work towards a better, more equal future?

Another post to think about, from Philadelphia Printwork’s blog: “Those who lose their jobs over racist comments will not feel less vitriol towards brown people, but more. In their minds we were already the cause of all white tears and the loss of employment is further evidence of our destructive power. But now all they have to do is waltz into their next job knowing what never to say publically no matter how angry they get. They become more crafty and only share their loathing with close friends, their hatred surfaces in microaggressions that go unnoticed by people who ain’t woke.

If we fire everyone who is racist, will anyone stop being racist? If we shut them out, will they ever understand BLM’s needs?

All this to say:

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Illustration by Jacky Sheridan

I am tired of shutting people out for different views. [Again, toxic relationships are different, and can and should be avoided. But those aren’t the type of relationships I am discussing]. I am tired, also, of how technology has become a habit for me. Another quote, this time from an article in Bitch Magazine by Felicia Montalvo: “‘Habit formation is the magic phrase in Silicon Valley…linking digital platform use to a user’s daily routine and emotions is the best way to ensure loyalty–and, by extension, profit. The habit-formation model argues that digital platforms should be designed as a response to particular emotional triggers, especially internalized ones. You’re anxious? Check Facebook. Bored? Hop on Twitter. Depressed? Scroll through Instagram…Once a platform is recognized as a balm for these triggered internal emotions, we don’t even need the triggers anymore, but simply return on our own. The habit formation model does not satisfy a need, it creates an incessant craving.”

I drove home from a bookshop today and it was the first time driving in the city that I didn’t look at my phone every red light or use it for a GPS. It was freeing. I deleted twitter and all other social media apps from my phone. Also freeing. Those facebook notifications can wait til I get home. It all can. We’re so conditioned to these habits, and I want to break them. I want to see what my life is like if I just do one thing at a time, if I stop multi-tasking, if I stop feeling good about myself based on the number of likes or retweets or whatever else we have to boost our egos on the internet. I want to see what I’m like without the habits I’ve been conditioned to enjoy.

I’m going to unplug, slowly. I might travel, I might teach, I don’t really know at this point what I’m ready for or not. But this blog will be my home for all my thoughts, as it has been. I’m excited to see where it goes.

Book Review Friday: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

HP15_Q4_Square_LS_PottermoreHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling
308 pages; Fantasy/Drama

Quick Summary: 19 years later, Harry is sending his son Albus off to Hogwarts for the first time. Time rushes past, and soon Albus and his best friend at Hogwarts find themselves in a whole lot of trouble. They’re in danger–the whole wizarding world is in danger, in fact, and they have to figure out how to save it.

Pros: All of our favorite characters are back!
Ron is probably my favorite of them, having turned into a total dad-jokes kind of dad. Ginny has a lot of insight, Hermione is great too…although I feel like she appears less than I expected, or, at least towards the end.

Pros: Honestly heart wrenching
There are parts of this book–I’m trying not to give a lot away!–that make you think “what if?” and then realize how bleak that other universe would be. It’s really just playing on the “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” theme, but I still found this really powerful.

Pros: Great lines and lessons
It’s a tad bit corny, but there are some great lessons in this book, like always.

Pros: Surprising plot twists
!!! Really that’s all I can type about that one.

Pros: Quick Read
It’s a play, so you don’t get as much description, but I didn’t mind that. I read this all in a day and it was nice to be able to finish it quickly.

Cons: Sappy
The very last scene I was a little indifferent too, just because of the corniness of it.

Verdict:
110% Recommend. I’d like to mention that I was extremely skeptical of this book! First, it’s a drama; second, it’s not entirely written by J. K. Rowling. I was actually against reading it for a while, but some tweets intrigued me and once I started, I knew I was hooked. Seriously, don’t worry about the format and just read it. It’s fantastic.

We Need to Stop Using Cishet as an Insult

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 4.19.36 PMSomewhat frequently on my twitter or tumblr, I’ll see someone call out “cishet dudes” or complain about “cishets” and the problematic things they say. There are a few issues I have with this.

A. Not everyone we think is cis is actually cis
This should be self-explanatory, but it’s important to note that just because someone is saying something problematic, does not mean they are cis. Assuming that people who look masculine are men and those who look feminine are women reinforces the gender binary and erases genderqueer identities. Unless you know someone identifies as cis, don’t assume they are.

B. Not everyone we think is het is actually heterosexual
This especially annoys me because I “pass” as straight all the time. Not many people automatically assume I’m bisexual–a side effect of heteronormativity. Again, calling someone “cishet” in a derogatory way assumes heterosexuality, and we should never assume that. Just because someone says something problematic, doesn’t mean they are automatically heterosexual.

C. We should listen to where people’s ideas are coming from
If someone says something problematic, we should examine perhaps the experiences of the person that led them to believe this. Again, if someone is saying something rude or outright misogynistic, by all means don’t respond to them. But also don’t automatically resort to calling them a cishet dude. If they are genuinely confused, calling them a cishet dude and ignoring them will not help open conversation.

D. Don’t assume everyone has access to educational resources
I think this is something I, for one, have taken for granted in the past. I went to a four-year liberal arts college. I had access to professors who were liberal and able to address a variety of cross-cultural issues. I learned to find resources written by and for queer people. I have educational privilege. Yes, I agree, sometimes educating people who have more power than you is reinforcing those power dynamics. But we need to take into account this educational privilege.

Here’s an example: I was sitting with my cis, heterosexual friend and they were looking at my blog. They asked me what genderqueer was. I shouldn’t and didn’t just say, “you’re a cishet dude, go research it yourself” because I’m not sure if he would be able to find the appropriate resource. We all know that google can lead you to some problematic websites, for all we know, and our peers may not scrutinize the sources they find as much as more woke people would.

In sum: Yes, maybe ignore the trolls. But if someone is genuinely confused, don’t just call them a cisdude and tell them to go educate themselves. If you have any interest in a relationship, platonic, workplace, etc, provide them with a resource. And don’t resort to calling people cishet dudes because that is a cissexist, heteronormative insult that reinforces what we are trying to avoid.

Book Review: Akata Witch

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Akata Witch
by Nnedi Okorafor
368 pages; YA Fantasy

Quick Summary: Sunny, a 12 year old albino girl in Nigeria, discovers she is a “free agent.” She soon realizes she must keep her powers from her family while simultaneously working to defeat a child-kidnapper.

Pros: Feminism
I liked the magic system in this book, and thought it was very pro-women. It brings up some interesting points about how we view people in power.

Cons: Not feminist
That being said, the mentor who helps coach Sunny and her friends, is a man. For some reason, this character just didn’t impress me.

Cons: Predictable, with flat characters
I think what bothered me most about this book is that the characters are used for nothing but as a conduit for the plot. Sunny has three friends, with whom she forms the quartet, but I don’t feel like I really knew any of the characters. I didn’t have a good understanding of their unique personalities, so I found myself more frustrated than engaged for a lot of the book. I also thought a lot of the magic elements were cliched (“The wand chooses the wizard, Harry” is a plot point that is repeated almost verbatim in this novel) and the ending was very predictable.

Verdict:
I don’t recommend this book. I’m not against trying other books by this author, but honestly I was mostly confused about why everyone else liked this book so much.

 

What are your thoughts? Did you like this book? Why or why not?

Stranger Things’ Treatment of Barbara Holland

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Disclaimer: This post contains SPOILERS.

So let me start off this post by saying that I loved Stranger Things. I finished in within a day and a half and was terrified during most episodes. That being said, we need to talk about Barb.

I’ve been perusing the internet a bit after finishing Netflix’s Stranger Things, and although I’ve seen some criticism of Stranger Things’ treatment of women, none of the articles I’ve seen have pointed out what seems to me the very obvious fact: Barb is a plus-sized woman, and she’s treated like garbage.

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When we first see Barb in the Hawkins High School Hallway, she’s sporting a short (queer?) haircut, jeans that are too big for her, and a button down. Later she’s spotted in a frilly pink top. Meanwhile, Nancy gets a delicate white shirt in this scene, and cute sweaters throughout the rest of the season. Now, 80’s costuming aside, the producers definitely could have put Barb in more flattering clothing, but I guess what they’re saying is plus-sized women don’t know how to dress themselves?

Besides her fashion, Barb is generally mistreated throughout the show. Nancy tells her to go home so she can sleep with Steve (who she ends up with! I’m not sure I’m okay with any of this–but getting into Steve’s character would be a whole other post). The boys ridicule her, and Nancy ignores her. When she gets taken to the upside, she’s hardly mentioned. She doesn’t get a mother, or her friends frantically trying to find her. She doesn’t get a family, or even much screentime in The Upside Down. Her case at the police station is thrown out after the Staties find her car at the bus station.

I think what bothers me the most about Barb’s plot line is that no one really cares about her death; at the very least, we could have gotten more than 15 seconds of Nancy mourning for her. Vox’s article points out that Stranger Things‘ childhood lens simply couldn’t imagine what happened to a girl boys didn’t think was cute,” but it appears that the show producers couldn’t imagine it either: they couldn’t imagine a plus-sized girl having her own nuanced life. 

The show repeats what, by now in 2016, is a very outdated and discriminatory message: the people who win in life are skinny and mostly boys. Stranger Things’ treatment of Barb is not just about the show’s treatment of women, it’s about the treatment of anyone who isn’t a size 0. It’s 2016, and we deserve better.

How to Tell If You’re in a Feminist Relationship: A Checklist

A few weeks ago, I posted an anonymous Feminist Relationship survey. The following checklist has been written and gathered from the responses. Thank you to everyone who participated, who gave me a lot of think about, and who were thoughtful in their responses. I love that this conversation is happening and people are willing to engage in it.

1. Do you share the emotional labor of the relationship?
These are all great articles if you’re unsure what emotional labor is, what it looks like, or how to check in with your partner to see if you are both doing an equal share of it.

2. Do you not impose gender roles?
Feminism is about choice. If the woman wants to be a stay at home mom, that is totally okay. However, this should not be imposed on her, just as being the breadwinner should not be imposed on the man. This also means that traditional ways of being masculine and feminine are not imposed on their relationship counterparts. Women aren’t automatically seen as more emotional, indecisive, passive, gentle, etc while men aren’t seen as stoic, logical, blunt, etc. See #1.

3. Do you have a balance of power? Do you have an equal say in decision making?Obviously compromises exist, but if it is always the woman compromising in the relationship, you do not have a feminist partnership. Decisions should be made where both partners have an equal say, hear each other out, and decide on next steps together.

4. Do you have open and honest communication, and neither person’s feelings are disregarded?
Does your partner actually listen to you? If the woman finds herself being interrupted, cut off, or being told “yeah yeah I get it,” this is not a feminist relationship.

5. Is sex always consensual and enthusiastic? Are both partners being satisfied?
As Margaret Cho mentions in the forward to the book Yes Means Yes!, sometimes women have ambiguous sexual experiences: they have sex because they want to get it over with, they want to please their partner, it’s easier than saying no, etc. In a feminist relationship, sex is always consensual and ENTHUSIASTIC. You’re not being pressured into having sex in any form, and you don’t have sex just because your partner wants to. Moreover, are both partners contributing to the pleasure of the other? Put another way, “If a guy doesn’t give a shit whether you come or not, he’s probably not a feminist.”

6. Do you both understand and identify with feminism? Are you both actively engaged politically?
Do you recognize societal power differences in many forms? Is the person who is more privileged willing to see and acknowledge oppressive behavior? Is everything that is assumed about heterosexual relationships up for discussion, debate, and examination?

7. Is he a good feminist ally? Ie. Are you comfortable around his friends? Does he stand up for you in a group of men?
Feminism shouldn’t end in the bedroom, or at the end of conversations between the couple. This applies to both sexes, but applies more, I think, to the man in the relationship. The man should be a feminist no matter where he is. This means that he should back you up in spaces where women might not be as comfortable as men (male-only or male-dominated spaces). He should call out the sexist behavior of his friends. He should make these spaces welcoming and comfortable for women. He should stand up for you, should you choose to be the one to call out or acknowledge someone else’s sexist behavior. He should use his privilege to make spaces more feminist regardless of whether or not you are present.

Did I miss anything important? Let me know what you think in the comments! 

Edit: This checklist and the preceding survey focused on heterosexual relationships, because of the pre-existing power structures that make these relationships possibly more susceptible to sexism. I’d love to keep expanding this conversation to queer spaces as well! 

Book Review Friday: Arcadia

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff
289 pages; Literary Fiction

Quick Summary: Bit is raised on a commune in Western New York, where he grows up surrounded by loving parents, slightly troubled friends, and the natural beauty of the fields and woods. The book follows him from childhood, to adolescence, and finally to adulthood, when he must face the outside world.

Pros: Setting
One thing you’ll notice about this book is how the commune, Arcadia, comes alive. It starts with a slightly folk-y tale of Bit’s birth, and the setting only magnifies and becomes more majestic from there.

Pros: Male characters
I loved Bit’s character. He’s a small, soft, loving child and man, and I especially loved the times where he was so full of love, about to burst. These descriptions of men aren’t often found in the literature I read, and I appreciated seeing a guy be open and emotional throughout the novel. His father, Abe, is also a great example of this.

Cons: Ending dragged
The first two thirds of the book went quickly, but I found the momentum slowed after that. However, this might just be my reading schedule this summer. It’s hard for me to finish books when the weather is so nice.

Verdict:
Recommended! Good for: people who want beautifully written books, readers who want strong and loving male characters, and those who liked Fates and Furies. I think this is also a great book club pick: there’s lots to talk about when it comes to community, power, sex, feminism, leadership, etc. 

 

Have you read Arcadia? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!