Gender of Choice

Some years back, I heard an NPR segment about students defying gender norms, including such odd approaches as insisting that one’s gender was “truck” and should thus be referred to with pronouns like “it.” I made a few faltering starts at writing a blog post about my thoughts on it, but never quite finished. The topic came back to mind with March 31st’s Transgender Visibility day and this delightful little comic by @papayakitty on Twitter.

What’s my gender?

I mean, I’m a guy, sure; biologically male, wear masculine clothing more often than gender-neutral clothing, and feminine clothing only when cosplaying, etc. But I do rather delight in “crossplay” when the (uncommon) opportunity comes up. I’ve roleplayed female characters with increasing frequency since I was maybe seven or eight years old, and while it’s been a more or less novel thing as time’s gone on, it’s never felt awkward or wrong. When the Internet came into flower and I established online identities on services like AOL, IRC, GameSpy Arcade, and later Furcadia, I frequently presented myself as a girl. People tended not to realize I was playing cross-gender unless the point was specifically mentioned out of character. (I even wrote a poem about the ugly reactions people had to the disconnect when revealed; it reads pretty clearly as an adolescent transgender lament.) I went to an all-boys high school, but I tended to disdain the connotations thereof, amending statements of my gender identity with such qualifiers as “male, low testosterone.” I still feel that having Ranma Saotome’s curse would be pretty awesome. I’ve had people ask me if I’m gay due to my love of romance themes in my entertainment. My all-time favorite movies (The Princess Bride, Magnolia, and 500 Days of Summer) might be called “chick flicks”… I could go on.

Thing is, I don’t think it makes sense to consider me “transgender” in the sense most commonly meant by that. I don’t experience gender dysphoria when looking at myself or presenting as male. I have enjoyed every privilege inherent in cis white maleness, and feel it would be disrespectful to those less privileged to insist otherwise. “Thinking it would be cool to be a woman” is a far cry from even what little I’ve glimpsed into the life experiences of my transgendered friends.

Then again. What even is gender?

Wracking my brain for anything that would qualify as essential to the genders or even the biological sexes, I don’t come up with a lot. It sort of makes sense to have some outward signifiers of “bearing male gametes,” in a world where that’s both of practical concern on a day-to-day basis, and the level of scientific understanding and interpersonal communication is weak enough that you couldn’t just have the conversation, “Can you have children with me, and do you want to?” But we don’t live in such a backward world by now, thank the Primes, and for someone like me who isn’t interested in children in the first place, it’s all rather unnecessary. Everything else we associate with the genders or sexes is contingent, mere statistical truth at best. We can say “as a species, homo sapiens features sexual dimorphism, with such-and-so genital structures and secondary sexual characteristics,” but individuals’ physical characteristics can and do diverge wildly from those baselines. And the various personality traits and aesthetic choices associated with either gender are even fuzzier, ranging from laughably arbitrary (pink used to be a masculine color and blue feminine) to equal parts harmful, offensive, and untrue (“men tend to be physically violent”).

People operate under schemes of categorization for cognitive ease, though, so it’s psychologically practical to think of someone as based on a template with variations. “He’s very much a bro,” “she’s a tomboy,” “he’s a guy but likes sewing,” or whatever. They also help with personal identity; group membership is a powerful human need, and resonance or solidarity with fellow “men” and “women” is of great use and comfort. These labels become problematic, though, when they influence our behavior in discriminatory ways, lead us to jump to unfounded conclusions, or perpetuate stereotypes that shore up unjust systems of power. And when it comes to gender, it’s difficult to use the categories without falling into any of those traps.

Labels like “agender,” “demigirl” etc., as mentioned in the abovelinked comic, then serve a dual purpose: they defy standard assumptions about gender while still providing the psychic value of a group identity to belong to. They seem pretty darn cool to me! Of the ones I’ve poked at, “demiboy” (or “demiguy,” which doesn’t have as nice a sound to it) feels most in tune with my own experiences. If I were to embrace that label, what would it suggest? A greater freedom of choice in fashion and affect, I suppose… I have often envied women their lovely options in clothing.

And/or I could develop a female tulpa to the point where I could switch her into the dominant consciousness… hah!

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Tilt: Conversations with Randos

Trying to change someone’s mind is not the only purpose of engaging in argument. In fact, it’s often the least likely to be successful, especially if the argument in question takes place with a stranger on the Internet. I tend to get into back-and-forth with folks to attempt to grasp where their ideas come from, what basis they have–and if something I say brings about new understanding the other direction, that’s a bonus that gives me hope for the future.

The end point of these conversations, then, isn’t someone saying “you’re right.” Instead it’s a sort of impasse that I wish I had a specific word for (maybe academics among my readers know of a term?), where I discover a piece of thought so axiomatic and/or alien to my viewpoint that no further understanding is likely to occur.

I’ll call this moment a “tilt.” It’s a reference to pinball machines, which have mechanisms to detect when the player has rocked (tilted) the game beyond acceptable bounds, for which the penalty is usually being locked out of play for the rest of that ball. There’s also the expression “hit tilt,” which is to say, had enough or reached one’s breaking point, and “The Tilt” in the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco, which is a randomized event injecting new chaos into the story so far. All of these things have the sort of connotation I’m after, of getting to a point where things come to a halt and/or get weird.

As an example, the last time I commented on Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik sticking his foot in his mouth, I talked with a friend who was frustrated that people were calling Krahulik out on it. The tilt occurred when I realized that said friend didn’t think Krahulik would ever change his ways: he felt that given the guy’s track record and personal history, criticism would never get through to him. My background in my own personal growth has me taking hope for betterment through hearing opposing views as given, so the fundamental difference in our opinions had been found. I could understand how the rest of his frustration followed from that different starting point, so we’d gotten as far as we could.

This week I posted a couple of Tweets under the #GamerGate hashtag. I’m not entirely sure of my own motives in doing so; they were criticisms of the movement that carries the tag as banner, but I didn’t necessarily intend to start a debate. I underestimated the tendency of folks to monitor a tag looking for fights to pick, though, so I did get some activity. What follows are the tilts that eventually occurred!

Gamer rage: One conversation didn’t last long because I blocked the other party. They were incensed that they’d been labelled misogynist, racist, etc. I’ve gotten past such defensive anger in my own life. If someone called me out as sexist, I’d be appalled, but my next reaction would be to figure out what I’d done wrong, apologize, and try to do better. I couldn’t possibly expect that of this stranger, so seeing that their attitude came from hurt and anger I didn’t share in was as much of a tilt as I could hope for.

Interaction is Corruption: A second brief conversation revolved around the concept of journalistic corruption. This person’s smoking gun was games writers who contributed to developer Patreon campaigns or had been roommates with developers. I wished I had a link to one of the several excellent “how journalism really works” articles opposing this extremely low bar for “corruption,” but hadn’t saved any off.

In any case, I figured out that our standards for games reporting were irreconcilably different. I don’t fetishize objectivity. I want the kinds of insights that come from people having connections, being close to the action, a personal stake. Game reviews where someone plays and shares their impressions in an otherwise featureless context are ubiquitous: I just need to pull up Steam recommendations, YouTube Let’s Play videos, or the like. Close relationships with creators, though, are less common and add value for me. To think that’s “corrupt”… tilt.

Censorship and the Use of Force: A third, more involved thread covered ground around the idea of censorship. I maintain it doesn’t make sense to cry censorship unless someone’s calling for a ban or other restrictive government action, or employing something like litigation, DMCA takedown, or physical aggression to suppress speech. This person, however, believed that “public shaming” constituted a use of force sufficient to qualify, and that changing “artistic vision” in response to criticism was capitulation to same.

Tilt! I don’t hold a creator’s ideas as sacrosanct: if they get critique, and choose to change course due to agreement with the basis for the critique, better business prospects for a tweaked work, etc., then that’s all part of the commerce of ideas, products, and art. Moreover, I don’t see shame as intrinsically problematic. It’s often a necessary emotion to go through in reaching a new, better outlook or habit. But to this gamer, anything causing shame is dirty pool. Therein lay the foundation of our differences!

Fictional Characters are Real. The last and most extensive conversation ranged over a number of topics, but the core of it discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series. This Twitterer professed to support feminism, but believed Sarkeesian’s work to be detrimental to the cause, driving young gamers into the welcoming arms of the radical right wing.

There was a bit of victim blaming (saying Sarkeesian was responsible for riling up 4chan and thus getting harassed), a lot of condescension (he seemed to think that being 37 years old made him an old sage, here to deliver wisdom to his youngers), and an assertion that Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to answer every possible question in real-time debate constituted a dodge of criticism. Delving into this last point hit the tilt. I held that Sarkeesian answers her critics in subsequent videos rather than in Twitter or YouTube exchanges, but this debater felt she’d never addressed her best counterpoints. I sought an example.

His best shot? Damsel in distress tropes aren’t disempowering, because when the hero rescues the damsel, he improves her situation, thus empowering her. Criticizing e.g. the sexualized attire used for many female game character designs amounted to slut shaming of women who have no voice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Yes, sometimes a tilt is characterized by the “there’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin” feeling.

Interestingly, this bizarre tactic of acting like fictional characters are real people, and thus one should treat critique of their portrayals as if it were a condemnation levied against a flesh-and-blood woman, came up in the “Censorship and the Use of Force” discussion as well. It’s moon logic I can’t possibly adopt, therefore I hit tilt there, but the rest of it all does come together if you take it as given. Of course, if fictional characters are real people, then critics are being sexist to say they should wear different clothing. Of course if fictional characters are real people, then it makes sense to cry foul when those people’s situations and behaviors are lumped together in a trope analysis. It’s just that outside of Rando Land, people are criticizing choices made by game developers, character designers, marketers, etc., not choices made by the characters. Characters can’t make choices, because they’re fictional inventions, their actions and circumstances dictated by their creators!

Anyway, that’s a lot of gabble about what I was up to at midnight last night. I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the worldviews of folks who take the #GamerGate tag seriously. I still don’t agree with the arguments, because of these premises I can’t possibly grant… but I can at least grok how people arrive at some of the downstream hue and cry, given those starting points.

The Fifth Habit vs. Privilege

Kali Ranya:

One of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is real listening. He wrote about how we tend, when ostensibly listening, to go into a probing, analytical mode. We hear the person’s problems, and immediately set to pondering and advising on how we’d solve them. We hear their feelings, and get to thinking and describing how we went through something similar once. We hear their stories, and spin them around to our own autobiographies.

That’s all bullshit. Someone’s opening themselves up, trying to communicate something of themselves, and we at every turn make it about us. We get a chance to absorb and appreciate and empathize with another human being’s experiences, and instead we superimpose our own on them and blot them out.

To truly listen, put those impulses on hold. Don’t spin the conversation toward your own story. Don’t argue with or problem-solve their feelings. Affirm what they’re saying, echo back the emotions you perceive (“I bet that make you frustrated as hell!”), and only volunteer solutions, probe for reasons, or dissect arguments if they ask or invite you to. Seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Covey put it.

The same phenomenon occurs, writ large, in wider conversations about privilege. Some horrific event like the Santa Barbara shootings occurs; a celebrity like Mike Krahulik spews hate; a vlogger like Anita Sarkeesian points out the sexist or racist themes in video games. The people hurt by these things speak up, and their privileged counterparts go into autobiography and analysis mode. They reject the feelings expressed because it’s not a problem for them, mansplain/whitesplan/cissplain why it’s not so bad as all that, etc. In short, they don’t stop and listen.

One of the hallmarks of privilege is the from-birth messaging and conditioning that your opinion matters, that it is your right to be heard, that it is your civic or God-given duty to voice your disagreements. But when it comes to experiences not your own, to the emotions and objections of people different from you, put that shit away. It is not your story, not your turn to speak, and your whinges of “not all men or like that” or “go fight some real racism” are not, in fact, worth crap. The people you want so badly to dispute with have not offered up pennies for your thoughts, because now is not the time to voice them.

When someone who does not share in your privilege speaks their mind, shares their pain, points out the problems inherent in the system, your imperative is this and this alone:

shut the fuck up
and listen.

Racism This, Sexism That

Kali Ranya:

A commenter on my Facebook once lamented that my feed was full of “soapbox” topics, that it had become always “racism this, sexism that.” At the time I was so gobsmacked that I’m unsure of the quality of my response. The basic thrust was that I wasn’t about to stop talking about these things, so folks should get used to it.

It occurred to me recently (the incident was a while ago) that I could better articulate why the flood of ‘ism posts in a blog entry than a Facebook comment, anyway. Let this then be an answer to the question that nobody’s asked recently, but might be thinking: what good does it do to keep up such a stream of shares, comments, blog posts, etc., about these topics?

I do these things to change myself:

I come from privilege. White, middle class, Catholic, educated, cisgender, etc. etc. These things come with deep, unconscious, largely inadvertent but still poisonous assumptions and habits. I can count on one hand the occasions I was ever face-to-face with a person of color as a child. Blackness was associated with crime, gang violence, “the bad part of town.” I believed that homosexual activity was sinful all the way through college; queer was an epithet. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I grasped what transgender even meant, much less recognize the prejudice and vulnerability that accompanies it.

Human beings are trainable animals. “We are what we repeatedly do;” perhaps moreso what we repeatedly think. Even now that I consciously and intellectually reject my youthful attitudes and ignorance, old, hard-to-dislodge reflexive patterns of thought persevere. The automatic tension that springs up when in proximity with a dark-skinned person I don’t know on the street. A twitch of skepticism when someone I’d come to know as one gender transitions to another. I recognize and rebuke myself for these things, but they still happen. Some piece of me still holds on to them.

Constant engagement with these topics helps me, however slowly, undo those ancient ingrained Othering habits. When I get a supportive comment on a feminist article, a Like, a reshare, those reinforcement mechanisms tickle my lizard brain. They tell that deep distant me, “this is rewarding. This is the right way to think.” And if I end up discussing the topic, arguing and defending the point at hand, that hones and practices a mindfulness toward equality as well.

I will never be perfect in these respects. But I keep up the reading and sharing and discussion in hopes of drawing ever closer to an ideal.

I do these things to change the world:

If I find it difficult to undo my own ignorance and prejudice, being a willing participant in the process, how much harder it must be to effect that change in a whole society! There are millions more like me whose privilege blinds them to true things and whose upbringing has entrenched false ones. There are unknowable numbers who actively fight back against changing these attitudes. Multiply the inertia of one person times how many people there are alive, then add still more for active bigotry… suffice to say my little-read feed is a teaspoon to the ocean at best.

But the only way we can hope to see change is by flooding the airwaves. We need to call out bigotry and expose it, mock it, demonstrate how foolish and outdated and uncool it is. We need to recognize positive forces and trends and praise them, celebrate them, recognize them as the way of the future for humanity. Why? To create such a pervasive atmosphere of truth and good that the next generation gets a different, better set of ingrained habits than I did. If every Twitter feed, every billboard, every odd conversation on the street, celebrates respect for the whole human person, then bigots will feel alone, out-of-touch, ashamed. People are social creatures who desire the validation of their fellow beings. The more isolated and kooky a hateful attitude appears, the fewer people will find it appealing, and the better the world becomes for all of us.

I can’t bring that about on my own, of course. But I can bring up the average, do my part to build that sussurus of positive voices. Seeing frequent posts affirming what’s right can help others like me, seeking to burn out old prejudices, make progress on that task. And maybe, every once in a while, someone actually resistant to or uncaring about ideals of equality might see a signal I boosted and think, “huh, that never occurred to me before.” Without realizing it, they get a little closer to leaving their problematic attitudes behind. My own audience is small (and probably doesn’t include any active bigots, hah), but in the wild world of Internet social media where things go viral and reach unexpected audiences, I never know what good a shared post might do.

That’s why the soapbox, that’s why racism this sexism that. It’s something I can do, here and now, every day, to make myself and the world around me better. And if that isn’t the purpose of living a life, I don’t know what is.

The Patriarchy and Other Conspiracies

Kali Ranya:

When I made it to high school English and thus graduated from analysis of story structure like exposition, climax, and resolution to the exegesis properly called “literary criticism,” I found it a wondrous experience. Here were these stories I already enjoyed reading made into a whole new sort of game, going between the lines to guess at the author’s hidden meanings! It was like playing at spies with Shakespeare across the centuries, he penning his poetry with a wink, I winking back as I set to the task of decoding it.

In college I was in turn introduced to feminism, and the lens of feminist criticism. Here I encountered discussion of the patriarchy: how so many cultural mores, laws, and artistic themes were instruments of oppression, means to keep women “in their place” and men in positions of power over them. I got the idea well enough to score good grades via the approach, but the rhetoric of it always struck me as rather strange. It wasn’t like a bunch of villainous dudes sat down in a boardroom discussing how best to put one over on the wimminz, and came to the conclusion that images of underwear-clad female bodies with the heads cropped out of the picture would be an excellent stratagem. But that was the conspiratorial scenario that the instruments-of-oppression discussion seemed to convey.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how these two things are related.

The author is dead. It is a truth of human existence, a fact of human nature that we can never truly know another person’s intentions. We can only see the effects of what they do, and if we are so inclined, guess at what thoughts led to those actions. Perhaps the person speaks up about what they meant, saying or doing what they did, but we can only take what they say as fact insofar as we trust them. Shakespeare is a beloved icon of Western culture, and I dearly wanted the sort of intellect and refinement associated with being conversant with him; so it was simple to believe that the Bard had with skill and intent buried themes in his work for generations to unravel and discuss. I can only imagine that peers of mine who thought Freshman English a waste of time likely believed the unpacking of deep textual meanings to be so much teacherly sleight of hand. I, being in a place of privilege myself, found it a stretch to ascribe malice to men simply looking to make a buck or raise a family in the same traditions as they grew up. If I were marginalized and frustrated by constant belittling of my gender, race, or orientation, I would not have the energy or inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to those perpetuating the system.

This is, I think, the deep source of many conflicts: religious, political, geek-tribal, etc. Or if not the source itself, then at least a cause of the constant talking past another we do, the bizarre and frustrating sense that the folks on the other side of whatever divide are speaking a different language. A devout Catholic believer, feeling well loved by the Church, having a rapport with its representatives, remembering many occasions of support and comfort from it, might be shocked and dismayed to hear of clerical abuses; but in the end will accept the clergy’s remorse and reassurances at face value. Someone with less deep-seated an investment in the Church’s authority, someone who perhaps feels disconnected from their fellows there, or who has had experiences of their worries and complaints falling on deaf ears within the hierarchy, or someone not a believer at all, will be much more inclined to see cover-up, hypocrisy, and emptiness in the same ostensibly reassuring words. (This is not to deny or make light of the possibility that such a startling event could break even the deepest-held trust; I’m talking about trends and tendencies here.) Whose interpretation is more correct? It’s hard if not impossible to know, because we cannot look behind the mask of the sermonizing priest’s face to lay bare his thoughts.

I’m not sure where to go with any of that, really, save to recognize it when I see it, especially in myself. There are conspiracies in the world, and there is malice, but the places we see them often say as much about us as they do about the people we perceive to bear those ill intents.