Sunday, September 14, 2014

The group blog failure mode

The other day I learned that Skepticblog, a group blog I used to read, is no longer updating.  This made me reflect on group blogs, and blogging in general.

Over many years of reading blogs, I've seen a number of group blogs*, including Cosmic Variance, Queereka, Skepchick, Friendly Atheist, Rationally Speaking, and of course I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda.  Sometimes group blogs work well, providing a stronger update schedule, and allowing for dialogue within a single site.  Sometimes, they do not work very well.

*Specifically, I'm thinking of "closed" group blogs where the contributors are handpicked, not an "open" group blog where anyone can contribute a piece.

Group blogs have a particular failure mode where one blogger dominates the updates, and the others only periodically offer updates.  In my subjective opinion, the less prolific writers are usually worse, probably because they have less practice.  It becomes a bit of a death spiral, where the dominant blogger feels like they're being too dominant, and the infrequent bloggers feel like their writing doesn't match the quality or tone of the rest of the blog, and everyone ends up blogging less than they would otherwise.  In this failure mode, it seems like the group blog would be better off just being an individual's blog.  But it also seems inappropriate to say so, because it would discourage the infrequent bloggers, further contributing to the death spiral.

I think what's going on here, is there are multiple blogging "types", which we see reflected both in group blogs and individual blogs.  Some very small fraction of people blog frequently, obsessively, and for long periods of time.  I fall into this category, and so do most long-term bloggers.  Other people are initially excited, but quickly lose that excitement.  You basically can't tell what type you are without actually trying it.

If a bunch of people start individual blogs, most of those people will lose interest, and let their blogs die.  A smaller number will continue writing for a long period of time.  The prolific bloggers are the only ones we tend to see or remember, but I have reason to believe they are in the minority, because I know what often happens with group blogs.  If the same group of people gets together and start a group blog, usually only one or two people dominate, and the rest become infrequent contributors.

Crucial to the success of a group blog is a way of finding multiple prolific contributors.

One possible model, like we do on The Asexual Agenda, is to periodically call for new contributors.  Out of every batch of new contributors, there are some who are prolific, and we slowly accumulate those kinds of writers (or at least replenish them, since most people do eventually slow down).  Some people are less prolific, but still good because we screen for writing ability.  And since we have multiple prolific bloggers with different writing styles, hopefully these people never feel discouraged for having a different style.  Some people never contribute anything, which is also fine.  This model requires some level of popularity to maintain.  (It also helps that we draw from a lot of pre-existing bloggers.)

Since I opened this topic by talking about Skepticblog, I'm implying that Skepticblog was falling into this group blog death spiral.  Skepticblog is an odd case because all of its contributors are credentialed in some way.  It originally consisted of the full cast of a Mythbusters-like TV show pitch (which never succeeded).  Of course, credentials don't necessarily guarantee that someone becomes a frequent blogger, so Skepticblog has, throughout its history, been dominated by one blogger or another.  That's not why I stopped reading it though.  I just lost interest for more mundane reasons.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sexual assault in (gay) party culture

[content note: explicit description of sexual assault, and lots of discussion of rape culture]

All too normal

Lately I've felt more encouraged to talk about my experiences with sexual assault.

Specifically, I want to talk about the two cases where I was assaulted, and I found it tolerable, although certainly not good.  I will also refer to, but not describe a third experience, which I still hesitate to call sexual assault, but which was pretty horrible any way you call it.  I have never experienced trauma from any of these experiences (so no triggers to speak of), but they're still unpleasant to talk about for a variety of reasons.

The two cases were very similar to each other.  One was at a nightclub, with a stranger I had just started dancing with.  He started sticking his hand down my pants and grabbing my penis.  I forcibly removed his hand, but he repeated several times.  Eventually he disappeared for a moment, and I started dancing with someone else in hopes he wouldn't reappear.  The other was at a big house party, with an acquaintance.  With sort of a "horseplay" mood, he had started unzipping my pants and grabbing my penis, and I tried to stop him but he did it anyway, against my strength.

Sexual assault means forced non-consensual sexual touching.  This is basically the most straightforward story of sexual assault ever.  The only thing complex about it is the way it fits into the surrounding cultural context.

The most striking thing about my experience, was the sheer ordinariness of it.  Nobody thought twice about it, and the guys probably forgot about the whole affair afterwards.  After those experiences, I'm convinced that nearly every guy who's gone to gay parties has had this happen to them, multiple times.  And hardly anyone talks about it, because it's too normal.

No seriously, I tried looking up sexual assault among gay men, and I found things like this study, which says that LGBT people are at increased of sexual assault, and idly speculates that a lot of it is caused by hate crimes.  But what I experienced was not caused by homophobia.  I also found a few articles like this one, confirming my belief that my experience is just so common that people don't even recognize it as assault.

The unwilling social contract

In fact, here's the reaction I expect from the general (gay) public: "Of course you're going to get groped at a gay nightclub!"  "That's not sexual assault, that's just normal stuff you have to deal with." "If you didn't want that sort of thing, you wouldn't go to a nightclub!"

What we're seeing here is the dissonance between people's image of sexual assault, and the experience of it.  We think of sexual assault as bad, really bad.  But to associate sexual assault with practices that are so normal, so widespread in gay male culture, that's deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, for victims and perpetrators alike.  It's easier to believe that it's not that bad, and therefore not sexual assault.  It's easy to find confirmation for this belief, because plenty of cases of sexual assault are in fact either "not that bad", or "not clearly sexual assault".

And of course, my experiences fall into that pattern too.  The first two were "not that bad" and the third was "not clearly sexual assault".  Never mind that the first two were undeniably sexual assault, and this was part of what made them less bad.  Unlike my other experience, they never caused me doubt or caused me to blame myself, because I knew what they were.

When people ask, "Should this really count as sexual assault?" they're not really asking whether it fits the technical definition of sexual assault.  They're asking whether it's "bad enough" to warrant special discouragement.  They're asking whether it's bad enough to warrant upsetting the delicate balance of hookup and dating culture

What people seem to want is a space where you can freely approach strangers without it being awkward.  In exchange, you have to allow strangers to approach you.  It's the unspoken social contract of gay partying.  "Approach" is a euphemism here.  Sometimes that means flirting, sometimes it means rape.  If you get sexually assaulted, that wasn't a nice thing for them to do, but let's not make a deal out of someone being a little awkward about their approach.  To actually call it sexual assault would be to break the social contract, because sexual assault is bad, and what we're doing is not bad, it's ordinary.

But it is bad, because I didn't agree to any such social contract.  The social contract is as non-consensual as the specific acts in question.  Not everybody agrees to the social contract, or even agrees that the contract exists.

Furthermore, since the contract is unwritten, nobody has negotiated any boundaries.  People are unable to recognize the difference between inept flirting and sexual assault, or even rape.  Even as a person acknowledges that there are some problematic behaviors, the same person will often think that *this* particular action is not among them.  People know there's a line to be drawn, but don't draw it in the right place.  It only takes a few people who think non-consensual grabbing, forced kissing, or non-consensual sex is okay, and I think it's more than just a few.

The clash of personal and political

Next, I want to talk about feminist messaging about sexual assault, and how it's totally unsuited to deal with this problem.  By "feminist messaging", I don't mean to talk about what feminists intend to say, but rather the messages they collectively end up conveying.

When I mention my sexual assault to feminist-leaning people, there are two general reactions.  One is to assume that I am really upset about my sexual assault, and I'm really bringing it up to get social support.  I don't mind this assumption, because it's nice to know that anyone with a similar story can find social support in these spaces.  But I never said I needed the support.  The other reaction is to reiterate how bad sexual assault is in general, as if I were trying to dispute this fact.

There are two messages I'm getting out of this.  One is that sexual assault and rape are the worst things ever, possibly worse than murder.  This leads me to repeatedly question, should I be feeling worse about the sexual assault than I did?  Should I, perhaps, be trying to feel bad about it?  (The answer is always no.  No point in creating emotional turmoil if it wasn't there to begin with.)

The second message is that different experiences of sexual assault are different, and also they are not different.  It is wrong to divide rape into "types", because people only ever divide it into types to delegitimize some kinds of rape.  But then, we also need to acknowledge differences in experiences, because lots of victims have difficulty admitting that they were truly victims of sexual assault or rape.  For some reason we view the "prototypical" sexual assault as being perpetrated by strangers with knives in dark alleys, even though it's far more common for the perpetrators to be acquaintances or partners.

So in feminist contexts, I'm not supposed to divide sexual assault into types.  But I can't help it!  Even if I just explain how my experience with sexual assault was tolerable to me, and make no attempts to compare to other experiences, people already feel the need to say how sexual assault is terrible in general, and my experience was different.  People feel the need to contrast my experience with other experiences of sexual assault.

Also in feminist contexts, I'm not supposed to generalize my experience, because that would take away from the message that sexual assault is terrible in general.  But I can't help that either!  As I said before, the most striking thing about my experience was how ordinary it was.  This is not a numbers post, so I can't really say anything about the numerical prevalence.  But it felt like a normal thing in that space, that's all I can say.

This is difficult for me to explain.  I'm not trying to say that most sexual assault isn't that bad, or that it isn't a problem.  In fact, I'm trying to say that maybe it's a deeper problem than we recognize.  I'm saying that in addition to all the sexual assault and rape we normally talk about, we also have this space where it's happening on such a regular basis that nobody even recognizes it.  Sometimes it's tolerable, like in my experience.  Sometimes it's terrible, like in my other experience.

If I'm right about how common this is (and especially if it's mirrored in straight culture), I worry that this is a major source of rape apologism.  A lot of people have experienced or perpetrated sexual assault where it "wasn't that bad", and was just normal.  So when feminists come in and say that it's the worse thing ever, deserving special treatment among crimes, people balk.

Why we need feminism

When I said I found my experience tolerable, I was referring to my personal experience of it.  But in the larger sense, it certainly is not tolerable.  The fact that there's so much sexual assault and people just accept it as normal is bad, really bad.  It's totally rotten.  It deserves a plague of angry feminists picking apart every aspect of gay male culture.  I have no doubt this day will come, the same way it's come for the atheist and gamer communities in recent years.  I'm looking forward to it.

It's not that every single individual's experiences are wholly negative.  It's bad because there is a wide range, from tolerable to terrible, and it's entirely unpredictable.  The same offense committed against a different person may provoke a different reaction.  It's basically a crapshoot.

Ordinary social interactions should not be a crapshoot.  It should not be, some gay youth go to parties, and love the sexually-liberated atmosphere; others go to parties and start having second thoughts about whether they're really gay if it means being part of this culture where people sexually assault or rape them all the time.  That is an unacceptable risk.  A safe space for men who love men?  Ha.

This is one of the reasons why men need feminism.  All too often, feminism comes up short, because it's too busy responding to political pressure from all sides, and because the problems are too difficult.  But we need feminism, because this is a widespread, systemic problem that can only be solved through social action.

No single person can rebel against the assault/rape culture, it's just too powerful.  I can't blame or accuse individuals, when their actions were just so extremely ordinary, perpetrated by a significant fraction of the population.  Moral ostracization simply doesn't work when there are so many to be ostracized, many of whom are our friends.  In fact, the whole mechanism of moral ostracization works to our detriment, because within this culture, it's the ones who acknowledge the problem who are considered immoral.

I don't know the solution.  I think the solution starts with more people waking up and seeing that something's wrong.

Final note: I just want to make explicit the subtext, that I am an asexual spectrum person, and my experience with sexual assault does not necessarily connect with that fact in any way.  Sexual assault happens to all sorts of people.

Monday, September 1, 2014

My favorite tetris piece

"My Favorite Tetris Piece", an original model by me, built using Sonobe modules.  The title is a joke because it's one of the few tetrominoes that is not a piece in Tetris.

This month I'm teaching a class on modular origami.  I don't know how many people will attend, or what age they will be.  It's supposed to be for kids, but maybe some of their parents will stick around.

Picking out models for kids is an interesting constraint.  Basically it has to be something simple and easy.  And short, don't forget short.  I'm honestly not sure whether the average grade school kid has a long enough attention span to make thirty identical units in one sitting.  Hell, even I don't ever make that many units in one sitting.  But for a class it has to be in one sitting.

Because I'm not sure how focused the kids will be, this presents yet another constraint.  I want models that can be big or small, depending on how the class goes.

The Sonobe modules are excellent for this.  They're easy to make.  If you combine 6 of them you can make a cube.  If you combine 12, you make an octahedron.  30 and you have an icosahedron.  Or you can make irregular shapes like the one above.  That one uses 18.  Part of the point is to inspire kids to be creative about what they do with the origami, but not make something so flashy that I outshine the kids.

For once, I timed myself.  Each unit takes a little over a minute and a half to make.  That's really fast!  Sonobe modules are just so easy.  It leaves time for more complicated models.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The dangers of meta

In the context of a discussion, going meta means to talk about how we're doing the discussion.  For example, in skeptical discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about fallacies, and styles of argumentation.  In social justice discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about the words we use in discussion, and whether these words are problematic.  Or we talk about "derailing", which is the way that people shut down discussions about social justice.

This post, of course, is going meta one level deeper.  I'm not talking about how we talk about things.  I'm talking about how we talk about how we talk about things.

For someone like me, there's a strong draw towards meta conversations.  And that's not a bad thing.  Meta-discussions are often what separate the advanced discussion and the basic discussion.  Meta-discussions inject a sense of self-awareness into our normal discussions.

Unfortunately, advanced discussion is not for everyone, and there's a reason the basic discussion is needed.  I know, for instance, that this blog will never have popular appeal.  And this doesn't just have to do with me.  Anything that involves reading thousands of words on such narrow topics will never have popular appeal.

And yet--I'm speaking for myself here--meta-discussions have a strong hold on me.  I can't let go of my self-awareness.  And self-awareness is just one step away from self-consciousness.  I am self-conscious about using arguments that I know are bullshit or political expedients (which is nearly everything).  As I've mentioned before, I am self-aware about concern trolling.  The self-awareness doesn't always stop me from doing it, but changes how I do it (and possibly not for the better).

Another problem with meta-discussions is that it feels like meta is the answer to everything, and that everything needs meta, but this is not true.  Meta-discussion is a general discussion.  Most problems require case-by-case judgments, and knowledge of specific details.  For instance, many skeptical topics, even the small and pointless ones like bigfoot, require specific knowledge to effectively address.  They require research.  Pointing out logical fallacies will only get you so far.

Meta is not the answer to everything, nor does everything need meta.  In many of my discussions on the internet, I have strong opinions on the meta aspects.  Like, say I'm talking with someone, and they declare that bringing up a particular topic is "derailing".  I have strong opinions on whether certain things count as derailing or not.  But even if I disagree with someone, bringing up a whole meta-discussion about derailing is itself honest to goodness actual derailing.  It's distracting from the main point, and frankly condescending.

I see this happen with other skeptics.  I see people bring up logical fallacies when it's inappropriate.  Whether or not I agree with the point on fallacies, it comes off as condescending, and a distraction from the point.  Like Process Man we're in danger of putting the arcane details of the process above the results.

Nonetheless, I would say that on some level meta-discussion really is indispensable.  The default, for many people is to fall along partisan lines.  Not necessarily partisan political lines (as in left or right), but things like the partisan skeptical line, the partisan atheist line, or the partisan social justice line.  One of the best ways to break out of these partisan lines is to have strong opinions about what sort of arguments are valid or invalid, regardless of who makes the argument.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Evaluating privilege, -normativity, and -ism as language

My post "Privilege and its technical failings" was really just about one particular failing of the the concept of "privilege".  But in the comments, people took the opportunity to discuss other failings of the concept of "privilege".  We also touched on alternatives, such as "-normativity" and "-ism".  These are basically three different frameworks for people to talk about the same thing: Certain groups of people have systemic problems.  We want to solve those problems.

Examples: White privilege, male privilege, straight privilege
Privilege reframes the problems of the marginalized group as advantages of the majority group.

Examples: heteronormativity, patriarchy (maybe), sexualnormativity
"-Normativity" language blames the problems on a society which sees certain groups as "normal" or "default", or perhaps just inherently superior.

Examples: racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia
"-Ism" language blames the problems on certain emotions, attitudes or actions which are wrong.

There are also a few oddballs.  "Erasure" as in "bisexual erasure" appears to be in a category all to its own.  "Cissexism" looks like an -ism, but is often used to talk about how cisgender is the societal default, so it's halfway to "-normativity" language.  And I'm sure readers can think of other oddballs.

I was really gratified by the commenter discussion analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the above sets of language.  I am used to this language, and comfortable using it to communicate, but sometimes I feel a disconnect with other people who use the language.  It's as if other people think of the language not just as language, but as a real thing.  Whereas I see it as merely a tool for communication.  I am gratified to see that I am not the only one who thinks this way.

To explain my view, I am a nominalist.  That is, I do not believe that categories are real.  Tables are not real.  I'm sitting at a table, and that table is real.  But the general category of tables is not real.  So if we have disagreements on whether it's really a table (some people might say that desks don't count as tables), then we're disagreeing on a question that isn't real.  Another example: gender.  Male and female do not exist.  There are lots of people that seem to fit neatly into those categories, but if people don't fit into the categories that's fine because the categories are not real.

Privilege, -normativity, and -ism are not real.  That's not a sleight against those concepts.  Most things are not real.

But there are consequences to seeing things this way.  The language we use can have advantages or disadvantages.  If a particular piece of language has too many disadvantages, and if there is a better alternative, then that language should be discarded.  People still have systemic problems, and we still want to solve those problems, but there's no sense in getting attached to any particular language if it's not effective at solving those problems.

If you look at the examples I provided, you'll notice different contexts seem to favor different language.  For instance, nobody seems to talk about "White normativity".  Is this because "-normativity" language simply isn't useful in the context of race?  I'm sure the costs and benefits of our language are very context-dependent.  However, sometimes the biggest benefit of a particular piece of language is simply that it's already in the language.  Perhaps the only reason "White normativity" isn't discussed much is because it hasn't been discussed much before.

Thus, it could be useful to think directly about the question, to evaluate our language.  For example, is "homophobia" effective?  How do people respond to it?  Is there a better alternative? Or is it context dependent?

I'm thinking of writing a (mini?) series of posts analyzing the costs and benefits of our choice of language.  I've addressed this before in a few posts, but a devoted series could be nice.  I'm not sure what to cover though.  Are there any particular topics you'd like me to cover?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Writing a novel: month 4

I'm going to go ahead and admit that I did not write anything for my novel for most of this month.  But let's not phrase it as "admitting".  Writing is a hobby.  It's not my job.  Writing is more fun than my job.  I can do whatever I want with my hobby, including ignoring it for a month.

This month, I was instead engrossed with another book, The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I tend to write on the bus, and also read on the bus, so the time I spend reading and writing negatively correlate with each other.

I may or may not have said before, that Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my inspirations.  He zooms in really close on ordinary social interactions, and reveals the unnameable emotions within.  For example, in one chapter of The Unconsoled, a man explains at great length why he doesn't speak to his (adult) daughter.  When she was a child, she did something to anger him, and it was only meant to be a few days. But there never seemed an appropriate moment to break the silence.  An appropriate moment finally arose when she was grieving her hamster, which she accidentally killed, but he hesitated, and now it seems like speaking to her would disrespect the memory of her hamster.

So good!  Although I would have hated this book in high school.  And it's basically impossible to imitate.

Uh, yeah, so my novel... I will not apologize for taking a break, because my alternate activity was wonderful.  But it was not a permanent break.  I'm getting back into it now, and the fresh perspective is already helping.

My approach with many of these posts about writing has been to discuss an idea I have that I find exciting.  But I'm reconsidering whether this is a good idea, because I worry about building up expectations.  These are cool ideas and all, but it really all comes down to execution.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Privilege and its technical failings

In my previous post, I discussed how different orientation labels not only have direct meanings, but also oppositional meanings.  For example, "straight" has the connotation of "as opposed to gay".

The inspiration for this topic was the concept of "privilege".  When we talk about White privilege, we're implicitly talking about White (as opposed to Black) privilege.  When we talk about male privilege, we're implicitly talking about male (as opposed to female) privilege.  When we talk about straight privilege, we're implicitly talking about straight (as opposed to gay) privilege.

In particular, the inspiration for this topic, was the concept of "allosexual privilege" (aka "sexual privilege" or "non-asexual privilege".  "Allosexual privilege" is a discredited concept, and has been since 2011.  When the idea was first proposed, it received a lot of pushback, and was the center of a lot of drama. By now, many problems have been identified,* and even its earlier proponents have long been disillusioned. However, I believe that people have so far missed the heart of the problem, which has to do with the technicalities of our language. 

*For example, people originally called it "sexual privilege", but it became clear that there are some justifiable complaints about the word "sexual".  This is basically the origin story of the word "allosexual".

"Privilege" is a way to talk about the minority group by talking about the majority group instead.  The minority group has certain problems that need attention.  That is to say, they need attention from people with power.  Often the people with the most power are people in the majority group.  So how do we make the minority group's problems relevant to the majority?  We reframe minority problems as majority privileges.

Crucial to the reframing tactic is that there are only two groups, the majority and the minority.  Privilege requires a majority/minority binary.  When there are two or more minority groups, the rhetoric falls apart.

When people tried to use "privilege" to talk about asexual problems, no one even thought to talk about "straight privilege".  Because "straight" means straight (as opposed to gay), not straight (as opposed to asexual).  Instead, people talked about "allosexual privilege".  The problem is that "allosexual" refers equally to straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual orientations.  Many asexual problems are shared by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  Thus, a list of allosexual privileges risks erasing gay/lesbian/bisexual problems, despite no one intending to.

By all rights, people should have been talking about straight (as opposed to asexual) privileges.  But this is impossible, because there is no word for "straight" that connotes "as opposed to asexual".  If you look up lists of straight privileges, you will have trouble finding any items that address asexual-specific issues.

A corrolary: similar problems would arise if people attempt to apply "privilege" to other "secondary" minority groups such as Asian Americans, bisexuals, and possibly people with non-binary genders.  Of course, each case will be affected by its own particular details.


I do not mourn the loss of "privilege" as applied to asexuality.  The truth is, "privilege" is not a very good concept.  "Privilege" is supposed to be a billboard word, something you use in public outreach when there isn't room for more than a few words.  In practice, "privilege" requires so much more explanation.  When you tell someone they have privilege, people don't know what to do with that, and they often feel accused.  Often, I think we can do better by tabooing the word "privilege", to explain what we mean with different words.

Throughout this post, I referred to "privilege" as a framing device, or a public outreach tool.  I've noticed that many people who talk about privilege appear to take it more seriously, reifying it into a real thing.  That is to say, privilege is thought of as a mechanism for the oppression or marginalization of certain groups.  People acquire certain privileges, and through some unexplained process deprive others of those same privileges.  I explicitly reject this view of privilege as not just wrong, but not even wrong.  It's just unclear what any of it even means.  It could mean something completely vacuous, or something completely outrageous, and I think it's all a setup to equivocate between the two.

In this post, I've explained why "allosexual privilege" failed, and it had nothing to do with the particular problems of asexual people (except that these problems strongly overlap with LGB people).  It only had to do with language technicalities.  I believe this supports my view that "privilege" is merely an educational tool.  If privilege were "real", then it would be impossible to talk about the same problems without referencing the advantages gained by straight people.  In fact, people still talk about the same asexual problems, and have simply adopted different language to describe them, like "amatonormativity" or "compulsory sexuality".