Archive for rant

Telling Strangers to Smile, and Other Patriarchal Entitlement

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

“Hey, I like your hair!”


I was halfway through opening my mouth to say a quick “thanx” , when the second half of the statement hit me like a slap across the face:


“But you dropped your smile!”


Now, as a young female-bodied person in a city like Toronto, I’m no stranger to street harassment.  It’s rare that I can be out walking, shopping, etc. for more than a few minutes without someone shouting a catcall or honking a horn or making an unsolicited comment on my appearance.  And most of it rolls right off my back — in the 5 years I’ve been living in this city, I’ve developed a thousand-mile stare, resting bitch face, and a purposeful stride when walking anywhere.  I’ve learned to put up the armor, to keep going and ignore, to be ready to run or to fight if they pursue me.  I’ve learned how to identify which people are just harmlessly creepy, and which are more likely to be genuine threats:  the kind that reach in for a grope, or start following you when you don’t respond to their advances.



This particular time, though, I was truly caught off-guard.  I was in a neighborhood where I generally feel fairly “safe” — Church and Wellesley, right in the middle of the gay village, where the street harassment that I witness is usually male-on-male (and yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but at least it’s not directed at me).  The person talking at me was female.  And she was carrying a binder.  She was out campaigning for pledges for Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, and that was what stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth open, not even knowing how to begin to respond.  I actually took a few steps away before turning around and confronting her.


“No, you know what?  You don’t get to say that to me.  That is fucking sexist, and it is bullshit.  You don’t own my body”.  She stammered a protest, tried to claim that she hadn’t said anything wrong, but I was already spinning on my heel to walk away — moving faster, bitch-face firmly in place, practically fuming that an ostensibly feminist organization couldn’t even be bothered to give their canvassers some simple sensitivity training about how to correctly approach a person cold.


Why You Should Never Tell a Person — Especially a Female-Bodied Person — to Smile

What it comes down to, mostly, is the simple fact that a stranger does not owe you anything.  If they’re a service-industry person and you’re their customer, fine, they might be expected to appear pleasant and pleasing to you (and you might be justified in knocking a percentage or two off the tip for surly, unsmiling service).  Human resources might back you up when you complain about that coworker who’s never happy. And if a friend or family member is looking unsmiling and dour, you’re probably justified in asking them what’s going on.  But with a stranger?

You don’t know what their day has been like.  You don’t know what’s on their mind.  Maybe they just got dumped, their dog just died, they’ve got a major deadline coming up at work and are stressed and overtired — or maybe some other asshole just said something awful to them not ten seconds ago.  Maybe they’re going home to a sick child, or fighting to keep from being evicted, or running late, or they just threw their seven-dollar latte in the trash because the barista screwed up and made it with soy milk.  Or maybe, just maybe, the expression on their face has to do with absolutely anything in the world that isn’t you.  Maybe they’re lost in thought, and it isn’t a frown, just a pensive non-smile.  Or maybe they’ve been warned not to smile at strangers (especially strange men), because then they might be thought to be “asking for it” (whatever “it” is).

Women, especially, spend a lot of our time being told (by the media, by peers, etc), that our bodies are not our own.  Ongoing debates about topics such as abortion, the definition of “rape” (especially as it pertains to “marital rape” and “coercive rape”), access to contraception, etc., frame women’s bodies as something of a sociopolitical object, not a person.  Puritanical attitudes towards sex place women as “gatekeepers” of sexual and sensual pleasure, foisting the responsibility  for others’ misbehaviour onto us in a sort of paternalistic “well you should have known better” and “boys will be boys” shrugging-off of the realities of the world.  And yet, simultaneously, we are expected to be miraculously young-and-beautiful (via cosmetics, surgeries, whatever), eternally thin, eternally sexually appealing, because to not conform to society’s standards of feminine beauty is to appear “slovenly” and “uncaring” and “unprofessional”.  Displays of negative emotion are seen as either weak or threatening (or sometimes both), and yet being stoic  and self-contained is “unnatural” or unfeminine (and, again, may well be taken as a threat).  Every decision that we take with our appearance is a catch-22 of some sort, and will likely be questioned and criticized by many people.


So when you tell a female-bodied person to “smile, sweetheart”, or that her face would look better with a smile on it, or that she shouldn’t forget her smile, or whatever else — you’re playing in to that patriarchal concept that women’s bodies are not our own, but rather public property, useful only to please others.  Telling anyone to smile for you is entitled, but cultural context makes this even more true when that person is a woman.


Why it is Threatening (and what you should do about that)

Of course, the reasons why street harassment is shitty don’t end with simple objectification and entitlement. There’s the threat element, too. Not every instance of street harassment is a red-alert, fight-or-flight sort of situation — in the case of the stupid Church Street girl with her binder and her lack of training, I certainly didn’t feel like I was in any danger. It was daylight, a busy street, a relatively safe neighborhood, and she was just one person, not much taller than me. It was unlikely in the extreme that she was carrying a concealed weapon, or going to jump me when I turned my back. But the majority of street harassment isn’t quite so benign. It only takes one instance of getting groped on the subway, or followed home late at night, or having objects thrown at you, to plant the seed of fear & have you questioning your safety every time someone makes eye contact or steps into your personal bubble. And we spend a lot of time getting warned to not get ourselves raped — whenever an attack is in the news, a woman is questioned for what she was wearing, why she was alone, why she was in that neighborhood, why she didn’t call for help or fight harder to escape or have the presence of mind to have not been born with a vagina. So we are constantly questioning, constantly worrying, wondering if letting our guard down for even a moment will be the time that we made a mistake & get assaulted or raped or killed as a consequence.

And it really doesn’t matter that 99% of the time, it isn’t a threat. The vast majority of the time, the person approaching you with a leer or a whistle or an unsolicited comment or a demand for a smile is going to just walk away (perhaps after hurling an insult at you for daring to snub their advances — “stuck up bitch”, or “fuck you, you’re ugly anyway”, or something of that ilk is fairly common). Those few times when it IS a threat, we need to be on guard and ready to act — to run, to scream, to fight, whatever is necessary to protect ourselves, because if we don’t put up enough of a fight, the law won’t defend us nor punish our attackers.  If we’re not ready to claw the fucker’s eyes out while screaming RAPE at the top of our lungs, we were clearly “asking for it”, and it wasn’t “legitimate rape“.

This is all, of course, a symptom of a much larger problem –again, cultural context means everything. If victims were better protected by the legal system, we wouldn’t have to rely so much on our own physical ability to defend ourselves. If criminals were punished more effectively, there would be fewer willing to commit the crimes in the first place. And if people were taught to not commit rape, instead of being taught to not GET raped, we might have different social norms to work with, here. But until we see wide, systemic change, every approach must be treated as a threat — because if it isn’t, you were “asking for it”.



There’s been quite a bit of attention paid, in recent years, to the Hollaback movement. Basically, it encourages victims and witnesses of street harassment to do exactly what I did: call them out on it.

While I think that the general idea has some merit, it’s not really the solution. As anyone who experiences regular street harassment can tell you, engaging them usually only serves to make it worse. People are, as a rule, usually unwilling to admit wrongdoing, even when directly confronted. They’re more likely to react with aggression to what they perceive as an attack on them. So in many cases (the already threatening cases, as outlined above), being able to “hollaback” at someone who has just threatened you takes real courage, and a willingness to fight or run like hell should things go south.

And Hollaback does, unfortunately, put too much onus on the victim to save themselves. While the campaign encourages people who are merely witnesses or bystanders to speak up as well, it is largely aimed at the people (women, people of colour, and other visible minorities) who are already being oppressed and attacked. It’s an imperfect, band-aid solution at best. Worth drawing attention to, though, because in cases where it IS safe to do so, calling people out (whether in the moment, or after the fact via means such as social media, blogging about it, postering areas where street harassment habitually occurs, etc) draws attention to the issue and hopefully encourages & supports other who are experiencing the same sort of attacks.


Of course, as critical as I am of Hollaback’s effectiveness, I’m not sure if we have any better solutions right now.

Social change is a long, convoluted, difficult, painful process. I don’t really expect that I will ever, in my lifetime, see a world where women in densely populated urban areas are truly free to go about our days. But I do hope that it will get at least a little bit better. Getting street harassed by a supposedly-feminist canvasser was a pretty low point, I think, and the world needs, absolutely NEEDS, to be better than this.

For the moment, pleasant fantasies will have to do.



Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

The “Friendzone” is a Myth, and You are Not a Nice Guy

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

“Friendzone” is one of those terms that I absolutely cannot stand.  While the term’s been around since the 90s (most sources credit the TV show “Friends” with its origin), it has become much more popular in the last couple of years, and now seems to be a fixture in common parlance.  The Internet is rife with the rants and whinings of the “friendzoned”.  Of course, this whining usually has the opposite effect of what was intended — its only purpose, really, is to let me know that the person using the term is an asshole and not worth being friends with in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with it, Urban Dictionary defines the friendzone as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to.”  Wikipedia’s definition is a little bit more honest (as well as being gender neutral):  “the friend zone refers to a platonic relationship where one person wishes to enter into a romantic relationship, while the other does not.

Now, I’m not saying that wanting “more” from a friendship with a person who you find attractive is always a bad thing.  I actually prefer to date people with whom I’ve already built a friendship, as it’s easier to trust a person who you already know and like.  The problem is that “friendzone” is generally presented as a negative thing, as though being friends is some sort of “consolation prize”.  It creates the impression that you were only in it for the possibility of sex, and if that possibility is removed, you’re really not interested in continuing the friendship.

I’ve lost my share of friendships this way, and the usual way of things is this:  you meet, chat, realize that you have a lot in common.  You hang out more often, find shared interests that you can do together.  You talk about all sorts of different topics.  And at some point, one party falls for the other.  The crush is revealed and – oh no – it’s not mutual.  Awkward.  Everybody feels kind of bad.  You say that you won’t let it change anything, and then … they disappear.  They’re never available to hang out any more.  Calls go unanswered.  You’ve lost a friend, because they couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of being sexually rejected.

It’s pretty unpleasant, not to mention rather insulting, to think that a friendship you’ve invested time and energy into was only a plan to get into your pants.  And it can be heartbreaking when someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, and built a connection with, decides that they don’t want to be around you any more because you won’t offer them sex.

There can be dozens of different reasons why people who are compatible as friends may not feel a sexual attraction for each other.  The simplest explanation is physical attraction (or the lack thereof) — there’s not much that you can do if you just simply aren’t attracted to the person.  But there are countless other factors as well.  Maybe your wants and needs in a relationship are different (ie, if one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous, it’s unlikely to work).  Maybe your future plans don’t mesh (ie, one person wants kids and the other doesn’t).  Maybe there’s already someone else, or you’re not over a recent breakup, or you’re still figuring out your sexuality, or you’re simply happy with being single.

Whatever the reason, deciding that friendship, without sex or other “benefits”, just isn’t quite “good enough” for you?  It’s an asshole move.  Ditching a friend because you’ve decided it’s not “going anywhere” makes you a total jerkbag asshat.  At least the person you’re dumping as a friend is probably better off without you, but that really is a totally shitty consolation prize.

The thing is, if you’re using the term “friendzone” to describe your relationship with a person?  You probably aren’t really their friend.  Friends care about each other as more than just objects, and want one another to be happy.  It’s fair to be disappointed when you fall for a person and they don’t fall for you — it’s a shitty thing to happen.  But grow up, be an adult about it, and respect their feelings.  You’ll get over it and find somebody else to crush on soon enough.  If you’re really their friend, you want them to find somebody great to be in a relationship with (even if that person isn’t you) — and they’ll want the same for you, as well.  You might even be able to have some good discussions with them, now, about why they don’t see you as a romantic possibility and about how you can go about improving yourself to become a better “catch” for when the right one comes along.  If you’re really lucky, you might even gain a “wingman“, to help you with approaching and attracting the next person you develop a crush on.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now, so I’m just going to nip this in the bud — substitute alternative pronouns if necessary.  “But I’m really a nice guy!  Why can’t she see that I’d be perfect for her?”

To start with?  No.  No, you’re probably not a nice guy.  Because the guys who complain about how “nice guys finish last” and “girls only like to date assholes”?  Are usually not particularly nice.  They are, instead, what is known as a “Nice Guy” (note the capitalization and quotation marks).

In the world of the “Nice Guy”, people to whom you’re attracted are not seen as individual human beings.  They are interchangeable objects, into whom you deposit token gestures of how “Nice” you are.  Paying compliments.  Giving gifts.  Doing favours.  You count up all of these gestures like notches on a headboard, and expect that at some point you’ll be “paid back” with sex or a relationship, once the person is sufficiently in your “debt”.  Never mind that their feelings might be different from yours — they “owe” you, for all that you’ve “given” them.  It’s a shitty way to treat another person.  If you were truly their friend, you’d do favours and make such gestures without expecting anything in return, because that’s how friends treat each other.  You’d be upset if one of your friends gave you a gift, and then turned around and said “now where’s my present?”, so don’t do that to people you’re attracted to.

In addition to this, even if you are an excellent match?  They need to come to that conclusion themselves.  It might be a case of “right person, wrong time”, and if you stick around and are a genuine friend (and not a “Nice Guy”) to them, they may eventually reach that conclusion.  Don’t sit around waiting for it, of course, and certainly don’t pester them about it — seek other relationships and friendships in the meantime, and leave the ball in their court — but don’t consider the conversation over.  People grow, and change, and sometimes an initial rejection will turn into something different over time.

But wait — what’s that, Morpheus?

That’s right — there’s one other category that I haven’t dealt with yet.  That’s the people who “friendzone” themselves, because they never even bothered to say anything about their feelings.

This can be one of the most hurtful things to experience.  You make friends with a person, spend a bunch of time together … and then out of the blue, they stop calling, stop being available, and the friendship simply ends.  No explanation, you didn’t have a fight or a falling out, it’s just over.

And then you hear from a mutual friend: “oh, X had a crush on you, and you didn’t like them back, so they decided to end it”.  And you’re floored.  You didn’t know they felt that way.  Were there signs that you should have seen?  Why didn’t they talk to you about it?  It hurts to think that a person felt so intimidated by you that they found it easier to cut you off than it was to just talk to you about it.

This is one of the stupidest things that a person can do.  In addition to the usual problems associated with “friendzoning” (you’re treating the person as an object rather than a person, you’re more interested in sex and your own desires than you are in the friendship and their wants & needs, etc), there’s the added hurt of being completely left out of the decision-making process.  Maybe you hadn’t thought of that person as a possible sexual partner, but knowing that they feel that way about you might have left you feeling open to exploring the possibility.  But they chose for you; they decided how you felt (and took away your ownership and agency of your own emotions), acted on it, and you didn’t even get a say.

So to sum up:

  • Never use the term “friendzone”.  It’s a term only used by assholes.
  • If you’re attracted to a friend, and they don’t feel the same way about you, respect them enough to accept their decision and move on.
  • Cutting a person out of your life because they won’t have sex with you is shallow and childish, and not the way you’d treat a friend.
  • If you’re attracted to a person, say something.  Don’t assume that they are psychic, and don’t assume anything about their feelings in return.

Online Identities: Navigating the Minefields of Trolls, Bullying, Privacy, and the Lack Thereof

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

The Internet is aflame this week (even more so than usual) in the aftermath of two very high-profile incidents which have once again thrown the spotlight on issues of online privacy.  I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about:  Amanda Todd’s suicide and its aftermath, and the “outing” of Michael Brutsch (a.k.a. Violentacrez).  Even Mittens’ latest social blunders haven’t distracted us entirely from the discussion and debate that has ensued.

The real question, the one that has kept people talking (and it’s something that’s come up before, and will certainly come up again), is this:  what expectation should we have of online privacy, and how does one preserve one’s anonymity in the face of a world where all of our online doings can be traced and collected?

The short answer, of course, is that no one gets to be anonymous.  Every action, every word: whether online or in “real life”, we must own our own behaviour and be answerable for our own actions.  What we do and say can always come back to haunt us, and on the Internet everything is recorded — it’s like living your life in front of a video camera.

Of course, on the Internet we do have the privilege of anonymity, to some degree, simply because so much of the time?  Absolutely no one is watching what’s being recorded.  What websites we visit, what we search on Google, what porn we download — most of the time, nobody really cares.  The information is recorded, there to be found by anyone who searches, but searching takes an effort, and for most of us?  The fact that looking us up takes work is enough to maintain our fragile anonymity.  The same is true in real life — while someone easily could be following our every movement, watching our every action, does anybody really want to go to so much trouble?  Unless you’re some sort of mega-celebrity with the paparazzi hounding your steps, the answer is very likely “no”.

There are ways to increase the difficulty factor involved in that search, of course.  Using pseudonyms, shielding your IP address, protecting your passwords and Internet behaviours from people you know in real life, taking care that the online identities you use from one website to the next are not immediately traceable to each other.  You can be discriminatory in what information you talk about or share at all online (for example, by never posting photos that show your face) — these are all legitimate strategies.  They take additional effort on your own part, and are not insurmountable obstacles (nothing can completely shield you all the time), but increasing how hard it is to trace you can be enough to deter a casual searcher with not much to prove or to gain by figuring out just who you are and what you do on the Internet.

There are those, of course, who believe that nothing should be hidden.  On this point I have to disagree:  while I am an advocate of honesty in most every sphere of life, I also understand that concealment and deceit are not necessarily an indication that you are doing something wrong, and there are things that we all keep private (most of us probably don’t detail our sex lives to all and sundry, for example, or tell all our friends about the intimate details of the bout of diarrhea we suffered through, or tell the people at work what we really think of them and their stupid and annoying little habits).  We all have personal lives and private feelings.

But we’re not entitled to them.

Privacy is not an unalienable right.  It’s a privilege, one maintained mostly through a general sense of social propriety and politeness.  And it’s something that we can lose at any time, often through no fault of our own (try having a serious medical issue some time: an extended hospital stay will let you know just how much of your life is *really* private).  We have no legal protections from those who might choose to seek us out and invade our most intimate secrets, because knowledge cannot be copyrighted or owned.

Unfortunately, knowledge can also be used to harm.  While I have no sympathy whatsoever for someone like Michael Brutsch, who has reportedly lost his job (among other things) in the wake of his being “outed” as the man behind such Internet horrors as the “creepshots” and “jailbait” subreddits, I can still feel disgusted at humanity when the man is facing threats of death and violence.  He deserves to be ostracized, judged harshly, and treated accordingly, but violence is never a justifiable response to anything, and the people who would make such threats are truly no better than he is.  But at the same time, he at least can be said to deserve the negative reactions to his actions — he has admitted to deliberately “trolling” for negative reactions, and shouldn’t be surprised that those reactions have been extreme, because extremity is exactly what he aimed to provoke.

Where I feel a lot more sympathy is with people who need Internet anonymity in order to be able to speak safely about the topics they tackle.  People like Orac, Bug Girl, and other pseudonymous bloggers:  they are required by their jobs to maintain separation between their Internet personas and their professional ones, and a pseudonym allows this (even while it does not provide 100% protection for their identity, and determined searchers are still able to — and sometimes do — find them out).  Others use pseudonyms for more concrete forms of safety:  those who criticize certain political or religious groups, for example, may be putting their lives at risk by doing so, and an extra level of difficulty in finding out one’s identity may be a very prudent step to take in that sort of scenario.

The other facet to the current discussion is, of course, just how easy it has become for a bully or a troll to ruin someone’s life by spreading false information through the medium of the Internet.  Something as simple to create as a phony Facebook account can cause a person untold amounts of social strife, and how do we protect against this?

Well, the same way we always have.  There are already laws against character defamation, libel, and slander.  There are laws against harassment, and against uttering threats.  We don’t need new laws to police the Internet — we just need to educate people on their rights and on how to deal with such attacks.  If a troll or a bully is harassing you, you can report them to the police.  If someone is saying false things about you, you can sue them.  Even if someone is using true information (as in the Amanda Todd case), but they’re doing it in such a way as to harm you, you can take legal action against them and stop them being able to attack and hurt you.

Don’t know who the person is?  That doesn’t matter.  Because as we’ve already established, everything on the Internet is traceable.  Even if you’re not computer-savvy enough to hunt down a troll, other people are.  The authorities have resources in this regard, and they can find out a person fairly easily.  Lack of anonymity is a double-edged sword, and when you’re the victim?  You can use it in your defense, as well.

In the end, the best thing a person can do to protect themselves from losing their online anonymity is just to simply be blameless.  Don’t do things online that you wouldn’t do in real life, or draw attention to yourself through bad behaviour.  Don’t use anonymity as a shield, because it’s a very flimsy shield — like Wiley Coyote hiding under a tiny umbrella to ward off a falling boulder.  If you’ve got serious concerns about hiding yourself (if you’re using the Internet as a medium to distribute a message that might get you shot in the head by the Taliban, for example), seek real-life ways of protecting your person and your safety, as well as using the tactics I outlined above (pseudonyms, hiding your IP, no photos, etc), because to rely solely on Internet anonymity is foolhardy.

Women in Elevators, Stray Dogs, and the Privileged White Male Delusion

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

As I’m sure all of my regular readers are well aware, I am far from being a delicate flower of dainty, ineffectual womanhood.  I don’t expect men to open doors for me, carry heavy bags, or take the driver’s seat when we go out (unless it’s their car, in which case I’ll probably still ask if they want me to drive; or I’m drunk, in which case I’ll make sure they’re sober before crawling into the back seat and falling asleep for the ride).  I don’t want them to walk me home late at night, or defend my honor when I get hit on at the bar.  I am deeply hostile to anyone who insinuates that there are things men can do which I cannot (unless those things involve physically having a penis, in which case just let me get my strap-on and we’ll just see how much I can’t do).  When it comes to traditionally “masculine” pursuits, I’m often far ahead of my male friends:  I own my own power tools, am pretty good with carpentry, can manage basic plumbing and electrics with ease, drive a standard, can carry my own body weight, spent nine years training and competing in martial arts, and regularly handle animals (snakes, lizards, rats, etc) that send a lot of men running and squealing pathetically.

I’ve also been the victim of multiple sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults, and am continually harassed and accosted by men who don’t seem to know what is socially appropriate and what is just plain threatening and creepy.  Just being capable of defending yourself doesn’t make you immune — being female and attractive (in that order; there are plenty of men who only look at the first criteria) means that it doesn’t matter how capable you are, you’re going to be a victim at some point in your life.

So when I read about Rebecca Watson‘s encounter in an elevator with a creepy dude who didn’t know where the line was, I thought, “yeah, that guy was totally out of line.”  I didn’t have to consider it:  I know what it’s like to be stuck in a small space with an unfamiliar man who clearly finds you attractive and might or might not want to do something awful because of it.  Nevermind that I’m a black belt in karate and 90% of men, even if bigger and stronger than me, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of successfully defeating me in an even fight — the fear is always there, because it’s impossible to know if this particular guy happens to also be a trained martial artist, or maybe he’s too drugged up to notice if I kick him in the balls, or maybe he’s got a gun tucked into his pocket, or maybe he’s got five friends waiting just around the corner to help him out.  It’s impossible to know, and the unknown is scary.

So I empathized with Rebecca’s situation, and figured that most other people would, too.  Elevator Guy was out of line, and everyone should understand that — right?

Well, apparently not.  The blogosphere has exploded with commentary on the incident, with many people (even women!) saying that Rebecca’s uneasiness about the situation was misplaced, that she had no reason to be afraid, and that she’s maligning the poor guy, who was just trying to be “friendly”.  (A side note to the men here:  it’s never “friendly” to approach a woman you don’t know at 4am and ask her out.  Especially in a small, confined space).  Richard Dawkins (yes, author of “The God Delusion”) has even said that she shouldn’t have been worried, because it’s easy to just push a button and get off the elevator at the next floor — threat averted, nothing to worry about.

Yes, really.

So I was getting all ready to write a long and rambling post, trying to explain to the unenlightened just what it is like to be in that sort of a situation.  Trying to think of some analogous situation that a male might find himself in, where he would feel threatened and unsure of what to do.  Trying to explain just *why*, in an enlightened society where we try to treat everyone as equals, regardless of gender, men should go out of their way to make women feel unthreatened by them.

And then I went on Scienceblogs and realized that Greg Laden had already written such a post, so I’m simply going to link to his example.

The most important point that needs to be made here, I think, is that for all that we want to believe that we live in a society of equals, we really don’t.  The white, heterosexual male is still the privileged “norm”, while anything else is subject to discrimination and abuse in varying shapes and forms.  And for every enlightened, completely non-threatening man out there, there are many who still subscribe to a belief that women are fundamentally different, lesser, and exist solely for male pleasure — even if they protest otherwise and, intellectually, can find no logical basis for such behaviours.  Media brainwashing and centuries of social conditioning aren’t overcome in a single generation, and it’s going to take a long time before equality truly exists (if it even can be achieved).

I’m not even saying that men who would sexually harass, assault, or rape a woman are in the majority.  In fact, I think the opposite — it’s only a small percentage of men who constitute enough of a problem to be an annoyance (people like Dawkins, perhaps, who might make sexist comments now and then, but aren’t truly bad people or prone to doing anything violent), and an even smaller percentage who could be considered a real threat (the sort who might actually grope, threaten, or attempt to rape a woman).  But considering that we might encounter dozens of different people on any given day, the laws of probability suggest that we’ll eventually encounter one of those truly dangerous elements.  And so we must always be on our guard, always prepared against the day when that guy in the elevator with us isn’t just going to make an awkward pass, he’s going to actually try to do something.  And by the same token, men must always be prepared to prove that they’re NOT a part of that tiny percentage of whom we should be afraid.

While I’m on the topic, guys:  here’s a handy list of a few things that women (especially the attractive ones) find incredibly annoying and/or threatening and creepy:

  • Staring.  If you want to look, be discreet about it.  Staring directly at a woman will make her feel threatened, as though you’re watching her and possibly planning to do something nasty.
  • Catcalling and whistling.  It’s demeaning, not complimentary.  It turns the woman into an object, valued only for her physical attractiveness.  Being constantly reminded that society views you as only a pair of boobs with legs attached is not a nice thing.  Catcalling is especially annoying when done from a moving vehicle, because there’s no chance for the victim to respond with a satisfying “fuck off, asshole”.
  • Approaching a woman just to tell her she looks pretty.  This includes telling her you like her hair, that she has the prettiest eyes, etc.  Attractive women get this ALL. THE. TIME.  Chances are you’re not the first — nor even the second or the third — guy to do this to her today.  And no, she doesn’t want to talk to you.  If she wanted to talk to you, she’d walk up and start the conversation.  The only exception to this rule is if you’re in a bar, nightclub, or other “singles’ spot” where women might conceivably be going to meet new people.  In that case, make eye contact and smile from a safe distance away.  If she responds positively, then move in with a compliment.
  • Standing too close.  Unless you’re in a situation where it’s totally unavoidable (really crowded bus, etc), don’t stand any closer to a woman than you would to an unfamiliar man at the urinal.  If you’d feel uncomfortable standing that close to a pantsless man while you’re both peeing, she probably feels uncomfortable standing that close to you when you’re fully clothed.  If you were pantsless she’d run screaming.
  • Walking too close.  Similarly to above: if you’re walking and find yourself falling into step with a nearby woman, either speed up to get ahead of her, or slow down and let her go on alone.  If you’re overtaking a slow-walking woman, leave plenty of space when you pass (crossing to the other side of the street is an option to consider if you’re in a situation that seems to have especial potential for creepiness, such as late at night on an otherwise quiet street).
  • Making a pass at a woman while she’s working.  Waitresses, saleswomen, baristas, female police officers, librarians, etc.  It doesn’t matter what her job is.  She’s at work, and is probably only smiling at you because she gets paid to be nice to the customers.  If you want to strike up a conversation with her, pick a neutral topic — the weather, or some piece of local news.  See how she responds to that, and let *her* guide the conversation to other topics, if she wants to.  She’s at a serious disadvantage in this social encounter, because being dismissive towards you might get her disciplined or fired for being “rude” to the customers.  Respect that and don’t be pushy.
  • Blocking the exit.  Even in a situation where it’s socially acceptable to approach a woman (a bar, for example), never corner her.  Leave her with at least one direction (better if you can leave more than one) in which she can simply walk away, without having to squeeze past you.  The same goes for situations where you’re not approaching and talking to her — if she’s standing in the bus shelter, don’t stand blocking the door, or if she’s sitting in the back of the train car, don’t stand blocking the aisle.
  • Following.  If you notice that you seem to be taking all the same turns as a woman, try to find an alternate route, or just wait a minute and let her get a little ways ahead of you.  If you got off the bus at the same stop, went left, and then turned down the exact same side street?  Stop and pretend to tie your shoelace or something so that she can put a “safe” distance between you.

“Nonsense on Stilts”: a Triumph of Logic and Reason

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

A few days ago, doctors in the U.K. voted to stop offering homeopathic treatments through the national health service.  They’ve also voted that homeopathic treatments sold at pharmacies should be clearly labeled “placebo”, and there’s some talk of banning them outright.  This is a huge step forwards for reasonable medical practice, and not just in the U.K. — hopefully other countries (I’m looking at you, Canada) will sit up and take notice of this stance by a highly respected group of medical practitioners, one of whom outright declared homeopathy to be “nonsense on stilts”.  I rather like that phrase and intend to use it in the future when discussing this topic.

Homeopaths and users of homeopathic medicine have, of course, protested the vote.  But they’re not doing a very good job of it.  Instead of making an attempt to disprove the doctors’ claim that there is no scientific proof for homeopathy’s effectiveness (a hard thing to disprove, since it’s absolutely true), they’re citing homeopathy’s long history (it’s been practiced for hundreds of years) as “proof” of its legitimacy.  Hey guys, you know what else has been practiced for hundreds of years?  Racism.  Sexism.  Systematic abuse of children by the Catholic Church.  War.  Murder.  Snorting powdered rhino horn as an aphrodisiac.  Colonialism.  Cutting down the rainforest.  Need I go on?  Just because it’s been around for centuries doesn’t make it right.

The other argument being bandied about by homeopathy’s dupes and con-men is that homeopathy is such an insignificant part of the NHS’s yearly budget that cutting it won’t help in any way to alleviate the budgetary problems that are going on (discussions of how to cut costs were the reason that these doctors got together and held this vote, by the way).  Uhm, yeah.  Even one dollar spent on a treatment that has no scientific basis for working is one dollar too many.  So even if the NHS in the U.K. wasn’t already trying to cut costs, cutting homeopathy out of the picture would still be a good move.  So whether or not it can help with the budget problems, it should still be cut out.

Homeopathy doesn’t work (it would have to defy the laws of physics, logic, and reality to do so), and it simply shouldn’t be provided as “medicine”.  At best, your time spent speaking to a homeopath may manage to set your mind at ease and relieve stress — leaving you more open to the placebo effect when you take those expensive sugar-pills.  At worst … well, people die from refusing real treatments.  So good on you, doctors who participated in this motion:  I hope to see more decisions like this in the future.

Why Arts Funding is So Important

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I got into a discussion earlier today on the Etsy forums about arts funding, and it’s rattled around in my head for a few hours and turned into a bit of a monologue.

As those of you in Canada are probably aware, there have been major cuts to arts funding in this country during the past half-decade.  Stephen Harper’s conservatives don’t even make a pretense of providing arts grants and funding, and have slashed budgets left right and center, all under the guise of cutting frivolous spending during an economic downturn.  Never mind that art can pull a society out of depression by providing a forum for the free exchange of ideas and encouraging the out-of-the-box thinking that is needed to spur change … apparently Canadians “don’t care about the arts” and so funding them is not important.

The result of this is, of course, that arts organizations are becoming smaller, more limited, and in some cases shutting down all together.  Obviously I myself am most familiar with theatres, and the amount of paid work available to new professionals like myself has dwindled to almost nothing in recent years … I’m sure it’s a trend that’s being seen in arts across the board.

Of course, even completely devoid of funding, the arts will never disappear entirely.  Even in repressive societies ruled over by vicious dictators, with the threat of death hanging over the heads of the creators, outsider art continues to happen on the fringes and in the shadows.  People will risk their livelihoods and even their lives to protect precious manuscripts and paintings from destruction under oppressive regimes, and will quietly create their own masterpieces in places where they can’t be seen or stopped … or sometimes out in the open, right under the noses of the autocrats (I’m so in awe of the people in Soviet Russia who turned publicly funded propaganda works to their own subversive meanings, and that’s by no means the only place where it happened).  Art is a huge part of what makes us a society and gives us a culture, and it’s something that many of us simply need to do.  When it comes right down to it, I know for a fact that I’ll never stop creating until the day I die.  I love it too much, and see too much importance in the artistic process, to ever let it go.

But just because art will never go away, doesn’t mean there’s any reason not to fund it.  Art brings us together.  It holds the mirror up to life, exposing both the good and the bad in the world (hopefully with the effect of increasing the good and weakening or destroying entirely the bad).  It defines us as people and peoples.  And when the funding goes away, the quantity and quality of the art being created will suffer.  After all, it’s hard to be creative and expressive when you’re working a crappy day job (or two) to pay the bills, numbing your brain and expending your energy on something that you have no passion for.  Would Da Vinci have managed to be such a genius if he’d been spending his days working retail or waiting tables?  Would iconic artists of modern times like Warhol and Pollock have had time to step so far out of the paradigms of society if they’d been worrying about where the next rent cheque was coming from?  How many paintings go unpainted, plays go unproduced, and masterpieces of literature go unwritten just because the artists simply don’t have the time?

Now, some artists hold the opinion that government or corporate funding cheapens the art being produced, making it commercial and propagandistic.  When money comes into question, ugly words like “artistic control” and “censorship” start to get bandied around an awful lot.  But really, what’s the worst that can happen?  If you truly offend the sensibilities of your donors or refuse to create something that you don’t artistically believe in, you might possibly lose your funding, but isn’t that the worst threat that they can possibly offer?  Is refusing funding because you might possibly one day lose it really a logical course of action?  That would be like never taking a job you’d love to try because you’re worried that you might one day in the future get fired.  And hey, even if you do lose your funding, you can always hunt for another source.  At worst you wind up working on your own dime, which is where you would have been anyway if you refused the funding in the first place.

The lack of arts funding out there is especially painful when held up against the other spending and splurging that the government is doing.  Money is being shelled out for corporate bailouts, government and industry conferences and retreats, sports events, promoting the Alberta tar sands, helping clearcutters in B.C., and TV and radio commercials reminding us all about how the government cares so much about our needs (hah).  Drama and music programs are being cut from schools, but god forbid the football team can’t get new uniforms.  Local television stations are disappearing so that we can all get more reality TV and celebrity bullshit.

What’s worst in all of this is that even we artists have come to accept our fate.  The stereotype of the “starving artist” is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can’t envision a well-funded artistic lifestyle.  Struggling and suffering is considered to be “just part of the process”.  But why?  Wouldn’t we be more effective as critical thinkers, critical observers of society, if we weren’t spending so much of our time worrying about making rent, or getting enough to eat this month?  Wouldn’t we be more productive if we weren’t spending 40 to 60 hours a week in meaningless toil, just trying to “get by”?  I’m not saying that all artists should be getting a free ride, here, but the value of creation should be such that it can pay for itself, or at least make a significant contribution towards its own cost.  We undervalue artists, and we undervalue art.  We equate creation with suffering, and thus creation suffers.  Blinding brilliance is being buried under an avalanche of poverty, and we are all made poorer for it.