Category Archives: Feminism

More on labels and identity

I’m heading to Nine Worlds later today, which means that instead of getting ready I’m procrastinating by thinking about anything other than the fact that I’m about to spend nearly three solid days surrounded by a very large number of near strangers and having to function socially in their presence.

This caused me to think about the you are not your labels post again and reminded me that I had promised a follow up to clarify my position on some things. I still don’t have a total follow up, but some of my thoughts on the subject crystallized while I was thinking about them in the shower (the shower is a wonderful place for composing thoughts), and I thought I’d write them down while they were in my head.

Identities are important

Apparently one of the vibes I gave off in that post was the standard “privileged person complains about identity politics because it’s so divisive“.

Allow me to state categorically: Fuck that. Identity is super important.

Often when something is described as “divisive” what is meant is “I hold this opinion. You hold that opinion. Therefore you are being divisive by holding a different opinion to me”.

Implicit in “Identity politics are so divisive” is “But aren’t we all the same really?”. It’s very easy to think we’re all the same if the dominant narrative of society is that everyone is like you (note: This is true even if you’re not actually in the majority. Witness the “male as default” thing despite the fact that men are a slight minority). Identity politics is only divisive if you hold the opinion that everyone should act like the default.

So, yeah. My point was in no way intended to diminish peoples’ identities. I apologize if it sounded that way. Identities are important and we should talk about them more, not less.

Labels are important

Labels are super useful.

As well as just the basic fact that language is basically our species’ hat – it’s most of how we actually get things done – labels serve a lot of useful functions.

When you’ve named something you’ve acknowledged that it’s a thing that happens reasonably commonly. When there’s a word for something you get to go “Hey! I’m not alone! There are other people like me!”. This can be really helpful – a lot of people think there is something wrong with them because they’re different from everyone else right up until the point where they discover that there are all sorts of other people like them (I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing that we need other people like us to feel comfortable with our identity, but it’s a thing that happens whether I like it or not and I’m certainly not going to judge people for needing it).

It’s also useful in group formation. Having groups is useful – it gives you more force when fighting for equality because you can share a voice, it surrounds you with people who understand your problems, etc. It’s much easier to form a group around a concept when you have a label for that concept.

I personally don’t feel strongly about any of my labels, but that’s a personal choice which I wouldn’t especially encourage others to follow. It’s just how I work.

So, labels are great. I encourage you to use them freely and happily, should you desire to do so.

Labels are not identities

Hopefully I’ve now convinced you that the reason I think my point that you are not your labels is important is not because I think either labels or identities are unimportant.

In fact, the reason I think this matters is precisely because they both are so important.

The key thing is that they’re important in different ways. They’re highly connected, and both feed into each other, but they are distinct things which are important for distinct reasons. Sometimes the difference is subtle, sometimes it’s really not.

But what happens when you conflate them is that that difference is erased, and the way you treat each is distorted to match the way you treat the other. If you consider a label a part of your identity you may get very angry and judgmental about other peoples’ usage of it. If you consider your identity a part of your labels, you may get a form of impostor syndrome where you have a platonic ideal of what that label looks like and feel terrible about yourself for not matching that platonic ideal.

This is the key point I was trying to get at which I don’t seem to have adequately conveyed last time. It’s not that labels don’t matter or that identities don’t matter, it’s that the difference between the two does matter.

I may have more to say on the subject at some future date, but that’s all I’ve got for now. Hope it helped clarify my position.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, Open sourcing my brain, rambling nonsense on by .

You are not your labels

I had a conversation with my friend Kat ages ago. It went something like this:

Me: People are weird about labels.

Kat: No, you’re weird about labels.

It’s a fair cop. When I react differently to something than 90% of people, it’s fair to say that I’m weird rather than they are.

This is a post about how I feel about labels, and how I think peoples’ interactions with them are unhealthy. I especially owe a discussion of this in the context of sexuality, but that’s mostly because that’s the context in which this came up and I owe a larger explanation of my opinion on the subject than I could fit in a sequence of 140 character soundbytes. It may take a little while to get to that part of the post, so be patient.

Before I proceed, I need to add the sort of disclaimer I usually do when writing about feminist topics:

I’m sitting here with a massive amount of privilege. I’m white, middle-class, cis, male, able-bodied, mostly neurotypical and a sufficiently close approximation to straight that I’ve probably just outed myself to a whole bunch of people I know by not just including “straight” here (I don’t think my parents read this blog but if they do, oops).

I think I’ve adjusted for that. I’m reasonably confident of what I’m going to say here, mostly because it’s a general principle rather than one that pertains to any specific axis of my privilege.

But while this perspective doesn’t make me wrong, what it does do is make it a whole hell of a lot easier to practice what I preach. I’m about to go on a long explanation about the effects of labels and how you shouldn’t get so attached to yours. It’s pretty easy to say labels aren’t important if most of the ones applied to you are ones you’re unlikely to ever be challenged on, and I pretty much fit the societal narrative of “this is what a normal person looks and acts like” (until I open my mouth and start ranting about some abstract philosophical point or telling people they should be picking things at random, but even that nicely pigeonholes into “geek”, which isn’t exactly a rarity these days).

So if you read this and go “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from, but my labels are really important to me because reasons, so they’re absolutely a fundamental part of my identity”, that’s cool. I totally get why they might be. I mean, I still think all the things I’m about to say hold true, but it’s pretty hard to go through life without some negative impacts and these are far from the worst. Besides which, I don’t know your situation and even if I did I don’t have any moral authority to tell you what to do. This is merely how I think the world works, and how I try to behave in response to it.

Second disclaimer I implicitly consider attached to all my blog posts but feel I should reiterate here: I’m totally not an expert on this. If I’m wrong, call me on it. Please.

OK. Disclaimer over.

Let me tell you how my thoughts on this subject started.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia. I still have trouble understanding exactly what this is supposed to mean, and my experience of it as a kid doesn’t match all that well with the wiki article, but for me what this meant was:

  • I was really clumsy
  • There was about a 60 point difference in my IQ depending on whether I took the test orally or written (oral was higher).

Dyspraxia is apparently not something you get better from, but I seem to have taken a pretty good shot at it. I’m still pretty clumsy (though less so), but when I retested as a teen I’d basically closed the IQ gap. If you care, I think this is mostly because I have a really active internal monologue which I use as a coping strategy (pretty much all my writing I’m basically talking through in my head. I imagine that’s normal to a greater or lesser degree, so I’ve no real idea if this is just something you learn to do as an adult that I wasn’t very good at as a kid or what, but there you go).

The details of my dyspraxia aside, why is this relevant?

Because it gave kid-me a very nice inside view on how labels work.

As far as I was concerned, “dyspraxic” was not a thing I was. I mean I acknowledged the actual empirical details of it – I was definitely clumsy, and sure I was way better at some mental things than others, but wasn’t that normal? People are good at different stuff. You learn to be better at the bits you care about, you learn to do without the bits you don’t. That’s how it works, right?

To my parents and school though, this was a seriously big deal. David was no longer this weird little kid who was obviously super bright (not to mention ever so charming and modest) but wasn’t good at stuff, he was dyspraxic. It made sense now! Dyspraxia is totally a thing, and we can take these steps to help the dyspraxic kid.

Except… it’s not really a thing. What it is is a collection of loosely interacting phenomena and spectra which all seem to be more or less related. You’re not just binary dyspraxic or not, you express different variations of it, you express it to varying degrees, you express different bits of it to varying degrees. They’re are as many forms of dyspraxia as there are dyspraxics. Sure, we have a label, and we have a lot in common related to that label, but really it’s just a large corner of the weird and varied landscape of what people are like.

But despite the fact that it doesn’t refer to any one easily isolatable thing and despite the fact that I didn’t really feel any attachment to the label, it still proved very useful to the people around me.

Why?

Well because that’s one of the main things language is for.

When we use words, we’re not expressing some absolute nature of the universe. What we’re doing is conveying enough information to be useful.

Consider two colours. They’re both green. Are they the same colour? No. One is this green, the other is this green. When we cut up colours into words, we’re taking what is quite literally a spectrum and chopping it up into discrete chunks.

Why do we do this?

Well, there are two main reasons, and you can see them both in my dyspraxic example.

The first is communication. You don’t want to have to give your whole life story in order to have a basic interaction. Instead, you present a simplification of the truth and then drill down into the details if and when necessary. For example, I will often tell people I’m vegetarian when it’s context appropriate, despite the reality being way more complicated. Language is by its nature imprecise, and that’s what makes it work.

The second is prediction. It’s easy to learn simple rules – if I ask you if two colours go together and one of them is green and the other is purple, you’re probably going to say no regardless of which green and which purple I’ve chosen. It’s not an ironclad rule, but it’s pretty likely. Similarly, if I tell you I’m dyspraxic there are certain things that you can do to adjust my education to help me out (apparently. I didn’t find them very helpful as a kid, but I may just have been being a bit of a bratty kid).

So labels are seriously useful.

But here’s the key thing: Being useful doesn’t make them true. They are a way of looking at the world, not a feature of the world.

And sometimes that way of looking at the world breaks down and you have to fix it up.

Suppose you’ve currently got a very simplistic view of gender. There are men, and there women, and those are all the genders there are. You’re merrily carrying on your life safe in your worldview. Then someone comes along and they say “Excuse me, but what about me? I’m kinda a bit of both”. s’cool. You knew those words were just approximations to reality. As a good, responsible, human being you update your worldview and accept them. Another person comes along and tells you that they’re neither. No problem.

The problem comes when you start to take these labels too seriously. By their nature, approximations are for using when they work and discarding when they don’t.

Supposing I were to consider being a man a really integral part of my identity – I don’t just mean what I look like, or my body identity, but the whole baggage and social constructs around it and everything. I’m now very invested in this as a real thing – it’s part of who I am.

Now suppose a trans man comes along and tells me that he’s a man. Sure, he happens not to have a penis, but that doesn’t stop him being a man.

Where previously I could have just gone “Oh, cool. Sorry, my previous approximations to the world don’t work so well here. Let me update them”, now he’s a threat to my identity. I don’t identify as someone with a penis, I identify as A MAN, and I have bundled my penis in with a whole host of other ideas like liking beer and action movies. By claiming that you can be a man without having a penis, he has now eroded at something I perceive as an integral part of myself, and that makes me much less likely to be accepting of him. I’ve held too tightly to my view of the world, and he’s the one who got caught in the crossfire.

Obviously the above is mostly naive idealism. I don’t really think that that if everyone perfectly followed the advice in this post we’d all be wonderful and inclusive. Sure would be nice if it were true though. Also I don’t think that labels are the sole source of transphobia (there are plenty, and many of the others are a lot darker). This is more… how transphobia could arise amongst otherwise well intentioned people.

But I think a lot of biphobia actually does arise this way. Not all of it by any means, but I’d be astonished if it weren’t a large contributor.

We’ve two sides, gay and straight. Each has quite a lot invested in that label, and because they’ve formed lines along those labels they’ve got the whole baggage coming in along with it. While you can express aspects of the label more or less strongly (see “straight-acting”. Sigh), you’ve at the very least likely bundled “Is attracted to (gender)” in with “Is not attracted to (other gender)” in with your identity when you pulled in the label.

Then you have the bisexual (or pansexual if you prefer) people in the middle going “Hey, what about me? I like men and women. That’s cool, right?”

And unfortunately it’s really not cool. We’ve taken this whole complicated configuration of the world and boiled it down to “I’m straight” or “I’m gay”, and firmly associated our identities with those amorphous blobs of ideas, so when you come into the middle of it and go “Hey, I’m like you except for this thing you’ve very strongly identified as not being”, you’re now chipping away at our identity.

When you look at it this way it’s… understandable how a lot of this behaviour arrives. Not desirable, not excusable, forgivable given change perhaps, but certainly understandable. Imagine how you feel when your identity is threatened, when people deny your experiences. It’s really very unpleasant – it’s at best hurtful, and when done en masse it can be downright soul destroying.

When you do that to someone just by existing, it’s not surprising their reactions to you are a bit hostile.

The solution here is of course not that you should stop existing. Nor is it to deny your nature.

The solution is that people should stop being so weird about labels.

Keep using them by all means. They’re wonderfully useful things. We couldn’t function as a society without them.

Just… maybe think twice about letting them into your identity. Your labels are how you describe yourself, not who you are. Sometimes you’ll discover that those descriptions aren’t working out so well, or that they need to be far more inclusive than you thought they were. Try not to fight it. It’s how labels are supposed to work.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, Open sourcing my brain, rambling nonsense on by .

Boycotting kickstarter

If you haven’t noticed recently, there was a pretty loathsome kickstarter project funded recently. TLDR, rapey (or at least advocating of rape. I have no personal evidence that he has ever committed rape, but it would be unsurprising given what he preaches) pick-up artist uses kickstarter to fund rape advocating pick up artistry handbook. Kickstarter have this pointed out to them and basically say “Sorry, nothing we can do about it”.

Confession: I was probably just going to roll my eyes at this and move on.

Then I read Jeff Kunzler’s take on this. In particular, I quote:

This is a large part of why you see women saying men cannot be feminists. Because they will say they support women, call themselves feminists, tweet about how much they hate misogynists, and when it comes to nerd bullshit, hypercapitalism, and being a proud consumer instead of a stand-up person, they will sell women out and continue to support a company that has profited from enabling rapists. Kickstarter made money off of Ken Hoinsky and the pathetic misogynists that donated to his projects. There is no cause, no purpose, no object worth supporting more than standing up to the thousands of years of misogyny and violence against women in our history. Worse more so that people like Ken and Kickstarter found a way to fucking profit off of telling men to force women to touch their genitals without their consent.

You know what? Fair point. Mea culpa. I (not personally, but as part of a group) have been correctly called on unacceptable behaviour. I will now stop engaging in said behaviour.

I’ve never been the most active user of Kickstarter, but I have funded a few things on it. As of now, I am no longer a Kickstarter user at all. I’ve deleted my account. There are other crowd funding sites, and I don’t need to be using one which supports this kind of filth (I would probably do this even if there were not other crowdfunding sites, but I admit it would be a harder choice).

But…

The thing about boycotts, is they only work if after the company has changed their ways you go back to them. Otherwise what will happen is that they will simply consider you not part of their target demographic and go after the large body of people who just don’t give enough of a shit. By returning to them after they have fixed their behaviour you are providing a positive incentive for change.

So I’m precommitting to creating a new Kickstarter account and using it to fund something as long as the following two conditions are met:

  1. A complete apology is issued for this. No “I’m sorry people were offended” bullshit non-apologies need enter. The apology must contain words to the effect of “We’re really sorry. We fucked up. This should not have happened, and it’s totally our fault that it did”
  2. They issue a unilateral promise to not permit similar activity in future when it is brought to their attention

(I think the ship has now sailed on blocking the money going to the rape manual, otherwise I would include that too. As such I’m willing to label it merely a very unpleasantly learned lesson and hope they actually learned it)

If they do issue that promise and go back on it, I will consider them to be irreparably corrupt, delete my account again and never go back.

I think the course of action I am taking is an extremely reasonable one, and I would encourage you to take it too. Kickstarter is an organisation that is very directly about voting with your wallet. Lets use ours to tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and they need to do better.

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Some ill thought out musings about identity

Up front warning: Please read this post carefully. I am exploring viewpoints, not espousing them.

Second up front warning: All of this is very amateurish thoughts on the subject. Other people have no doubt thought more deeply and more sensibly on the subject than I am.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me as a kid.

I was playing by myself in the garden. Running around, jumping, etc. Energetic “I’m too young to know about getting tired” kid stuff.

One of my jumps was… surprisingly high. Not like “Leaps tall buildings in a single bound” high, but still unreasonably so: Maybe a few times my height.

That was pretty cool, so clearly I needed to try it again.

After some practice, I found I could basically “push” off the ground, and it would give me a huge boost to my jump. It was an action that felt a little bit like extending your hands downwards and shoving, but not quite. I couldn’t get it to work reliably, and it had an annoying tendency to fail to work when I was nervous about it (e.g. when trying to show it to other people), but I could get it to work about one time in 5 normally.

Then something really cool happened. I was doing a particularly high jump, and at the top of it it felt like something in my push just caught, and rather than coming back down to earth I just kept going up. I found I could use the push to control my height and direction pretty easily, and pretty soon I was merrily flying around. This was exactly as awesome as you’d expect.

Obviously, none of this actually happened.

Or rather, it did happen, but I was asleep at the time. I got this dream a lot, it felt incredibly real, and it had extremely consistent rules and mechanisms for how it worked. It even came with its own built in explanation for why I couldn’t seem to do it when awake (that I couldn’t make it work reliably in the first place).

It’s not like I actually believed I could fly when I was awake. I knew the difference between dreams and reality. But you know that thing where you have an incredibly vivid dream about a mundane thing and you wake up and you’re not 100% sure if you’re remembering a dream or a reality until you’ve been awake for a bit longer and sorted the details out? It was a lot like that. There were a lot of mornings where I had to think hard to remember whether or not I could fly.

And, at some fundamental level, I still kinda believe that I can.

I mean, I know, physics. Also biology. Science in general is basically conspiring to ruin my fun here. I know with 100% certainty that I do not possess the ability to fly, but there’s still that nagging feeling that it’s there.

This feels fundamentally different from just fantasizing about being able to fly. I’d love to be able to teleport, or to read minds, or any one of a million super powers that comics have told us are totally a thing people can do, but there’s no sense that I should be able to (actually I have much the same feeling that I should be able to move things about with my mind, for much the same reasons. I similarily have no actual belief that I can do this). It’s not that I want to be able to fly, it’s that it feels like I should be able to fly.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, this all started with a discussion the other night with my friend, Kat Matfield (who is very good at forcing me to think about things).

I like to form mental models of how people I disagree with could think by seeing if I can imagine a way to adjust my beliefs to agree with them. This is not really intended to produce accurate mental models – I don’t need to make predictions off them, and I don’t expect predictions made off them to be correct. Their goal is to take a position that I cannot imagine a reasonable person holding and turn it into one I can imagine a reasonable person holding. It forces me to take them seriously, and thus means that if I need to engage with their beliefs there’s a better chance that I’ll actually try to understand where they’re coming from rather than just dismiss them out of hand.

The subject of Otherkin came up (I’ll get to how later), so naturally I felt the need to come up with a way in which their beliefs were plausible.

What are their beliefs? Well. It’s a collective term for people who believe they’re not actually human. Examples include people who believe they are elves and people who believe they are animals. Other related believes are multiples (who believe they are multiple people), fictives (who believe they are specific fictional characters) and factives (who believe they are specific other real people).

I can’t really figure out what would cause me to believe one of these things. However the flying thing feels analogous: It is (sortof) a belief about myself that does not correspond to physical reality.

This feels like a good starting point. If I can justify claiming that flying is part of my identity, I feel like otherkin and their ilk become plausible even without sharing their specific belief. Are flyingkin a thing? I don’t know. I don’t really care. The goal is a working analogy, not true versimilitude.

So let’s see where we can go with this.

I have this innate feeling that I can fly. Is it thus reasonable to say that being able to fly is part of my identity?

Well, no, because I don’t actually believe I can fly.

I can more or less imagine coming up with plausible excuses for that. Like maybe technology has stolen all the magic from the world or something, and that’s what’s stopping me from flying. But I don’t really believe that either, and I’ve trained myself well enough and know what belief in belief likes that I don’t have any real way of imagining believing that that current-me wouldn’t just label that belief “And then I became stupid”, which rather defeats the object of this experiment.

So instead I’m going to take a different tack and question the nature of identity.

Now lets talk about gender.

Suppose, for the moment, that gender reassignment surgery was physically impossible (or, less drastically, someone has a medical condition that prevents them from having it). Suppose they nevertheless consider themselves as being a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth. Do we consider this valid?

Well, yes.

Trans* is not dependent on gender reassignment. We (well, many of us) have accepted that gender is a social construct distinct from sex, and that your gender is a matter of personal choice. Many people who identify as a gender which is distinct from the sex they were assigned at birth have not and will never have reassignment surgery, and that’s fine.

I’m treading on eggshells a little bit here, so I just want to remind you to read carefully again. The above is what I believe. Nothing that follows should be taken to mean otherwise (even the later bits where I start to explore how one might disagree with this point of view).

Now… here’s the thing. The fact that we have decided that gender and sex are distinct things is itself a social construct. Neither “gender” nor “sex” are real things. They are fairly fuzzy and complicated labels for things, and historically they are labels which have had the same meaning.

When we decided to split “gender” from “sex” we took a label that included a mix of roughly correlated social, mental and physical traits and split it into two labels. One covered the mental and social traits (who you are and how you present), one covering the physical one (the implementation details of your body).

And not everyone is on board with this split. Many people just don’t understand that it’s a thing, many people actively disagree with it (more on the latter later).

The result is that if you talk to one of these people and say “I am male”, they hear a much larger set of implications (including “I have a penis”) than you might have intended to convey.

Is it possible that we’re in the same boat as this person? That if I were to say “I am a flying person” and you were to hear this as “I can literally fly. Wheee!” it would be the same as if I were to say “I am male” and you were to hear this as “I have a penis”? (It happens that you would have reached a correct conclusion in the latter case, but that doesn’t make the inference valid).

If the ability to fly in some way feels part of me, and we have already accepted that identity is a concept that is only loosely connected to the physical concepts from which it appears to originate, is it unreasonable of me to say “I identify as a flying person”? Or it is unreasonable of you to reject that?

To be honest, I don’t know. In practice, I can’t shake the feeling that anyone who tells me that being able to fly is part of their identity is just making shit up. But I’m aware that “making shit up” is also what many trans people are accused of, so I feel like I should at the very least treat that reaction as a warning sign to be questioned.

In the interests of disclosure: I have met someone in the past who believed she was a fairy. I don’t know if she identified as otherkin or had come to the conclusion independently. I (think I) stopped short of being a complete asshole about it, but I was certainly rather less charitable than I might have been about it.

I should also say that I rather expect all this beautiful theorising to be ruined by the arrival of actual otherkin telling me that no they literally believe that elves are a real thing and they have magical powers. I draw the line at seeing empirically false viewpoints.

I actually came at this line of reasoning from the other side: Trying to get inside the heads of people who do not accept the validity of trans people.

To a certain extent, all of the above can be regarded as a reductio ad absurdum for transgender. It’s very easy to see how (possibly just by finding myriad actual examples of people doing this. I haven’t actually looked, but I’m sure someone has done it for real) someone could make the slippery slope argument “If you accept that gender identity is a different thing from physical sex, it’s only a few short steps from allowing people to believe they’re elves!”

I don’t buy this argument. As I’m fond of saying, the problem with slippery slope arguments is that once you start accepting them you open yourself up to accepting all sorts of other fallacies too.

But it’s easy to perceive this as a sort of sliding scale, where at the one end you’ve got people who don’t acknowledge that identity is fluid enough to support your gender being a distinct thing from your physical sex and at the other end you have people who believe thinking you’re an elf is totally OK.

And if the elf example doesn’t do it for you, it’s likely that some more extreme example does. Consider someone who is a factive (they believe they are another real person) who tells you that they really identify as being you. Yes, you personally. They just feel such a connection, it’s as if you’re one person. I don’t know about you, but my answer would pretty much be “No, you’re not. Fuck right off and don’t come back”. Or imagine a cis straight white guy telling you that sure they’ve got all this privilege and all, but they really identify as being a trans black lesbian. It’s hard not to react to that by thinking the person in question is a bit of an asshole.

The point I’m making is that there’s a line to draw. This line is probably fuzzy and movable, and there are going to be some massive gray areas but you’re probably drawing it somewhere. Once you’ve accepted that it’s not so hard to imagine how you might draw the line in some different place.

A thing to note is that “a different place” does not necessary mean that there is a single linear scale. One person might think that multiples are fine, but fictives and people who think they’re elves are just way too out there, but anything where you’re identifying as a real thing is OK. Another person might go “Well, I don’t get it, but if it makes you happy that’s cool” to fictives and otherkin but go “No, sorry. You are not transracial. You’re just being an asshole”. The space of identities is murky and complicated and a lot more than a single scale from more extreme to less extreme.

For me the boundary is basically defined by three things, in order of decreasing importance:

  1. Are you causing harm to you or others?
  2. Do you believe things which are empirically false?
  3. Can I take your claim seriously? (I’m not proud of this one and don’t really think it should be a factor, but in practice it ends up being one anyway)

The empirically false thing requires some further refinement.

“I believe I should be able to fly” is not an empirically false statement, regardless of whether it is impossible for me to acquire the ability to do so. “I believe I can fly” is one, and is likely to be dangerous. Similarly “I believe I have a penis” may be an empirically false statement (though is probably none of your business if we’re having an argument about it! Also, it’s been pointed out to me that due to deformities and intersex conditions, it literally may be a matter of debate as to whether or not what a given person has counts as a penis), but “I believe I should have a penis” is not one.

This then leads to the interesting consequence that you may hear a statement as an empirical prediction when it is not one. If you hear “I am a man” as “I have a penis”, you may be hearing a statement you believe to be empirically false but which is in fact not because you are using a different definition of terms from the person making the claim. Care is required.

That aside, there is a single overarching thing which trumps all of these:

Is this a situation in which it’s OK for me to express an opinion on this?

This doesn’t affect what my opinion is, but it may affect how I express it. I am not the identity police. I am an opinionated know-it-all, so I probably err on the side of expressing an opinion where I shouldn’t, but if it’s someone I don’t know very well then making a judgment about whether they’re causing harm to themselves or others is rather tricky. For all I know their beliefs about their identity are a coping mechanism that is preventing them from doing far more destructive things and simply blundering in, flailing around and going “I know you believe you’re an elf, but have you considered science?” is going to cause far more harm than good. I may also be a poor judge of harm. Some people think trans people cause themselves harm by not accepting their “real” (i.e. assigned) gender. I know they’re wrong, but how do I know I don’t have similar misconceptions?

At the same time, seeing obvious harm and going “Nope, none of my business”, is not cool either. Sometimes interventions are needed, and sometimes people close to the situation are too close to see it, so this is another grey area.

I like to end my articles on solid, punchy, conclusions, but I don’t really have one here. Identity is complicated, and these were some of my thoughts on the subject. Please don’t shout at me, but please do correct me if I’ve got something horribly wrong or am deeply misguided.

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If Programming Language Articles Were People

…then the one I’m about to talk about would be some guy going “I’m not sexist, but those women sure are difficult to work with aren’t they?”

Tim Chevalier asked me to document my calling out of sexism. I was already semi-planning to, but to be honest I was probably going to put it off due to the afore-mentioned crushing feeling of awkwardness. I’ll try not to do that, so this is my first account. It actually happened before the publishing of the last post and the difficulty I felt doing this was somewhat the spur for said post.

I’m going to establish an anonymity policy here though: Anything I mention is going to be at most as public as its source. Something in public on the internet I’m happy to link to and name and shame, something that happens over private email I may reproduce but I’m absolutely not going to name. This isn’t an ideal policy from a combating sexism point of view, but I think it hits a nice “Not being a complete asshole about it” middle ground. I may revise this policy later, but until I explicitly say otherwise this is what I’m going to do.

A developer acquaintance recently sent a link around to me and a few others. It was If Programming Languages Were Women. On writing this, I am very pleased to note that uTest have published a nice apology. So, well done on that. Thanks.

So uTest have handled this well in the end, but this is about the person who sent me the article. This was my response to them, written very much with the assumption that he probably just hadn’t really thought things through and trying to explain why it was a problem:

Yeah, sorry, this is a call out.

This sort of article isn’t really ok. It’s not that it’s wildly
offensive or anything – it’s not really (even if the first three women
described respectively have “serious issues”, are “seriously fugly”
and used to be “slow and a bit ditzy”. Nice).

The problem is that there is a widespread culture of “Just us guys” in
the software world. This isn’t surprising given the gender
distribution, but it in turn makes that gender distribution worse – if
you’re a woman in the industry you are constantly being given
reminders that you’re different, not really part of the core group,
and ultimately that can drive you away.

Imagine you’re a female developer and you read this article. What do
you think reading it? Do you think “Ha ha. You’re right! Programming
languages are totally like women”. Or do you think “Oh, right, thanks.
I forgot for a second there that I’m not really one of the normal
developers, I’m just a woman who happens to also write some code.
Appreciate the reminder”.

Female software developers are far more likely to drop out of the
industry than male ones, and things like this are a large part of why:
When you’re constantly being reminded you’re not actually part of the
group, it’s not terribly surprising you decide to leave the group.

There’s a big gender problem in the software world. Let’s not make it
worse than it is.

(What I am describing here is Othering, or maybe the experience of a Grunch. I thought it would probably be unhelpful to use or explain those words, as being confronted with jargon from an unfamiliar discipline when being told they’re wrong can sometimes make people defensive. I have no idea if this was the right call).

His response was less than ideal:

Agreed, wholeheartedly. Sorry if this didn’t enhance your day as intended.

More girls in our industry would be terrific. However my experience has not been the greatest on that front. I had a coworker that cried when she fell on the wrong side of a dispute over design; that behaviour gets old very quickly and is very unprofessional. Can’t imagine a guy using that particular tactic — with the exception of Steve Jobs perhaps.

Nevertheless, I have subsequently interviewed and offered positions based on talent to female job applicants and without prejudice.

I thought the comedy value and creative merit of the article was worth sharing. I wouldn’t blog this personally. but saying that, I don’t broadcast any of my random thoughts and observations.

I… really didn’t know how to respond to this, so in the end I left it at a single link:

How it works

I mean, I’ve worked with some remarkably difficult people in the past. Most of them have been men. Am I to conclude that men sure are difficult to work with, aren’t they?

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