We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

When I sit in this place, here, and create words that you can read, there, without me, we are separated not just by physical distance but by the silencing of our bodies. You cannot read my clothing or my skin, my sweat or my hands, my hair or my posture. I cannot infuse my words with voice-tells. You must read it all just through these written words, and the places where I put them.

I cannot escape responsibility for knowing this, even as my own mistakes condition me to forgive others easily for not thinking before they write, even as I want to claim authority over how others interpret my words. This level of scrutiny on one’s words is uncomfortable, because it is revealing; powerful, because it is rare; draining, because it demands reciprocal attention to the crafting of one’s words.

None of us can be careful with our spoken or written words all the time, unless we silence ourselves most of the time. Yet we remember most vividly what we craft ourselves, or what we actively digest with others; it is natural, then, to seek out spaces where we can speak most easily without fear of harm to others or to ourselves. The more privileges one has to protect oneself from the consequences of speaking, the more likely one is not to be sensitive of where one speaks, and how context may infuse one’s literal words with other layers of meaning. The more privileges one has, the less one has to care about how others without one or more of those privileges would understand one’s words.

It is a very sad fact that nine times out of ten, people with privilege, who are exercising that privilege in a way that makes other people feel uncomfortable, will not hear the fact that they are making other people uncomfortable until it’s pointed out to them by someone with the same privilege.

I speak as someone with the privilege (as it is in most contexts) of being white. I speak with the shield of being American, and affluent enough to buy my own laptop; I speak with the amplification of a strong public education, and the clarity given by the privilege of ‘formal’ training. And because these privileges give me the further privilege of being able to afford to care about how my actions affect the world; because my experiences tell me that care for others is an investment in care for myself; because I am just wise enough to listen to those who foresee a minority-majority America where whiteness will not be so strong a privilege, and white people will be forced to care about how colorful people understand their words; because I am a human being, damnnit, and I want to be a decent one; because of all these reasons and more, I’ve gone venturing into contexts where whiteness is not a default asset, and where if I abuse that or any privilege I have, I can and likely will be called out. And I’ve learned again and again that I have so much more to learn, and to be wary about the cost of my learning on those from whom I learn, and to be careful of the costs to myself and others of attempting to teach.

To go where one or more of my privileges is not a privilege makes speaking harder. Negative feedback often hurts more, because it often reveals uncomfortable truths about my words, even though I might have put more than my usual effort into crafting them. Yet spending time in those spaces sensitizes me to context, trains me to be more articulate, teaches me to question the grooves that words make in my mind.

What really frustrates me about this dismissal of our words, spoken online, is this assumption that change is something that only physical labour and pots of money can bring about, because the real problems are only written on bodies—starving, malnourished, criminal, diseased, unclothed. As though racism has nothing to do with the mind.

Words are the shackles that bind our minds to the slavery, imperialism, colonialism, inferiority and self-hatred propagated by a White oppressive dominant discourse.

But words are also the knives we use to cut ourselves free.

Today is a day for praise song for my teachers and my peers, for those who are willing to pick apart fail and to fail better. Praise song for fans of color, praise song for colorful worlds. Praise song for learning oneself through being different and embracing difference, praise song for identities strong enough to change and grow through questioning. Praise song for the difficult conversations, and the poetry of being human.

Praise song for being uncomfortable because of truth, and listening to it anyway.

x-posted

[info]tablesaw points out [info]tehdely ‘s intriguing post On Amazon Failure, Meta-Trolls, and Bantown in his own post here. Not sure I buy all that, but the concept of ‘bantown’ is certainly worthwhile food for thought.

[info]rydra_wong passes on a link to a post quoting directly from a sales rep email: Feministing: Amazon Rep: This was not a “glitch”
[ETA: Anthony Heitch offers an international angle: Re: Amazon and The Gay (French) Glitch, Mike Daisey Responds ]

And a blog on the LA Times offers a final thought that sums it all up to me:

But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it’s a bit beside the point. It’s the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can’t be a good idea.

What does it mean when a company like Google or Amazon doesn’t provide unbiased service the way most people assume it does? How does one access information if one doesn’t know it exists in the first place? I think what we’re seeing here is not just an incident of discrimination or trolling or customer targeting gone bad, but a spotlight on trust built on shaky ground. How can we ordinary, non-l33t skilled citizens of the internet verify that the Big [Potentially Bad] Companies are providing the services they say they provide in the way they claim? If most of us don’t even fully understand how the internet works, or how binary translates into pixels on a screen, or how Google tweaks our search results to the location of our IP addresses, how do we know what they can or can’t hide? What’s the limit of what ‘they’ can do, and where are the incentives for not abusing that power? If the financial crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that the non-military branches of the government don’t pay enough to hire IT people who can keep up with all the innovations of the financial-secter IT folks, which suggests that government regulators are also lagging well behind the IT innovators at big companies like Amazon or Google.

Who can we trust? It’s not just a matter of character, but also how refined one is at seeing patterns, and analyzing the truthworthiness of various information services. So perhaps the real question we should be asking is this: who can we trust to investigate information and give a shot at analysizing it before they pass it on? Who can we consistently trust for accurate information?

All this reminds me of some thoughts I’ve been having recently about Facebook. Sometimes, when the people who run Facebook make changes, it causes a big splash. Think about when the News Feeds and Mini-New Feeds first came out, and the immediate concerns that came out about privacy, especially considering the interlinking between Facebook and the cookies of other sites; remember the story about the guy who bought a diamond ring for his girlfriend online, and had that show up in his Facebook feed? Protest mainly consisted of a Facebook group, and the company’s reaction was to make a few minor concessions, and otherwise ride out the storm. Now think about the Facebook ads you see when you’re logged in. Do they correspond to networks you belong to, such as a particular city or college? So far, I don’t think they’ve been linked to, say, the keywords in your various interests catagories–yet.

People who’ve talked to me about Facebook in person know that I’m fond of saying that Facebook is an online social clearinghouse for information, a social resume, if you will. In the world of internet archives, where no one (except Google) can make information disappear entirely once it gets out on the web, Facebook offers us a place where we have some control over our online image. We provide our interests, before someone else can do so for us. We have some power over what photos are associated with us via de-tagging, though it requires constant maintainence. And in turn, we provide all this information not just to our friends and potential social contacts, but also the company that runs the website. Of course they’re going to make use of that information. The question is whether we, as in the public at broad, notice, and whether we have sufficient leverage to demand limits on how that information is used. Facebook’s more recent changes have been made more gradually; aside from a few grumbles here and there at the really obvious ones, such as changes in site layout, no one seems to be paying much attention.

Some wrap-up thoughts on ‘#AmazonFail’:
People organize around their social networks. When there are trustworthy people willing to document and update on all the information available re: an explosive issue, others will feel comfortable passing the information from one of their social networks to another, and from one medium of networking to another. This means that organizing can happen very, very fast, but it is also vulnerable to credulity-fatigue and trolling. If a campaign is successful, however, trust is built in the information linkeage, and organizing on a new topic with the same people can happen twice as fast. I suspect that part of the reason #AmazonFail built so quickly into a Twitter storm is that it spread not just through author/reader networks and LBGT organizations in general, but it was also championed by some people who distinguished themselves well in RaceFail ’09. Months of very hard conversations and constant analyses built up an unusual amount of trust and confidence in a particular set of new or expanded networks. No orc hordes in sight, but definitely a strong, articulate group of people are emerging who are willing to translate analysis and outrage into activism and community organizing. Community-based companies like Verb Noire and Dreamwidth are hopefully just the start.

I believe that ignorance is not bliss, and it is definitely not a virtue.

When a CEO or other leader claims ignorance of his subordinates’ wrongdoing, that is grounds for incompetence, not innocence. When parents keep secrets from their children, they are leaving them not in bliss but in wariness and uncertainty, or at best in obliviousness. We call ignorance bliss when we learn something unpleasant and wish viscerally we did not know it, when our assumptions about ourselves, our world, or people we love or respect are challenged or disproved, and we question our judgment. We call ignorance bliss in comparison to shock and self-questioning. We call ignorance bliss when we wish to turn back time.

A lack of ignorance on a subject is not the same as knowing all the details. A parent can keep her child informed about where babies come from or other ‘adult’ topics or issues without rubbing his face in all the gritty details, or forcing him to assimilate complex concepts too fast. By treating even children with respect, by not hiding the ambiguity of the world or lying about uncomfortable subjects, one allows people around oneself to learn and grow at their own pace. If someone is mature enough to ask, it is wrong to put obstacles in their way. You don’t have an obligation to answer, especially to a stranger or to someone asking in a rude or disrespectful manner, but those who don’t speak aren’t heard. I’d rather speak than stay silent, most times; I ask questions, I offer theories, I seek to define myself and the world around me through respectful conversation with others and knowledge-seeking in my own right.

Ignorance is a state where the knowledge is out there, and one doesn’t know it because one hasn’t looked or tried to learn it, or someone is keeping that knowledge secret from you. This definition doesn’t imply that other people owe you an education, unless they voluntarily take on the role of teacher. Nor do you owe anyone anything but basic courtesy, respect, and the self-awareness not to abuse your privileges, as a general rule of thumb. But I believe that both willful ignorance and keeping secrets are generally corrosive to the human soul and to one’s relations with others.

Emotional closeness comes from trust and shared vulnerability. Even when one keeps secrets to protect people, it takes a strong emotional toll. It implicitly betrays the trust received by hiding that one has closed up part of oneself, which cheapens any vulnerability one offers in return. If one keeps secrets from oneself or to protect oneself, one loses the chance to incorporate knowledge from those secrets into one’s identity and one’s world.

As for willful ignorance—why keep the world narrow? I think the political and social landscape of America during the Bush years is an excellent example of how willful ignorance, secrets, and abuse of public trust corrode not just individuals but communities, countries, and our shared future.

I believe that everyone ought to be able to learn at their own pace, but that ideal requires that society encourage curiosity and not mire itself in excessive self-deception. It requires society to ensure that everyone can find the time and resources for self-education, and to avoid privileging a formal classroom education over other routes to expanding one’s capacities. It requires a culture that values knowledge, a society secure enough to question and to answer, to look and to find, again and again.

The story of the Garden of Eden is a classic case for the so-called bliss of ignorance. Life in the Garden is free from worry or physical needs; God has created an environment where food, shelter, and companionship are freely available, but information is not. Adam and Eve are free to create their own knowledge, free to name the animals and categorize the world around them, but God does not share the knowledge of Good and Evil. God reveals its existence, but only in the context of forbidding them access to it. It is left to God’s creation, the snake, to encourage them not just to go confirm its existence, but to ingest it, absorb it into themselves and their knowledge of the world. And it is only when Eve and Adam make the choice of knowledge that God judges them ready for the outside world, and ready to be parents.

We are not born of our fathers’ ribs but of our mothers’ wombs. Knowledge is not painless; seeding knowledge may be fun and exciting, but releasing it into the world in a form that is ready to be independent of you is anything but. And perhaps it is no mistake that the act of acquiring moral knowledge is often know as the Original Sin. The word we translate as ‘sin’ comes from a Greek word for missing the mark, as in an arrow that does not quite hit the target. The knowledge we value most is the sort not easy to hit, the kind that requires many arrows sent towards the target, and the willingness to miss, to deal with the consequences responsibly, and to try again.

I believe that knowledge has worth, and that ignorance is a vacuum; I believe that everyone has a right to seek knowledge and the right to learn at the their own pace, and the obligation not to let exercising those rights retard the growth of others.

x-posted

I didn’t go out to work in a homeless shelter today, or paint a house, or do any physical action that could be contributed to me. My act of public service today consisted of wading back into a very heated discussion occurring near my other corner of the blogosphere about cultural appropriation and racism that grew out of certain published authors blogging about their thoughts on ‘writing the other.’

Some of the commentators on both sides have gotten very nasty. Some people I really respect have said some pretty blatantly outrageous things, and are too busy defending themselves and jumping unasked to the defense of others who were willing to say, ‘you’re right, I’m sorry, you’re right and I was wrong,’ to wake up and hear themselves.

I believe these conversations are important to have. I believe that participating them in a patient, polite, open way without compromising one’s essential values is vitally important, and that too many people refuse to talk at all, or agree to disagree too fast, on controversial issues. I believe that part of what went so wrong in the past eight years is that people put their heads down rather than stir the pot among their families, their friends, and their communities, local and national. Argument for the sake of argument, and controversy for the sake of controversy is generally obnoxious, but change won’t come without a little civic engagement.

I think I’ve done my part today with words.* In the future, I’ll try to make sure all my words are matched with actions, but I think the words are important too. As ‘coffeeandink’ wisely said in one of the innumerable threads I’ve been reading, the stories we tell ourselves in our fiction are the stories we tell in our blogs, our newspapers, our public conversations. Words have power. They have the power to change how we see the world, or to reinforce our perspectives, and we in turn have the power to shape the world with which we interact. Not being sensitized to the implications of how certain words and actions might fit into broader social trends is a privilege. Unless society changes, that privilege won’t go away no matter what you personally do. But the privilege that comes with being a thoughtful human being who cares about whether her words might hurt other people is that you can learn how not to exercise the privileges that automatically come with being white or high caste or whatever other characteristics to which your privileges are tied.

*And no, I don’t get a cookie for doing so, because that’s not what an act of public service is about. In a very real sense, these conversations were not about me, shouldn’t be about me, and I didn’t do what I did because I was trying to prove that I am an ally. I want to be and to act as an ally, but one doesn’t wade into such emotionally sensitive conversations where other people are being hurt in order to re-frame the conversations around oneself, which is what trying to prove (and thus implicitly asking if one has earned the right to so call) oneself an ally is. However, since this journal is my space where I share how I see and interact with the world around me, and today is a day when my President-elect, who tomorrow will be my new president, asked all of us American citizens to go forth and do public service, I am drawing attention to what I have done. I do so because I consider it my act of public service and I want to encourage my readers to expand their definition of what public service is beyond the physical and the blatantly visible. When we make public service a message in a broader conversation about what citizenship means, an act of public service is both a public statement and a gift freely given. It says: it’s not all about me; it’s only about me in the sense that I/’me’ is a member of a broader community, and that you are too.

x-posted

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