Blog, Commentary

Ashley Madison: It’s not really about infidelity.

(This post was first published on Medium.com)

About a week ago, I posted the following tweet:

In the week since a lot of new information has come to light. There has been a second, larger dump with source code and the CEO’s email. We know about “family values” activist Josh Duggar’s account on the site (for which he seems to be more apologetic than, you know, molesting his sisters). We know about women and members of the LGBTQ population living in repressive regimes whose lives have been put at serious risk because of the leak. We know there are already mercenary “security experts” that are using the public’s fear to harvest email addresses for scams. We are starting to see real-world fall-out, including at least two possible suicides that have been linked to this.

In other words, things have gotten a lot more complicated.

This issue is about much more than infidelity. It’s about our vicious delight in negativity, the inevitable failure of computer security and computer literacy, the collateral damage of schadenfreude, the normalization of vigilante justice, and a collective desire for black-and-white judgments.

This is going to get long. Bear with me.

Morality is hard, you guys

I thought about titling this entire post “Ashley Madison: morality is really hard”. Because let’s face it: morality is really, really hard. As much as we’d like to pretend that there are black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us answers for humanity’s multitudes, reality is rarely that clean.

One of my favourite quotes is from the novel The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor:

“It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.”

The only criticism I have of that quote is that it charges the crime of being un-self-aware only onto “monsters”, as though there were a clear delineation between who is and isn’t objectively a monster, and which group ought to learn the truth of their own monstrosity. I would amend it to say that it’s the human condition that none of us perceive ourselves as monsters even when we are engaged in acts that may be monstrous, because few of us think of any individual moment in our lives as being the sole representation of our person.

The one thing you can accurately say about someone who has chosen to cheat on a partner in a monogamous relationship is that they reneged on their promise of monogamy to their partner. That is the only information we have about that person, absenting additional context. And yet, even the language we use — to “cheat” — immediately attaches a judgment of dishonesty and malicious intent to the act, fairly or not. In many parts of the world and in many religions, the bond of marriage is considered sacrosanct, so it’s no wonder we’re primed to instinctively abhor and mistrust those who violate that bond even when we don’t have all the facts.

I won’t pretend that cheating is something that happens accidentally. There are always a series of conscious decisions that lead to infidelity, and I don’t believe anybody when they say that they “couldn’t help it”.

What I am going to say, however, is that infidelity is not always an indicator of moral depravity. It’s not even always an indicator of poor decision-making for that individual. Few people enter a relationship with the intent of betraying their partner’s trust, but fewer people still can predict the future. I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people are trying to do the best they can, the best they know how.

Sometimes people turn to infidelity because they were in abusive relationships, and that external influence is what gave them the strength to get out. Sometimes people turn to infidelity because they are in social environments that do not allow them to be open with their sexuality – closeted LGBTQ folks, women in repressive religious environments who married young, people in all sorts of social contexts where divorce is socially stigmatized. Sometimes people turn to infidelity because they are trying desperately to stay in a failed marriage for the sake of kids or elderly parents. Are they all terrible people?

And sure, sometimes people turn to infidelity because they have poor coping mechanisms, don’t know how to address problems in their primary relationship, are too afraid or too complacent to end things, or are simply selfishly prioritizing a momentary desire over the trust of their partner. Sometimes people really are mean-spirited and selfish towards their loved ones, and give no care to the hurt they cause. Still, does this mean that they deserve to have their privacy breached and their financial information aired, without due process? Do their names get put on some infidelity registry so that they are tainted forever by past mistakes, denied the chance to self-reflect and improve?

Should future employers be able to search for this information and use it to disqualify someone from employment? Should current employers be able to fire you for what you do in your private life? How Orwellian do we go?

Collateral damage

We already know that this hack is not a victimless crime. We already know that there are people whose lives are endangered by this. We know that there are fake accounts created by vindictive exes, because Ashley Madison doesn’t ask for email verification upon sign-up. We know there are people who signed up on a lark years ago and who never communicated with anyone. We know there are people who signed up while they were single. We know there are divorce attorneys, academic researchers, and journalists on there.

Hell, we even know that there are people who signed up for Ashley Madison to check up on a spouse they suspected of cheating. Talk about insult upon injury, right?

Let’s say we don’t care about any of those people. Let’s say that we assume that anyone whose information has been leaked truly deserves their fate.

What about their loved ones?

What about their partners, past and present? Do they deserve to have their names and lives dragged through the mud because of their partner’s indiscretions? Do they deserve to be confronted with the gut-punch of their partner’s past mistakes, now pulled to the present? What if their partner has genuinely, truly changed? What if their partner had cheated on someone else, and never them? Do we have the right to decide to destroy all these relationships in the name of vindictive schadenfreude?

What about their kids, associated with a billing address and a zip code and a last name? Do they deserve to be tarnished with this, too?

Hell, even in Josh Duggar’s situation there are victims:

Anna Duggar followed the rules that were imposed on her from the get-go and this is what she got in reward- a husband who she found out, in the span of 6 months, not only molested his own sisters, but was unfaithful to her in the most humiliating way possible […] What is Anna Duggar supposed to do? She can’t divorce because the religious environment she was brought up would blame her and ostracize her for it. Even if she would risk that, she has no education and no work experience to fall back on, so how does she support her kids?

And that’s the problem with vigilante justice, especially of the sort meted out by amoral hacker groups claiming to stand for social progress. It’s blind in the worst possible way. The Impact Group claims to be motivated by Avid Life Media’s admittedly atrocious behaviour towards customers data, and they did give ALM a chance to shut down the websites before the user data was posted publicly.

And yet, if your goal is to name and shame corporate practices regarding data security, it seems like maybe victimizing the people who rely on that security isn’t the best way to go. If you’re mad at ALM for treating their customers poorly, the best way to get back at them is probably not to hurt all of those customers and their family and friends. But when all you have is a security vulnerability hammer, everything looks like a data breach nail.

Thanks, patriarchy

We know that men and women cheat at approximately the same rates (warning: autoplay video), but the majority of users on Ashley Madison and Established Men were male. There’s a lot to unpack here in terms of gendered relationship models and who has the social and financial capital to initiate affairs, but I’d wager there’s just as much to unpack regarding the socialization of male mental health.

A study from the New England Research Institute showed that 66% of men rely on spouses as primary social support, and 10% of men have no such support at all*. This is in large part because most men have not been trained (and expected) since boyhood to perform the kind of emotional labour that results in lasting emotional bonds. After all, men aren’t supposed to have emotions. Widowers and male divorcees are much more socially disconnected than their female counterparts, having grown used to their partners managing their social life for them, and this isolation has profound implications on their physical health.

Under this toxic model of masculinity that discourages men from expressing emotional dissatisfaction and which deprives them of the tools to work through that dissatisfaction, we have to consider that in 66% of heterosexual relationships, the female party carries the burden of being the male party’s sole source of emotional support. Moreover, in 76% of all relationships, men don’t have anyone to turn to if their relationships go south. So what happens when we raise generations of men who don’t know how to process their emotions or ask for help, tell them that their masculinity is hinged upon their sexual prowess, push them all towards traditional social institutions whose main measure of success is their longevity, with partners who are expected to carry the emotional burden for two people?

Gee, I wonder.

Are the majority-male users of Ashley Madison blameless in their decisions to cheat? Are they helpless victims of their social environment? No, of course not. But social context matters, especially when peeling apart antisocial behaviour, and it’s really, really not as simple as “men are cheating bastards”.

Security and liberty and we who have neither

Troy Hunt is the mensch behind Have I Been Pwned, a website that lets you input your email address to see whether or not your information has been leaked in one of the many large-scale data breaches in the last handful of years. Yours is probably in there. Mine was: I was among Adobe’s network of 153 million users when hackers took down their database in 2013.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 16.03.20

Unsurprisingly, his users have turned to him in desperation in this crisis. Hunt has put together an incredibly detailed and heartbreaking summary of the emails he’s been getting for the past week. If you have ten minutes, it’s worth the read.

The one thing that keeps coming up in Hunt’s analysis of Ashley Madison users is just how bewildered and confused many of them are. They don’t understand Tor, they don’t really understand how the internet works, they definitely don’t grok data permanence, they haven’t read the terms of the websites they have signed up to (who could blame them), they’re concerned about everything affiliated with the email they used for AM (as well they should be), and for the most part they’re just terrified.

The Ashley Madison leak isn’t even the canary in the coal mine anymore when it comes to cybersecurity. At this point, canaries are at risk of extinction, all birds have fled the general area, and there’s a growing mountain of avian carcasses piling up at the entrance of the coal mine that we keep throwing a tarp over.

We are apparently entering an age where the question “what will happen to my information when this site gets hacked” is a very legitimate question you need to ask yourself every time you sign up for a new service, and the vast majority of us–myself included–are not equipped to answer that question.

There’s a major lack of computer literacy at play, here. It’s analogous to how many of us learn how to drive without ever learning how to change the oil…except if someone else could come siphon your engine oil and thereby somehow also gain access to all your mail and banking information. And also our governments demand that engine oil tanks be manufactured with a built-in leak so that they know where we are at all times. (I am full of terrible metaphors today.)

It’s especially interesting that this coincides with the recent controversy about Windows 10 automatically monitoring children’s internet traffic and sending the parents a summary report. On one hand, that feature seems like a creepy draconian intrusion of children’s privacy that could endanger–once again–LGBTQ youth and children in abusive homes. On the other hand, in an environment that prizes deregulation of speech, it’s up to the parents to keep an eye on what their kids are up to and protect them from the darker corners of the internet. Microsoft’s misstep may have been to make the system opt-out rather than opt-in, like Apple’s equivalent family setup, but can they really be faulted for trying to help parents monitor what kids get up to online for the sake of protecting them?

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe because it’s the exact same argument the US government makes about its “anti-terrorism” surveillance laws. These are the same surveillance laws that much of the voting public isapathetic about, because they still harbour the delusion that if you do nothing wrong there is nothing to fear about surveillance. They don’t grasp the incredibly complex social context of so many legal-but-stigmatized behaviours, our ever-changing standards and mores, that governments are made up of imperfect people who will use that data imperfectly, that anything that allows the government to keep tabs on its citizens can be exploited by malicious actors, that anything that sends parents info on child browsing behaviour can also send that browsing information elsewhere.

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photo credit: bhikku

These are problems I don’t have solutions for. I don’t think these are problems anyone will have a solution for, for a very long time. We’re nothing if not good at sticking our heads in the sand, and we will likely have to wait to see concrete consequences from widespread surveillance before doing something about it…if we do anything about it at all. Or maybe this surveillance state is just what we can expect in the future. If that’s the case, email addresses of people who may or may not have thought about cheating at some point in the past fourteen years are the least of our worries.

Ones-and-zeroes

Trust me, I get the desire for schadenfreude. In an increasingly scary environment where nobody’s data seems safe, where celebrities and Target shoppers alike can be targeted, there’s a certain comfort and poetic justice in there finally being a set of victims who seemingly deserve it. Just world fallacy meets centuries-old desire for vicious public humiliation in the glorious internet age, where communal consumption of negative viral content is often also the basis of community building and social capital. It’s the same in-group vs. out-group signaling we’ve always engaged in, except now the in-group is millions of people laughing at the other millions of victims of a large-scale data breach.

But the thing about justice and due process is that either it is applied equally, or it is applied not at all. Either stealing people’s data without their permission is bad, or it is not. We can’t pick and choose based on whether or not we like the victim, and we especially can’t pick and choose thirty million people who may or may not have engaged in behaviour that may or may not have been hurtful against whom to exercise our two minutes of hate.

There’s a lot to chew on and think about and react to with the Ashley Madison leak. But glee should not be one of those reactions. We are better than that.

Many thanks and much love to naxuu, zarq, and LoRichTimes for providing notes and feedback on this piece.

*This study is from 1997 and I couldn’t find a full-text of it so I couldn’t verify its sample size or methodology. I’m going to assume that the Harvard Medical School checks out its sources even if it’s just for an online zine. It seems to assume a heterosexual model, but if you know of any research about the distribution of emotional labour in male same-sex relationships please pass it along!

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Blog, Social Issues

Scattered thoughts about minimum wage

I got into a conversation about raising the minimum wage on a friend’s FB thread, and I am reposting my comments here cleaned up a bit so that text is not wasted. 

*

If you work 40 hours a week doing nothing but flipping burgers, or mopping floors, or making coffee, I see no conceivable reason why you should not make a living wage. Any argument that attempts to justify why someone working full time should be unable to support themselves is nothing but classist bullshit for “keeping the poor in their place”. Continue reading

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Blog, Commentary

Talking is not enough

Bell Let’s Talk always makes me super uncomfortable for reasons I can never quite articulate. Part of it is because I dislike a company advertising for itself on the backs of advocacy for mental health awareness. I get that this campaign is more effective at raising awareness across the country than Bell just silently throwing a whole gob of money at CAMH, but the ads don’t have to be so damn branded. (Note: I have similar issues with the Dove Campaign co-opting feminism. You didn’t start the conversation, you’re just benefiting from it. Yes, I am a cynical asshole.)

Part of it is also the nagging sense that we’re missing something, and moreover, that the thing we’re missing is being further obscured by a focus on talking.

Continue reading

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Blog, Whimsy

Types of Fictional Stories That Hit Me Right in the Feels: An Incomplete List

  1. Stories about good relationships between a parent and a child
  2. Stories about coming to terms with the imperfections of a parent
  3. Stories about searching for a place to call home, and finding it
  4. Stories about realizing that you are more rooted than you think
  5. Stories about the futile attempt to find happiness in the next adventure, always the next one
  6. Stories about love found in unlikely places between unlikely people
  7. Stories about love that grows over the course of an entire lifetime shared
  8. Stories about predestined love and the illusion of choice
  9. Stories about the ways in which we fail to live up to love
  10. Stories about being disillusioned about the people we love, and loving them anyway
  11. Stories about helping others despite lacking the means to do so
  12. Stories about storytelling that changes the life of the storyteller

Astute readers may notice that this means I basically cry at everything (fictional).  You would be correct.

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Blog, Me

Twenty Fifteen

I wanted 2015 to be the year I start blogging again.

Scratch that, I wanted 2015 to be the year I start writing again.

It doesn’t matter that “writing” has been on my New Year’s Resolution list since time immemorial. It doesn’t matter that I never live up to that vow, for a variety of excuses that do a pretty decent job of masquerading as plausible reasons. If insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing with the expectation of a different outcome, then call me insanely hopeful about each successive year’s potential to not suck.

I don’t believe in superstitions and symbolisms. Except a tiny part of me does. And that tiny part of me wanted 2015 to be a fresh beginning.

Continue reading

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Blog, Commentary

TX Lege – These are the names to remember

The Texas State Senate just saw an absolutely amazing act of civic and democratic engagement. There is so much I want to say about it, but first I want to outline the events as they went down, for context.

The outline of the facts:

On May 27, Texas governor Rick Perry abused executive power and called a special session of the senate that had more lax rules about how bills could be passed. These special sessions are meant to deal with specific issues and crises, but have been exploited to ram through bills that the regular senate sessions didn’t pass. Special sessions only need a simple majority to pass bills, unlike the 2/3 of quorum required at regular sessions.

On June 11, more than two weeks in, Republicans added an omnibus bill SB5 to the special session that directly targeted reproductive justice: One would ban abortion at 20 weeks, regardless of rape, incest, life of the mother, ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, or divine intervention. The other imposed such stringent requirements on abortion providers (down to the fucking corridor sizes) that only 5 of the 47 abortion providers in Texas would qualify, and the others would have to shut down.

(This special session was called for redistricting issues, and had just had transportation funding added to its docket. Oh, special sessions are meant to deal with crises? And should focus on specific issues? Well fuck you, I’m Republican.)

Last Thursday on June 20, 700+ Texans showed up at the hearings in Austin to testify with their story and to stage a citizen’s filibuster against the vote. They were shut down at around 3 AM, despite there being hundreds of people left who had been there for 12 hours who did not get a chance to testify, because their testimonies were getting “repetitive”.

Last Sunday on June 23, hundreds of Texans showed up again at the debates hoping to prevent a vote on SB5, as Democrats proposed amendment after correction after amendment that delayed the vote for 15 hours. It’s notable that the woman who actually sponsored the bill stopped taking questions 2 hours in, because she was jeered for saying that rape and incest exceptions to the abortion ban were not necessary because rape kits can “clean a woman out”.

On Monday morning at 4 AM, the Republicans used their majority to force an end to the debate and the legislature gave preliminary approval to the bill. I should mention that about 63% of Texans think there are enough abortion laws on the books in the state, and 75% of Texans think abortion is a decision for the woman and her doctor, not for politicians. This meant, however, that there was a 24-hour-delay until the Senate could consider it.

The filibuster:

On Tuesday morning at about 11 AM, SB5 came under consideration in the Texas Senate. And that’s when State Senator Wendy Davis started talking.

If the Democrats could filibuster the vote until Tuesday night at midnight, the special session ends, and the bill cannot be voted on until another session is called. Davis needed to talk for 13 hours if she wanted to stall the vote: she had to talk only about things pertaining to the bill, she had to be standing, she couldn’t lean against the podium, eat, drink, or go to the bathroom, or receive assistance from any other senator in any way.

Davis talked for 12 hours, reading out testimonies from the 12,000+ testimonies she had received on her website from people around the country, talking about their abortion experiences and how this bill would affect them. She only stopped talking because the Republicans gave her three strikes for breaking the rules of the filibuster: Once because they alleged that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood funding had nothing to do with abortions, once because a Democrat senator helped her adjust her back brace when she’d been standing for 10 hours, and once because they alleged, again, that sonograms had nothing to do with abortions.

Both before and after she was cut off just before 11 PM, the other Democrat senators rose beautifully to the occasion. They called point of order after point of order, challenging the Republican’s rules-lawyering with some fine-toothed rules-lawyering of their own, delaying the vote as much as possible and giving Davis a chance to breathe. At a certain point around 11:30 PM, the Republicans began just completely ignoring the Democrats to focus on getting everything ready for a vote.

Then, at about 11:45 PM, Senator Leticia Van de Putte, whose father had passed away on Friday in a car crash and who flew in from her father’s funeral on Tuesday to attend the session, uttered this epic sentence that will go down in history:

“At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?”

Van de Putte had been trying to get the attention of the Republican senate president repeatedly for ten minutes to challenge their ruling on Davis’ warnings, only to be told repeatedly that she was not recognized. And this bombshell really defines the entire clusterfuck that is this vote: how far must women go to be heard by the men around them?

That’s when the gallery of thousands of pro-choice Texans as well as the many standing outside the state capitol, sporting orange in protest against the bill, went wild. They cheered for Van de Putte and chanted Wendy’s name and they did not stop until Wednesday morning.

And even though the special session was over by midnight according to the Texas constitution, even though the Democrats had succeeded in their challenge, even though Davis followed all of the rules to the letter for 12 hours, even though an incredible groundswell of grassroots activists in Texas and around the country had poured their heart out over this, the Republicans still tried to call for a vote on the Bill. No one could hear anyone else, but they still did a roll call, and tried to claim that the bill passed 17-12.

At its height, 180,000 viewers were watching the livestream of this senate vote on YouTube. #SB5 and #IStandWithWendyDavis were trending worldwide on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people were glued to the proceedings. Hundreds of thousands of people can testify that there was no vote before midnight. (While the national cable media, might I add, were talking about a loose red panda and the number of calories in Starbucks muffins.)

So what did the Republicans do? They leaked to AP and other news outlets that the bill had passed anyway. And they went on the Texas state legislature website, and changed the timestamp on the record of votes so that it would look like the vote took place on June 25th, rather than June 26th. State troopers were called in to arrest the protestors in the gallery.

Unfortunately for the GOP, they have just as little understanding of how the internet works as they do about how clocks work, or how bodies work. Thousands of screencaps are out there of this fraud. Thousands of people saw exactly how the cowardly senators couldn’t win properly, so they cheated, and couldn’t win by cheating, so they committed outright fraud. The protests pouring in online and from the gallery and from the Democrat senators got so fierce that at around 3 AM the Lt Governor was forced to concede that there had been no vote, that SB5 was dead.

He blamed it on the protestors’ uncivil “Occupy Wall Street” tactics. To that I say – fuck yes, you could do with some occupying here.

The People

I was glued to my screen as everyone else I know was, and I don’t have words for how inspirational I found everyone who shared their stories in person on Thursday or via Davis on Tuesday. I am in awe of Jessica Luther and all the other reproductive justice activists in Texas for rousing this massive campaign. I was in tears when midnight rolled around and a huge roar erupted from the gallery, these women and men who had been there for the entire night hoping that 19 senators would do the right thing. I am so grateful to Planned Parenthood and the Lillith Fund for doing the hard work that the government is unwilling to do, and to everyone around the world who chipped in money to pay for food and drink for the protestors.

I know this is a symbolic victory, and that Perry can just call another special session. I know that civil rights in this country have been set back enormously in other ways by the SCOTUS’s actions of the past few days (more on that later, maybe). But god dammit, symbolic victories matter. Texas showed their politicians that they were paying attention, and Texas showed the rest of the country that we are coming after you for this bullshit.

I do have words for the politicians who were involved here. This event highlights more starkly than ever just how important local politics are. We need to get out the vote locally to affect the municipal and state policies that other states use as examples, and we need to vote in the candidates we want locally so that the national stage has a better roster of candidates to choose from. (Incidentally, a friend’s suggestion of a Clinton/Davis 2016 ticket is the only compelling reason I’ve ever heard for pursuing citizenship.)

Here are the politicans to cheer and to vote in:

Senator Wendy Davis – who unwaveringly stayed on her feet for 14+ hours even after the Republicans ended her filibuster; who gave voice to thousands around the country who had none; who eloquently laid out each argument in favour of granting us our bodily autonomy; who was the height of dignity and respect throughout in some badass pink tennis shoes.

Senator Leticia Van de Putte – who flew in from her father’s funeral so that she could stand up for the women of Texas; who called out the Republicans for being contemptuous of a woman’s voice; who pointed out that this bill had nothing to do with actually helping people who needed abortions; who knew her parliamentary jiu-jitsu inside out.

State Rep Jessica Farrar – who organized and stayed with the citizen’s filibuster till the wee hours of Friday morning; who fought back against Republicans when they tried to shut the testimonies down; who was instrumental in helping facilitate the protest on Sunday; who maintained morale among activists when the Republicans just rammed through a vote anyway.

Senator Judith Zaffirini – who pointed out that the rules governing against a senator receiving help from other senators only used male pronouns and should not apply to Davis; who raised point after point to let Davis rest while the president sorted out her questions; who clearly read Twitter when we pointed out that Davis has only been called out on two counts of germaneness and one count of assistance, whereas the Senate rules required three strikes of germaneness to end a filibuster

Senator Rodney Ellis – who helped Davis put on her back brace because that is the right thing to do; who tried to appeal to the human decency of the house when Republicans threw a fit about it; who pointed out that iPads and computers do indeed count as “paper” in today’s age for god’s sake.

Senator Kirk Watson – who appealed the Republican’s decision to end the filibuster and thereby bought Democrats an extra hour; who saw the illegality in the president uniformly moving to table the motion and rightfully called it out; whose inception-styled points of orders were so carefully bureaucratic that it was almost an art.

Senator Royce West – who asked for motions to be provided in writing, and read out slowly; who did his best to tell the national media that the “vote” was unconstitutional.

Senator John Whitmire – the most senior senator in the legislature, who refused to adjourn the session, who spoke out against the unconstitutionality of such a “vote”.

These people were doing what they were elected to do, which is to represent and fight for the rights of their constituents. Mad props. I hope all of them succeed excellently in their future legislative career.

The name and shame:

Every story has a villain. This one has far too many.

State Jody Laudenberg – who sponsored the SB5 bill and then refused to take amendments, or discuss it substantively in any way; who thought that rape kits were basically abortions; who literally does not care if the victims of rape incest or people who could die from their pregnancies are forced to carry it to term; who is perfectly happy to be the mouthpiece of a party that is systematically destroying our rights.

Senator Bob Deuell – who was the author of the portion of SB5 that requires that all abortion clinics to have the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, despite most abortions not being surgeries, despite abortion being the most safe invasive procedure there is in the world where the mortality rate is so low it’s not even worth measuring; who said in 2003 that women who had been forced to carry to term a pregnancy resulting from rape would see the child as a blessing and thus no rape-exception was needed in any abortion legislation; who tried to argue that no clinics will be closed by the legislation despite Dewhurst himself saying that closing down clinics was a reason for sponsoring the bill.

Senator Robert Nichols – who thinks that talking about Planned Parenthood is not germane to a discussion about abortion legislation when it is Planned Parenthood clinics that will be shutting down and no longer able to provide health services to poor people around the state.

Senator Tommy Williams – who thinks a woman who has been on her feet for 8 hours should be denied a back brace; who doesn’t understand that refusal of adaptive technology is an issue of disability discrimination; who is happy to withhold pain relief from his colleagues for the purposes of politicking.

Senator Donna Campbell – who thinks that in a country where we can be forced to get sonograms those very sonograms are not germane to a discussion of whether we should be allowed to control what happens in our own bodies; who uses her medical specialization in ophthalmology (eye disease) to claim expertise in reproductive health; who clearly has not taken a word of the Hippocratic Oath to heart and lies through her teeth.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst – who tried to claim that the vote past midnight was constitutional when it wasn’t; who said in callous disregard of the lives that he’s impacting that “it’s been fun” when the session finally came to a close; who sustained all those bullshit points of orders against Davis.

Senator Glenn Hagar – who immediately introduced SB5 to the docket on Tuesday morning and forcing Davis to endure the longest filibuster possible.

Governor Rick Perry – Do you really need more reason to hate Rick Perry? Wasn’t the 2012 election enough reason?

Remember these names. Let your politicians know that actions have consequences, and that we know who they are.

And if you feel like taking some facile potshot at Texas, stow it. I will delete it. The people of Texas have proven their mettle and commitment to social progress. Can you say the same?

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Blog, Commentary

Scattered thoughts on thinking about success

I was emailed this excerpt from an HBR article recently:

Before trying to pursue a significant goal, especially a professional one, it’s important to assess whether you have the ability to achieve it. Consider two things:

  1. Do you have the required core capacities: knowledge, skills, and personal characteristics?
  2. Are your capacities as good as or better than those of other people with the same goal?

If you answer no to either question, you should consider revising your goal. If you answer yes to both, make sure you’re not succumbing to one of these five common fallacies:

  • The hard-work fallacy: Believing that determined effort will compensate for your shortcomings
  • The smarts fallacy: Thinking that general intelligence translates into specific skills
  • The magnification fallacy: Assuming that your particular talent is somehow more special than your peers’
  • The passion fallacy: Believing you’re good at things just because you really enjoy them or because they are immensely important to you
  • The “wishing will make it so” fallacy: Convincing yourself that success (for you, anyway) will be easy

So this is an interesting concept, but it feels a little bit like the cold-reading of self-help business writing, because it could apply to everything, but it could also apply to nothing. The inverse of those conditions are also truisms, right? Don’t measure yourself against other people in order to gauge your success; everyone is different. If you wait until you are absolutely sure of all conditions for success before starting, you will never start anything, so start before you’re ready. (That second one is a big thing in programming – start a project before you know what you’re doing, and learn as you go.)

I mean, think about what the inverse of one of those “common fallacies” would actually say: “Determined effort is no guarantee for success”. “Being intelligent does not necessarily mean you have skills”. “Your unique skill set is actually not unique”. “You’re might suck at things even if you really love them and try really hard.” They might be more “realistic”–whatever that means–but those types of thoughts are all also oftentimes symptoms that someone is, well, clinically depressed.

And while it’s true that clinical depression has been linked with a more harsh worldview that does indeed take into account these fallacies, it’s certainly no way to live. These rules also neglects the “risk assessment” portion of decision making – sure, nothing is a guarantee, but what are the chances I’ll succeed, even though I’m not unique or skillful and only have hard work and passion? Well, that depends on your definition of success, but I would say they’re not too terrible, especially if you are privileged enough that you have free time to read HBR articles (or know what HBR is). Hard work (which assumes that you are able-bodied in a way that’s suited for the work you need to do) and passion (which often translates into perseverance) are harder to come by than you’d think.

Plus, maybe someone else has the same goal and has more absolute “capacity”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a zero sum game. Maybe both of you can succeed in similar measures, or that someone else might get a better version of that goal (Ubisoft instead of Zynga if you’re both game devs) without knocking you off your rail. Since both of you have a mix of different types of capacity, even if theirs is “objectively” better than yours, there will be specific circumstances where one trait will be more important than another, and vice versa (e.g. sometimes personal characteristics like eagerness to learn will outweigh absolute technical skills). It’s not like capacity is a raw score from 0-100 – it’s a mix of a variety of interacting factors that are difficult to predict.

Those “fallacies” also ignore the halo effect – confident people seem like they know what they’re doing, so people believe in them more. There’s a reason “fake it ’till you make it” is a popular mantra. In many instances, being deluded about your chances for success actually is not a bad trait to have, as long as it doesn’t preclude you from learning things you don’t know.

TL;DR: Success is large; it contains multitudes.

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Blog, Commentary

Another gender-neutral pronoun enters the ring

(An edited version of this article first appeared on Canada.Com.)

The Swedish National Encyclopedia has decided to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into its catalog, officially recognizing a word that has been in casual use since at least the 1960s. Predictably, detractors see in this everything from a feminist agenda bent on destroying language, to psychological damage for our children.

Keep in mind that this is merely an introduction of the pronoun into the National Encyclopedia, and not a divine edict. While I appreciate the official show of support for the complexity of gender from a respected academic establishment, it’s not like the Swedish government is going around arresting people who do use gender-specific pronouns. They’re simply acknowledging the existence of this word, and its proliferation in the general culture. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the existence of the neologisms “Britcom” and “LOL”, too, and that hasn’t led to a downfall of society.

The gender-neutral pronoun issue rears its head with predictable regularity among linguists who study English, and we face the similar conundrum. There simply isn’t an elegant and universally accepted way to talk about a single person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the discussion.

“One,” after all, makes you sound stuffy and old-fashioned. “It” is largely reserved for animals. Numerous neologisms have been invented by academics, none of which have found much purchase in popular society. I travel in pretty progressive circles, and I still do a double-take when I see someone use ze, zie, zhe, or any of their variants.

Part of the reason these haven’t caught on is just because we don’t do very well with top-down decrees when it comes to language; you need organic support in the form of natural, day-to-day use. It’s why no man-made language like Esperanto has really caught on across the world, despite how much easier (supposedly) it is to learn. Despite what you might think of 21st century atrocities like “impactful” or “to action” or any sort of text speak, the reason they’re around more and more is because they arose organically from a specific linguistic need, and filled a vacuum. Another example of a language vacuum being filled is the word “cis” to indicate someone who identifies as the same gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s a borrowed term from chemistry that stands in opposition to “trans”, and neatly identifies a component of someone’s gender identity without assigning default or superior value to either identity.

The other big reason these neologisms haven’t caught on could just be because a more organic alternative already exists – “they”. Contrary to what outdated grammarians would have you believe, “they” has been used as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun since about the 15th century. “Don’t use ‘they’ to talk about a single person” is about as relevant as “Don’t end a sentence with a proposition” – both of them hammered into the heads of impressionable students from a young age, neither of them particularly correct. (As Churchill famously said, this is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.) Writing style guides for newspapers and universities and other are just now starting to catch up to this, finally allowing “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used in an official capacity.

Still, when you use “they”, you’re still conjugating verbs in the plural. It’s “they drink a glass of water”, not “they drinks a glass of water”. It’s still not a perfect solution.

The language we use can empower or marginalize in equal measures. The use of the universal “he” in legal documents have been used as excuses to deny women their legal status, keep them form being able to participate in parliament, or practice certain religious rituals. And even without those stakes, it’s dehumanizing for women to be defacto excluded from the default state of humanity. You can’t have gendered words in a language and use one of those genders to encompass the other without conveying a subtle class difference between the two.

If you doubt this, consider how jarring it would be if you wrote all legal documents with a universal “she” instead. It’s already the standard in some niche subcultures, like designer board game instruction writers. But it’s by no means mainstream or universally accepted.

(Fun fact: Chinese didn’t really have a gendered pronoun until about the 1920, when a female version of the default pronoun was adopted in order to make Chinese seem more like those gender-specific western languages we looked up to so much. The previously gender-neutral pronoun then became standard for ‘male’, even though the components of the logogram use the neutral ‘human’ character.)

I applaud the efforts of the Swedish National Encyclopedia, even as I remain skeptical of its possible effects, given how these things have gone in the past. In Baltimore, high school students have been using “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun in slang since about 2004, seemingly organically, but even that hasn’t seen much penetration in the rest of the country or the English-speaking world. I have a feeling the move is significant more for its indication of institutional support and its ability to raise awareness about gender issues than its actual impact on language use going forward. Nevertheless, it’s a heartening move, and a sign that maybe our endless efforts to equalize gender relations is getting somewhere after all.

(Now, let’s talk about a second-person plural alternative to “you”. My vote is for “y’all”.)

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