“This Felon Is Hot”

In what is apparently now news, a felon is considered hot on the internet. For some people, this is a Big Deal that is evidence that the people who think he is hot are Very Bad People because they find someone who did a bad thing aesthetically pleasing.

So first and foremost can we just get out of the way the fact that calling someone attractive is not even remotely the same as calling them good or condoning their behavior, and the elision of goodness and beauty into one element is a shitty thing that needs to stop happening. It is in fact possible to point out a positive (ish?) thing about someone (I’m not even sure “good looking” qualifies as a positive character trait) and understand that they’ve done shitty things and are most likely a not very good person. It doesn’t mean condoning all the good things about that person.

Additionally, someone’s appearance has exactly 0 bearing on their morality. I can’t believe we still have to reiterate that fact. This is something that even popular media has figured out for the most part (see: Lucius Malfoy, among others). You can even (gasp) be actively attracted to someone who is a bad person, be aware that they’re a shitty person, not condone their nasty behavior, and choose not to act on your attraction because you know what kind of a person you are (all while still being able to honestly say that they’re hot). Contrary to popular belief, attraction is not a get out of jail free card for the person  you’re attracted to.

There are so many things wrong with the idea that this is a problem. I’m so sick of the idea that we can judge someone’s character based on their body (fat shaming anyone?), that feeling attraction requires an action (rape culture anyone?) and that women in particular should feel shitty about being attracted to someone (purity culture anyone?).

But perhaps my least favorite thing about this has to do with race. The man in question is black, and many of the women who expressed attraction are black. Color me surprised. How out of place for women of color to be shamed for their attraction and sexuality. How out of place for black men to be viewed as a negative influence on the people around them. How out of place for white people to cast judgment on black people for things that make absolutely no sense and are really just another way of connecting black people with crime.

Yeah, the guy is good looking, but I bet if I had been the one saying it no one would have batted an eyelash.

I Am Not A Puzzle to Be Solved

Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.

One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.

In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.

Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery!  A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).

Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.

Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.

It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.

For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.

More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.

When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.

All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.

Being the Wet Blanket

Feminists are often accused of having no sense of humor, of having a stick up their asses, or of being curmudgeons. And I’m going to be honest: many times I feel like I am the wet blanket. I can’t enjoy many of the movies and TV shows that I used to because I notice how screwed up they are, I feel uncomfortable around many people because of the ways in which they joke or the words that they throw around, and I often have to tell people that they really aren’t as witty and charming as they thought they were, they are in fact just being oppressive assholes. It’s not fun to have to take on this role. It’s not fun to have to “ruin” people’s fun. I often find myself feeling guilty or wondering if I’m oversensitive or too delicate in my sensibilities. But there are some good reasons to continue being the wet blanket, and perhaps these reasons can keep you going through the times you feel like everyone hates you for speaking up.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in “wet blanket” situations is that you are not in fact ruining anyone’s fun. Their fun has already been ruined by the fact that it’s come at the expense of someone else. If you were to walk up to a bully punching a smaller child and stop them from hurting that child, you wouldn’t feel guilty for ruining their fun: you would know that their fun was inappropriate to begin with. You are doing the same thing when you call someone out for sexism, racism, or other oppressive behaviors. Those behaviors just as actively hurt people as the bully physically beating someone. They hurt people through the violent norms they enforce, through rape culture, through the wage gap, through hate crimes…these are realities that are linked to the jokes and the casual conversations we have.

Many people also accuse feminists of being incapable of having fun, not just of ruining the fun of others. I’d like to propose a thought experiment to explore this claim. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which brutal torture was normal. It was even considered fun. People publicly tortured others to get kicks, and it was often viewed as a show: going out to the torture. Say you were an individual living in this society and you couldn’t bring yourself to enjoy any of this. You go out to the torture and you look at your friends and say “this is wrong! We’re hurting people!” They respond by asking why you can’t have any fun. Looking at a society like this, we would recognize that the person who is unhappy is actually perceiving the situation more accurately and with more empathy than the other individuals involved, and that most likely they could have fun if it were in a non-harmful way.

Now obviously this is hyperbolic. But as I mentioned before, many of the things that people view as fun, joking, or entertainment do in fact contribute directly to the harm of others. Perceiving this connection and being upset by it is not an indication that one has no sense of fun: rather it’s an indication that one has an active sense of empathy and a clear perception of the situation. I would bet that if you asked most feminists whether there things in life they enjoyed they would say yes. They’re just probably not the things you enjoy. I myself for example deeply enjoy My Little Pony, chocolate, swimming, and taiko drumming just to name a few. But I attempt to find things to like that don’t hurt others. Being upset by bad behavior is not an indication that you’re incapable of enjoying things. It’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the things people are asking you to enjoy.

People who are labelled as “wet blankets” are often those who perceive something that others don’t. As an example, we have some people at my work that want to do and try everything. We need our resident wet blanket to say “stop. Let’s think about what will happen if we do this”. In many cases this is about practicality, however it can also be about ethics and empathy. I want to be the person who asks others to stop and consider the implications of their actions because that person is the one who keeps our world running and functional. That person is necessary and improves things in the long term. They don’t necessarily want to stop what you’re doing, but they do want you to think it out first and make improvements to it. I have no problem with you writing that song, but I think it would be a much better song if it didn’t promote rape culture and I’ll tell you that.

But more than anything, when you feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing, remember that your emotions are valid. If you are upset or hurt by something, that is valid. And it is also valid to ask people to stop doing things that hurt or upset you, even if they don’t understand why. Particularly when you  know that others are hurt by something, you can feel confident that your discomfort is not out of line or irrational: it is necessary.

So yes, I will happily take the label of wet blanket if it means that I am making people more aware of their actions and the implications of their actions, if it means that I’m ending “fun” that is harmful and cruel, if it means that I’m standing up for my own needs and the needs of others. If that’s being a wet blanket and ruining your fun, then you’re doing fun the wrong way.

I’m Coming Out As Sex Negative

When I first came across this article explaining why the author is a sex negative feminist and how the reactions to that are oftentimes ridiculous, I found myself with the sort of feeling that someone who realizes they’re gay for the first time might have (perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad. I don’t want to steal that experience from anyone). But I did feel like I had finally found an understanding of the way I approached and felt about sex and a word for it and a reason why I had always felt out of synch with the people around me and their attitudes towards sex. It was a little bit like coming home: I wasn’t dirty or bad for having some negative thoughts about sex. I wasn’t a prude. There may actually be legitimate reasons to criticize sex from a feminist perspective!

 

You see I’ve always considered myself a sex positive feminist. What else would I be? I don’t think that people should be ashamed for having sex, and I myself have felt so negative around sex for so long that it only made sense to me that I should try to encourage attitudes that would make sex more positive and enjoyable for everyone around me. Sex is a good thing, everyone knows that! Consent is great. Not shaming people is great. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

 

Until I read this article. And I realized that maybe some of the reasons that I felt negatively about sex weren’t just that I’d had bad experiences with consent, but that the very nature of sexuality in a patriarchal culture is one that is political. There is a good reason that I had felt like sex was always a battlefield and that I was barely getting out alive and that’s because in many ways it is. The author does a better job of explaining why sex negativity is a worthwhile position than I can, as I’m just getting introduced to the term, but there is something I want to respond to in her article. She asks why it’s considered taboo or prudish to label oneself sex negative, or why sex positivity has become ubiquitous with mainstream feminism. I suspect I have a few answers.

 

The first and biggest answer is that sex has been used to shame and control people for a very, very long time. Not enjoying sex (especially as a woman) has been the status quo…pretty much always. Of course it feels like a radical act to suggest that women should enjoy sex, and it feels liberating and wonderful. When someone says they’re sex negative, people automatically jump to the idea that people should feel ashamed, people should not enjoy themselves, or people should not strive for positive and open sexual experiences. Because of all the shit in the past of sex, people are terrified of going back. Understandably. Sex positivity feels like the strongest barrier against shitty sex.

 

Unfortunately what this doesn’t take into account is the fact that even if you’re enjoying sex, there might still be negative aspects to it (such as continuation of patriarchal power structures). We can give people choices and still ask them to make responsible choices or hold them to higher standards. This response to sex negativity misses that sex negativity is TRYING to make sex better for everyone and trying to make society as a whole better for everyone by criticizing the things that make it fraught with patriarchal meaning.

 

And hand in hand with this fear of going back to the shame that we used to feel is the fact that when you have good sex you want EVERYONE to have good sex. Let’s use a different example. Let’s say you’ve been eating shitty Hershey’s chocolate all your life. You kinda know it’s shitty and that it comes from bad labor practices and then you finally get some nice free trade chocolate and it’s delicious and you feel AMAZING. You start telling your friends about this new chocolate. You start promoting your new chocolate. YOU LOVE THIS CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S DELICIOUS AND TASTES AWESOME AND WHO DOESN’T WANT CHOCOLATE? It’s a fact of human nature that when something makes you happy you don’t really like other people criticizing it. Have you seen Steven Moffat fans when someone tells them he’s sexist? Point in case.

 

So anyway, you’re going around loving this chocolate and stuffing it in the face of everyone who mentions they might want chocolate and then someone comes up to you and says they don’t like chocolate because it made them puke once. Also even if it’s fair trade it might still be part of a bad labor market. Maybe they should give some of the money for that expensive chocolate to charity instead. And also chocolate is maybe more of a sometimes food.

 

This is not the best parallel in the world, but I think you all see where I’m going. Telling someone they should reexamine their sex life when they think their sex life is awesome and fun really feels like raining on their parade. You don’t really want to hear about it because you’re too excited and you don’t know why someone would want to criticize you for sharing joy. Even if the criticism is for the best possible reasons and completely valid, it still can feel really invalidating. Particularly when you’re enjoying something and someone else comes along and asks you to consider WHY you are enjoying it and whether or not your desires are really your own, it can feel as if they’re questioning your experiences and telling you that your enjoyment isn’t valid or real.

 

In addition, sex negativity questions an arena that many people think of as essential to human nature. I have heard many people say that everyone is sexual or that everyone should embrace their sexuality or they will not be happy. Sex negativity questions these assumptions, which are closely held for many people. It says that there might be people who are completely capable of getting turned on who choose not to because they don’t enjoy it. This is mind blasting for people who enjoy sex. Seriously. Many people cannot fathom the idea of someone who is asexual or even anti-sex. It’s like suggesting that someone might be anti-food. Because sex is so integral to personal identity, people who like it have a hard time understanding those who don’t (also vice versa, but liking sex is much more the default in our society). Questioning whether sex is a necessary part of human life is a really deep and personal philosophical question. It’s scary. Many people don’t want to get into it, and they feel as if their choice to be sexual is being attacked or shamed when others try to bring up other options.

 

And finally, many people don’t want to think of themselves as constrained by society or of their choices as shaped by society. People want to imagine themselves as autonomous, with free will. They want to think that their desires and preferences are their own. In many ways, that’s true, but desires and preferences don’t appear out of thin air. You may have some natural predilictions (no matter how hard I try I will never enjoy black coffee), but many of your preferences are shaped by the messages around you. That’s hard to hear. It feels like it takes something away from you. And perhaps it does, but in the end it gives you back the power to begin actively deciding what you want to do with the desires that you may not have chosen.

 

Overall, the immediate impression of sex negativity is that it wants to take away something really fun, take away your self-identity, and take away your choices. Many people have an immediate disgust reaction to this. I think we’d all be better served if we looked past the label and understood how sex negativity wants to give you back these things at the deepest level. It is not satisfied with simply saying that if something feels good you can do it. It wants to go a step further and give you more tools to explore and identify how you can make your choices positive not only for yourself, but for others in society and for future generations. Mind. Blasting.

BDSM: A Feminist Pursuit, But Not Taken Lightly

So there’s a lovely little post up at The Pervocracy about BDSM and feminism and how you can do both at the same time, which I a.want to promote and b.want to add to. Now I am going to add the caveat that I do not personally practice BDSM and so if I get things wrong I am HIGHLY sorry and I don’t want to be stepping on any toes for talking about things that I don’t know about. Anywho, I think this post got a lot of things right. I think it’s right that feminism shouldn’t want to “save women from themselves”, I think it’s right that in general the BDSM community pays a lot more attention to consent and safety than other people who have sex, I think that feminism has no place telling women what makes them feel good, and I think that BDSM is a whole lot more complicated than “submissive female, dominant male”. So back off people who are all anti-BDSM.

Now that being said I have worries about all kinds of sex as a feminist and that extends to BDSM. Again, I think everyone has the right to pursue whatever kind of sex they want as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t harm anyone (more than they want to be harmed). But in situations of BDSM where there is a submissive women and a dominant man, I worry that it confirms certain scripts that are all too common in our communities. While it’s true that that might be your personal kink and it might make you feel strong and powerful, we all have to be aware of the fact that our desires are shaped by the community that we come from. I often have the desire to just roll over like a rug and let people walk all over me in my relationships. That’s certainly societally conditioned. It’s not good for me, and the more I do it, the more I confirm that that’s what women do: I set a bad example for any women around me.

This is not to say that I should feel guilty for these urges. It is not to say that there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be submissive sometimes. And it’s not to say that I might not naturally be a quiet person (hint: I’m really really not). What it DOES mean is that I should be aware of the times when I want to act out the script that’s been given to me and consciously choose whether I want to follow it or not.

I think that in many ways these same considerations apply to BDSM scenes. Even if we are acting out violence towards women in a fully consensual way that makes a woman feel powerful, it is still repeating the same script of violence against women. And that has the potential to be far more dangerous than we may expect it to be. Even if our intentions in acting a certain way are to please ourselves, to make ourselves feel powerful or connected to another human being, we should also be aware that what we’re doing is part of a context: the context in which violence against women is normalized and we are continuing to create that image.

Now BDSM is slightly different from my desire to let my partner make all the decisions in my life because it is in fact a role-play, and because it is usually very private. For these reasons, I think that it may not in fact be as worrisome as some other examples of unexamined desire. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely unproblematic. I think that when people choose to engage in BDSM, they should be aware of the potential for their actions to be misinterpreted as upholding the status quo, they should be ready to vehemently argue against that (as the article cited above did), and they should be ready to act very differently in their lives when they are not roleplaying.

I’m really not entirely sure how we can follow what we desire and want while still criticizing the status quo. If I desperately want to be a housewife, should I give up that dream because it gives a certain impression of women? Probably not, but I should be aware that my choice might have been shaped by other pressures, and talk about it with my daughters/sisters/friends/women around me. How do you think we should deal with it when what we want may not be entirely up to us? I think that again we might find ourselves caught between our responsibility to follow our own desires and do what makes us feel good, and our responsibility to act in a way that promotes the well-being of others. Our desires don’t exist in a vacuum, so how do we follow them while also challenging the things that might have shaped our desires?

Social Justice 101: Rape Culture

Rape culture is a fairly loaded term. It upsets a lot of people, and many don’t want to accept that it exists. It’s a scary topic of others. But I think it’s important for everyone to have some concept of what rape culture is and how it exists in our culture, especially for men to have those understandings so that when a woman talks about her experiences he can put it in the context of rape culture. Rape culture, according to wikipedia, is “a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudesnorms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.

So let’s start with what rape culture ISN’T: rape culture is not the assertion that every man is a rapist. It is not an attempt to scare people. It is not an expression of what anyone should or shouldn’t do, it is simply a description of the way things ARE right now. Rape culture is not blaming anyone for how things are. It simply asks us to look at the culture that we live in and understand that there are certain norms which promote rape.

The statistics support the idea that we live in a culture where rape is accepted. Almost 1 in 6 (the statistics on this are somewhat controversial, but this is a slightly more conservative estimate than the 1 in 4 that many organizations put out) women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Rapes are woefully underreported and by most accounts less than 3% of all rapists ever spend any time in jail. At this point, the estimates for male rape are that 1 in 10 men are raped, although men are even less likely to report their rape. These crimes are SO prevalent in our society and very often are not reported, prosecuted, or punished.

In addition, there are many myths about rape that are common in our society. One of the biggest one of these is the “stranger danger” myth, which suggests that rape is something that happens out in the street, and a random stranger grabs you. It suggests you can protect yourself from this kind of danger by traveling with others or by having mace. In reality, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, often a significant other. Another rape that contributes hugely to rape culture is the idea that a woman can be “asking” for rape, or that women can protect themselves from rape if they dress or behave in certain ways. Rape is any sex without consent. If a person is unconscious or drunk or high, they cannot consent. That is part of the law. So women are not “asking for it” if they are drunk, if they are wearing skimpy clothing, if they have slept with someone before, if they are married to you, or if they have slept with you before. None of these things are equivalent to consent. However when someone is accused of rape, the first questions are often about the victim: where was she, what was she doing, how was she dressed?

The problem with this myth is that it assumes that women are responsible for men’s behavior and that men cannot control themselves around women. However rape is not a crime of sex, it is a crime of power. There are women who are raped in burqas or in sweatpants. Rape is not caused by clothing. The person who should be on trial is the perpetrator, not the victim.

Another myth is the idea that there is a superabundance of false rape claims. In reality, false reporting for rape is approximately the same as it is for any other crime.

In addition to these myths about women, there is the overpowering myth that men can’t get raped, that if a man has an erection it is automatically consent. That’s bullshit. When you’re getting tickled you might laugh but that doesn’t mean you like it or want it. Our bodies have natural reactions to certain stimuli, but we don’t necessarily consent to whatever is happening to us.

There are all kinds of attitudes that suggest that men should keep pushing past a woman’s comfort zone, that hurting a woman is sexy, that forcing yourself on someone is powerful and manly. We see in many recent cases that young men feel that there’s no way they will be caught, as in the Steuvenville case or the more recent Rehtaeh Parsons case, in which the perpetrators texted about, emailed, took photographs of and publicly posted their crimes on the internet. There is the attitude that cat-calling someone is a compliment, when in reality it makes many women incredibly uncomfortable and used. There is the tendency of advertising to include graphically violent sexual images in their campaigns. All of these things are rape culture.

Rape culture is the fact that women are taught from the time that they are young that they are likely to be raped, that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, but they should be afraid and try to anyway. It’s the fact that of the close female friends I can think of off the top of my head, every single one of them has been a victim of sexual assault and not a single one has felt comfortable going to the police because the police rarely help. It’s the fact that when my friend confronted her rapist he laughed and told her she was making it up. It’s the casual dismissal of rape in relationships, date rape, or rape of people under the influence. Rape culture is men who answer “yes” on okcupid to the question “Do you think there are circumstances in which a woman owes you sex?”. All of these things contribute to the idea that sometimes people can take sex without consent and there will not be consequences. THAT is rape culture, and its consequences are the huge numbers of people who are raped and traumatized every year.

More About Skeptech: Individual and Societal Responsibilities

So at the conference this weekend we spent a fair amount of time talking about censorship because hey, we were talking about the internet and censorship had to come up at some point or other. Zach Weinersmith (edited because I fucked up Zach’s last name. Sorry) of SMBC gave a talk about comics as a natural experiment in censorship and argued that we should have no censorship (except maybe yelling fire in a crowded theater) particularly of art, because art needs to reflect life, and the best art reflects ALL of life, not just the pretty parts.

We also talked some about Reddit and the r/jailbait fiasco. Some people argued that the subreddit never should have been shut down, because protecting free speech is more important and we should be able to talk about illegal activities if we so choose. Should we be able to shut down the r/trees (edited because apparently the subreddit about marijuana is called r/trees. Way to confused me guys) thread simply because marijuana is illegal?

These are all really important concerns, and I am most certainly a free speech advocate. However I tend to think that our morality should be more about harm than about rights. I don’t think we should do away with the concept of rights entirely because it’s incredibly important for the safety of minorities, but in general when you have to invoke a “right” to justify a harm, you’re doing something wrong. Something that was rarely brought up in these discussions was at what cost do we allow completely unrestrained free speech. Because there certainly are harms. Zack Weinerstein made the argument that with this unrestrained free speech, we now have the most tolerant generation in history, so it’s no big deal that certain parts of the internet are steaming cesspits of hate. But that completely overlooks the damage that that hate directly does to the people who have to witness it. We may be “more tolerant” of women, but if a woman gets harassed every time she logs on to her favorite website, that is a harm.

And in addition to that, what do we really mean by “more tolerant”? A lot of these websites normalize horrific behavior by arguing that they are tolerant. They say that cat-calling a woman is no big deal, that African-Americans are just practicing reverse racism, that slurs are simply free speech, but that they think everyone should be equal. This is lip service to tolerance. But if we can actively see online through their writings for all the world to see that they treat other people like shit, clearly they aren’t tolerant. And they normalize that behavior.

For some reason, this conference seemed to focus entirely on personal responsibility in terms of free speech. You might be exposed to any number of things, but it’s your job as a responsible human being to not be influenced by any of it if you don’t want to be (apparently). But here’s the thing: societies have responsibilities too. As skeptics, we should know by now that NO ONE is immune to the influences of society. All of us internalize the messages that get sent to us, no matter how hard we try to resist (hello eating disorder that reeks of internalized misogyny. How are you today? Oh you’re all my fault because I should have just made a better personal decision? Thanks). It has been well-documented how easy it is to influence people. And when you’re constantly bombarded with certain images and certain messages, there’s only so much personal choice that you have. That limits the amount of personal responsibility you can have.

Media has to be responsible for the messages it sends. Now I don’t necessarily think this should lead to government censorship of unpleasant topics. As a lot of people said, ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, and often bringing them out into the open can help us deal with them. I’m honestly less worried about some of the unpleasant topics and far more worried about some of the glamorized topics. Take for example binge drinking. We see binge drinking all the time on TV held up as fun and awesome and hilarious and completely normal. If someone has a predisposition for alcoholism, can we hold them completely responsible if they fall into the trap of alcoholism when they are seeing how great alcohol is all the time? Do we have to take some responsibility as a society for the pain caused that individual and their family? I think we do.

Society has some responsibility to try to create media that isn’t damaging. It should be free to discuss any topic it so chooses, but I think it’s entirely possible to legislate ADDITIONAL information be available about any topic that could be triggering or influencing in a negative way: for example if a TV show depicts rape, we could require that it includes a short discussion of the characters involved and why they acted in a negative way to deconstruct the negative actions they made. And as individuals, I think that we are entirely allowed to exert pressure on media to stop perpetuating shitty stereotypes and harmful messages. We are 100% obligated to be as careful as possible about the media we consume (tell TV networks when their shows are sexist, tell advertisers when they’re perpetuating rape culture).

We cannot always be critical consumers, even when we want to be. Oftentimes we’re lacking in the choices to be ethical about the way we consume media. If I want to watch a movie that is free of sexism and racism, I would be hard-pressed to find one. We need to exert some pressure on media to provide us with more options. Weinerstein suggested that when censorship is taken away, then more types of art flourish. I do agree with that, but I think that we also need to be active in promoting different types of art and different perspectives. We need to vote with our money, and I think as a society we need to discuss larger fixes to the problems of sexism and racism in media and on the internet. If an individual has only ever been exposed through the internet to individuals who say that a woman might owe you sex if you buy her dinner, are they entirely to blame if they rape someone? No. They have some responsibility, but not all of it. We are products of our society.

There is serious harm in unmitigated free speech. I don’t know what the solution is, but ignoring the fact that there are places on the internet that actively normalize hate crimes, sexism, racism, rape, cissexism, and homophobia is not helpful to anyone. We DO have an interest in trying to keep people safe from each other and safe from internalizing negative and destructive messages. I think that people who host websites and people who host other people on their websites need to be clear about what they will and will not accept: you OWN that space, and you can easily say that you will not tolerate bigotry. People do that in meatspace all the time. Why is it unacceptable online? You can get your own damn website and spew hatred. But we will minimize the damage that you can do.

I am so frustrated with the idea that individuals exist in a vacuum and that “personal responsibility” trumps all social issues. NO. Individuals should be held responsible for their actions, but their actions should be taken in context so that we know what led to the problem. If we simply keep pointing to bad behavior and saying “don’t do that” we’re just trying to take care of symptoms, not the etiology of the bad behavior. We are all a part of systems, and our whole systems are broken right now.