The Cost of Visibility

Listening to an interview yesterday with Susan Striker, Associate Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and author of the (recently updated) book Transgender History, I was struck by the core of her argument:

Transgender people have always been around, it’s just that now they are more visible than they used to be.

And they are visible – just last week, five openly transgender candidates won local or state elections. But such recently visibility shouldn’t be confused with “newness.” This isn’t some hot modern trend, but an intrinsic element of human nature that can be traced back throughout western civilization.

And perhaps paradoxically, at a time when advocacy for gay and lesbian rights has come so far, when the same-sex marriage is universally legal – transphobia and transmisogyny are on the rise.

Striker argues that this is the result of visibility – being out has serious costs in a world that prefers you stay hidden.

It’s a double-bind, really – there is well documented evidence that staying closeted results in real psychological and physical damage, yet the costs of being open – individually and collectively – are high.

This week is Transgender Awareness Week, an opportunity, as GLAAD says, to “raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces.”

Yet, it’s no accident that this week culminates with Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day to recognize and morn those who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence.

Visibility has its costs.

And that, perhaps, is what make some of the critiques of the transgender community seem so laughably strange to me. Transgender people are harassed, harmed, and go through a whole lot of difficult stuff in the process of becoming themselves. Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that if the costs of remaining hidden weren’t higher than the costs of being seen?

Visibility has it’s costs, yes, but it’s also critically important.

It’s important for individuals because of the real harm caused by staying hidden, and it’s important for communities because this is how things change. Because as long as the norm continues to go unchallenged, more people will have to remain hidden; more harm will be done.

I am so impressed by the work of my transgender brothers and sisters. I don’t know where they find the strength to engage in this difficult work, to face such tremendous hate, every day.

Transgender Awareness Week is an opportunity for the transgender community to be visible, yes, but it’s also an opportunity for all us cisgender allies to ask ourselves, seriously and critically, what we have done to make a difference. What have we done to elevate the voices of transgender people, and what have we done to lower the cost of visibility; to educate and inform ourselves and those around us.

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White Space

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a rich discussion hosted by The Welcome Project with local author Jennifer De Leon. The conversation focused on De Leon’s 2013 short story The White Space.

While helping her father put together his first résumé, the U.S.-born De Leon writes:

Without cell phone or fax numbers, email or website addresses, the top of the page looks lonely. Where do I write that my father grew up along the southern coast of Guatemala, where his father worked for the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (UFC), which helped kick Communism to the world curb while pretending to care about Guatemalan citizens’ intake of bananas? They were only interested in profits and maintaining a capitalist economy. 

…On my own résumés over the last ten years, phrases like terminal degree, academic honors, and double major are arranged nearly under the canopy of this section. But I can’t use any of these terms here. My father was denied the opportunity to complete secondary school in Guatemala because he needed to help support his brothers and sisters. Instead he plucked feathers off dead chickens in a small factory in Guatemala City from the time he was 14 years old.

…So tonight, as I help my father write his first résumé, I struggle to find words to fill this white space.

There is much in De Leon’s story which would resonate with any adult child: that feeling that you don’t really know your parents the way you might know a friend; that there is something intangibly distant about their experiences; that they lived in and were shaped by a world which ceased to exist before you were born; that the rich texture of their experience will always be beyond your grasp.

There is much in her story which would resonate with any first-generation to college student: feeling that vast void which palpably disconnects generational experience; realizing the values and norms you so blithely take for granted can seem foreign and obscure; coming to the inescapable conclusion that those same norms glibly dismiss the experiences of people whom you know to have real value.

And, as De Leon and others discussed this weekend, there is much in her story which resonates broadly with children of immigrants: feeling the generational and cultural divide even more sharply; feeling ashamed at your lack of fluency in your parent’s language; feeling like you’re torn between selves, between worlds, between identities.

Feeling like nothing you can do will ever make up for the sacrifice your parents made on your behalf.

In reflecting on these all these interwoven, sweet and painful complications, De Leon concluded:

“Like most beautiful things in life, it’s not so simple. I just do my best.”

 

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TERFs

Last week, an altercation related to a “What is Gender?” event occurred in Speaker’s Corner – “a traditional site for public speeches and debates” in London.

The event was organized by a group self-identified “gender-critical feminists” – essentially, women who don’t believe that all women deserve equal rights.

As you might imagine, in the face of such an event a group of protestors showed up to demonstrate in favor of the opposite: all women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

From there, details begin to get fuzzy, but it appears that a woman from the first group – the “gender-critical feminists” – began harassing and attacking a woman from the second group – those supporting equality. The attacker was eventually pulled off the victim, getting clocked in the face in the process.

Afterwards, pictures of the attacker’s bruised face began to circulate online, along with a questionable story. The woman – who can be seen in a video to be shaking another woman like a rag doll until a third woman intervenes – claimed that she was the real victim; the other women attacked her.

Except, she didn’t say women.

“Gender-critical feminist” is a palatable label adopted by women more colloquially known as TERFs – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. They are fervently passionate self-identified feminists whose feminism does not have space for all women.

In short, the attacker, having incited violence with seeming intention, proceeded to misgender her victims and successfully paint herself in popular media as just a normal old woman who was wrongly attacked while attempting to mind her own business.

This narrative is exceedingly dangerous.

Taken by itself, the event is unfortunate. Indeed, any time a person is attacked in the street is cause for concern.

But the narrative that emerged from this incident plays dangerously into broader misconceptions and stereotypes. It reinforces the idea that some women are inherently dangerous and that other women would be wise to distance themselves; it tacitly assumes that only some women are ‘truly’ women in some mystically vague sense of the word, while other women are not; and it erases and attempts to overlay the experience of women for whom these first two statements ring so obviously false.

It is gaslighting on a social scale.

Consider the account described in a statement by Action For Trans Health London, one of the organizations leading the demonstration against the TERFs:

Throughout the action, individuals there to support the ‘What is Gender?’ event non-consensually filmed and photographed the activists opposing the event. Often photos and videos taken by transphobes are posted online with the intention of inciting violence and harassment against trans activists. Due to this clear and documented history of transphobes violently ‘outing’ individuals of trans experience, visibility can be a high risk to trans individual’s personal safety.

During the action, a transphobe approached activists whilst filming with their camera. An individual then attempted to block their face from the lens of camera, leading to a scuffle between both individuals. This altercation was quickly and efficiently broken up by activists from both sides.

Action for Trans Health London later shared personal accounts from women who were assaulted by TERFs during the events of that evening.

Activists had good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Yet the stories emerging from that night don’t talk about the women who were assaulted. They don’t talk about the valid fear these women experienced when someone got up in their face with a camera. They didn’t talk about the pattern of violence and harassment these women face while just trying to lead their normal lives.

In fact, the stories do worse than ignore the incident all together. They blare the headline that a woman was hit during the altercation while reserving the full sense of ‘woman’ for the perpetrator; implicitly directing compassion to the person who did the attacking.

If you’re not familiar with the term, gaslighting is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

If you have never experienced gaslighting, be glad. If you have experienced gaslighting, you know that it is one of the worst possible sensations. You lose the ability to trust yourself, to trust your own instincts and senses. You lose the ability to know what is real due to the unwavering insistence of those around you that your reality is false.

And make no mistake, the dominant narrative emerging from the incident at Speaker’s Corner is a sophisticated form of gaslighting.

It is gaslighting when an attacker is allowed to mischaracterize their victims, it is gaslighting when the injuries suffered by an attacker are treated as more concerning than the injuries they inflicted, and it is gaslighting to pretend that people who have been systematically and zealously victimized are somehow the real perpetrators deserving of our scorn.

The sad truth is that there is an epidemic of violence against trans people. In the United States alone, at least 20 transgender people have been violently killed so far in 2017. Seven were murdered within the first six weeks of the year. Almost all were transgender women of color.

We cannot pretend that this violence isn’t occurring, and we cannot stay silent in the face of false narratives which wrongfully defame and mischaracterize an entire population of women.

I don’t know how to say it more plainly than that. To deny the rights of all women, to deny the existence of all women, and to deny the richly varied experiences of all women is simply unconscionable. You cannot do those things and call yourself a feminist.

I am not much of anyone, and it is always daunting to wonder what one small person can do in the face of terrible, complex, and systemic problems. I endeavor to do more, but literally the least I can do is to say this:

To all my transgender sisters: I see you. I believe you. And I will never, ever, stop fighting for you. I will not be silent.

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Robot Humor

Text processing algorithms are notoriously bad at processing humor. The subtle, contradictory humor of irony and sarcasm can be particularly hard to automatically detect.

If, for example, I wrote, “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie,” an algorithm would most likely take that statement at face value. It would find the word “favorite” to be highly correlated with positive sentiment. Along with some simple parsing, it might then reasonably infer that I was making a positive statement about an entity of type “movie” named “Sharknado 2.”

Yet, if I were indeed to write “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie,” you, a human reader, might think I meant the opposite. Perhaps I mean “Sharknado 2 is a terrible movie,” or, more generously, “Sharknado 2 is my favorite movie only insofar as it is so terrible that it’s enjoyably bad.”

This broader meaning is not indicated anywhere in the text, yet a human might infer it from the mere fact that…why would Sharknado 2 be my favorite movie?

There was nothing deeply humorous in that toy example, but perhaps you can see the root of the problem.

Definitionally, irony means expressing meaning “using language that normally signifies the opposite,” making it a linguistic maneuver which is fundamentally difficult to operationalize. A priori, how can you tell when I’m being serious and when I’m being ironic?

Humans are reasonably good at this task – though, suffering from resting snark voice myself, I do often feel the need to clarify when I’m not being ironic.

Algorithms, on the other hand, perform poorly on this task. They just can’t tell the difference.

This is an active area of natural language processing research, and progress is being made. Yet it seems a shame for computers to be missing out on so much humor.

I feel strongly that, should the robot uprising come, I’d like our new overlords to appreciate humor.

Something would be lost in a world without sarcasm.

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The Nature of Failure

I had the pleasure of attending a talk today by Dashun Wang, Associate Professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. While one of our lab groups is currently studying the ‘science of success,’ Wang – a former member of that lab, is studying the nature of failure.

Failure, Wang argued, is much more ubiquitous than success. Indeed, it is a “topic of the people.”

It is certainly a topic those of us in academia can relate to. While people in all fields experience failure, it can perhaps more properly be considered as a way of life in academia. The chances of an average doctoral student navigating the long and winding road to success in academia are smaller than anyone wants to think about. There aren’t enough jobs, there’s not enough funding, and the work is really, really hard. More than that, it’s ineffable: how do you know when you’re ‘generating knowledge’? What does that look like on an average day?

Mostly it looks like failure.

It looks like not knowing things, not understanding things, and not getting funding for the things about which you care most. It looks like debugging for hours and it looks like banging your head against the wall.

It looks like a lot of rejections and a lot of revise & resubmits.

Those successful in academia – subject, as they are to the fallacy of survival bias – often advise becoming comfortable with the feeling of failure. With every paper, with every grant, simply assume failure. It is even becoming common for faculty to share their personal CV of Failures as a way to normalize the ubiquity of failure in academia.

But, Wang argues, failure is the key to success.

I suppose that’s a good thing, since, as he also points out, “in life you don’t fail once, you fail repeatedly.”

Failure is a thinning process, no doubt – many people who experience significant failure never come back from it. But a series of failures is no guarantee of future failure, either.

People who stick with it, who use failures as an opportunity to improve, and who learn – not just from their most immediate failure but from their history of failure – can, with time, luck, and probably more failures, eventually succeed.

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So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (Or, A Tribute to Cassini)

At 7:55 EST this morning, the Cassini spacecraft sent its final message to Earth before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. Reaching speeds over 77,200 miles (144,200 kilometers) per hour, Cassini experienced temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, causing the spacecraft to char and break apart, its elemental components ultimately diluting in the atmosphere of the gas giant. As NASA poetically put it, Cassini is now a part of the planet it studied.

It sent data back to Earth right up until the end.

It may seem strange that the spacecraft was slated for destruction while previous missions, such as Voyagers 1 and 2 continue, with both probes still heading deeper into space after 40 years of exploration. Yet no such fate was appropriate for Cassini.

Among the most remarkable findings of the Cassini mission came from Saturn’s moons: icy Enceladus was found to have a global ocean and geyser-like jets spewing water vapor. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered to have seas of liquid methane and an ocean of water and ammonia deep below the surface. Both moons provide promising avenues of research for that most thrilling and elusive topic: life itself.

Allowing Cassini to live out the rest of its life naturally, transmitting data well past when it had depleted its fuel reserves, would have put both those moons at risk. Cassini had to devote its final fuel to its own safe disposal.

It seems a strange thing to find the destruction of a spacecraft so moving. Cassini was machine: it felt nothing, desired nothing. It undertook an impressively successful mission and now, nearly 20 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, it was time for that mission to come to an end.

Yet don’t we all wish to live and die so nobly? To make profound contributions through our efforts and to gracefully exit in a poetic blaze at the appropriate time?

It is beautiful to think of Cassini – a spacecraft I have loved and followed for over a decade – reduced to dust and becoming one with the planet to which it devoted much of its existence; and doing so in service to the remarkable moons with which it was intimately and uniquely acquainted.

If we are to believe Camus, all our fates are absurd; the workman toils everyday at the same tasks. Yet, in itself, this fact need not be tragic.

Truly, there is no meaning in the destruction of a spacecraft which has served well its purpose. Yet it is in these moments – when we find beauty and profoundness in the absurd; when we ascribe nobility to practical acts which mean nothing – these are the moments of consciousness. When we experience wonder generated from the mere act of living. The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.

So thank you, Cassini, for your decades of service. Thank you for the rich array of data you have shared with us, and thank you to the many, many people who made this mission possible. Because of you, I – and the rest of humanity – have seen and learned things we would have never experienced otherwise. There can be no greater gift than that.

 

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Medusa

They say that Medusa was the most horrifying woman ever known.

According to legend, she was so terrible to behold that a mere glance at her viper-enshrined visage was enough to render the seer stone. She was so ugly, so terrible to look at, that one could not even survive the horror.

The hero Perseus caught off her head – a just fate, it appears, for such a monster – whereupon he seems to have kept it safely secured to be used as a weapon against unsuspecting foes. I imagine him carrying it around a dirty burlap sack, periodically proudly displaying the dead woman’s head, even in death using her as a tool to defeat foes far greater than he.

In early mythology, Medusa and her Gorgon sisters were born that way – monsters, if you will – with wings and entwined snakes for hair.

This story proved uninspiring, I suppose, because it eventually changed form.

Medusa wasn’t born a monster, no, she was born beautiful. The most beautiful woman you can imagine.

Too beautiful.

Ovid allows Perseus to tell her story:

…Beyond all others she
was famed for beauty, and the envious hope
of many suitors. Words would fail to tell
the glory of her hair, most wonderful
of all her charms—A friend declared to me
he saw its lovely splendour.

Nothing good happens to beautiful women.

Perseus continues:

…the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love
in chaste Minerva‘s temple.

This was a terrible wrong – Poseidon’s forceful attainment of the beautiful Medusa.

Minerva was enraged.

…she turned her head away and held her shield
before her eyes. To punish that great crime
Minerva changed the Gorgon’s splendid hair
to serpents horrible. And now to strike
her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast
those awful vipers—creatures of her rage.

And thus, on Ovid’s telling, Medusa was rightfully punished. For the actions of Poseidon. For being just too beautiful.

Chastised so with awful vipers, men could never again look upon her.

And then brave Perseus sneaks in, finds her asleep, and cuts off her head.

Nothing good ever happens to ugly women.

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Summer Days

I love how summer days roll by.

I love long summer days and warm summer nights. I love the feeling of possibility, as if everything will be sunny and relaxing forever.

I love sitting outside and reading a good book.

***

I hate how summer days drag on.

I hate how hard it is to focus, to really tackle a task. I hate how much longer everything takes, how everyone’s vacations are at different times.

I hate that it gets so hot I’d rather sit in air conditioning to read a book.

***

In the end I’m not sure, I suppose, whether I love or hate summer days after all. But I do know this –

They do go on.

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Hungarian Art and Weltanschauung

Inspired in part by my recent trip to the Hungarian National Gallery, I’ve been reading Éva Forgács excellent book, “Hungarian Art.” Forgács frames the arc of Hungarian art through the lens of an ongoing tension between “European” art and culture and distinctively “Hungarian” art and culture.

In the late 19th century, for example, artists and scholars such as Károly Kernstock, György Lukács, and Béla Balázs sought to “integrate Hungarian painting into contemporary European art.” As Forgács argues, they “thought that the time had come to present an argument for synchronicity between new Hungarian achievements and those of Western culture, and thus validate their work in the eyes of a rather reluctant Hungarian audience. They were apparently unaware that the segments of the Hungarian audience that hesitated to accept them did so exactly because of the painters’ European orientation.”

On the other hand, “cultivation of the ‘national genius’ was, through the greater part of the twentieth century, a sub-current in Hungarian art and culture, addressing deeply ingrained, suppressed reservoirs of what was perceived as genuinely Hungarian…However, ‘genuine Hungarian’ artworks had failed to constitute a mythical meta-narrative; they lacked the potential to be come official or mainstream art, or even a decisive trend in counterculture.”

Of particularly interest to me in this debate is the frequent use of the German word Weltanschauung, roughly translated as “worldview.” Lukács wrote that through the work of European-oriented Hungarian artists, “a new Weltanschauung appeared, which aspired to a higher truth than the ephemeral world of appearances of impressionist painting.” Forgács further argues that following the second world war, the European School saw themselves as “constructing a new, post-war, post-holocaust Weltanschauung.” Work that had “an almost revolutionary aura.”

While “worldview” is a passable translation of Weltanschauung, the word itself is much richer than its translation allows. It means not only “worldview,” but implies a shared worldview – a sort of cultural unity without deviation.

The very idea of a “Western” culture or an “Eastern” culture rests upon the concept of Weltanschauung; upon the argument there is something distinctive which binds members of these cultures together.

Wittgenstein, who was particularly interested in how people communicate and share ideas, often refers to Weltanschauung, perhaps most notably asking in Philosophical Investigations: “The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a ‘Weltanschauung‘?)”

Though he never answers the question he raises parenthetically, Konstantin Kolenda points to the similarity in a Wittgenstein passage from his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.”

If, indeed, everything can be said clearly, that is arguably because of Weltanschauung – because words and symbols have a shared meaning which can successfully be conveyed from me to you.

I think also of the computational models of “cultural systems” undertaken by Spicer, Axelrod, and others. In these models, individuals with distinctive characteristics gradually take on the characteristics of their neighbors – eventually leading to balkanization between communities of identical individuals.

 

And this is what I find so interesting about the struggle in Hungarian art; about the constant tension artists feel between a European and a Hungarian Weltanschauung; about the sense of building a new Weltanschauung.

Weltanschauung is problematic in its unity; in its insistence that all of a culture’s people must share characteristics – or, perhaps, conversely, that a person who does not share certain cultural aspects can be naturally derided as an outsider.

In studying Hungarian artists’ search for Weltanschauung, Forgács engages the divergent approaches as not entirely contradictory, but as trying to seeking out a shared path; to transcend the tension and to build something new. To move beyond the confines of existing Weltanschauung and to truly create.

 

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City Life

I have been almost entirely offline for the last two weeks – in Vienna for 2 days, then in Budapest, first speaking at great workshop on gendered creative teams hosted by CEU, and then for an extra week of sightseeing and visiting.

It was an exciting and valuable trip in a number of ways, and I’m still trying to process all the things I saw and heard; all the people I met and learned from. There was so much, in fact, so many rich details I want to hang on to, that I plan to spend this week slowly reflecting and working through my experience from the last week; some mundane and some academic.

I’m still a little jet-lagged and working my way back into normal life, so I want to start today with some simple observations.

I am hardly the most well-traveled person, but from the places I have been – Japan, India, parts of Europe, and, of course, the U.S. – I have this theory that all big cities are essentially the same in some fundamental way.

I don’t mean to dismiss the differences between places, people, and cultures. Each city I have been in has had a rich personality, uniquely it’s own. But at the same time, there’s something I find delightfully human about the universality of city life: people just trying to get to work and going about their day.

There are tourists and students, people who are paid to be happy, and people who will be grumpy no matter how much they are paid. There are people at all different stages of their lives; some having good days and others having bad days. I saw people taking wedding photos, playing with their kids, and enjoying each other’s company in the park. I heard people complaining, I heard teenagers gossiping, and I saw the blank, morning stare that I can only describe as the universal commuter face.

Cities just have so much life.

And while local customs and culture add a meaningfully distinctive flair to each city, one of the main things I notice when I travel is just how much our shared humanity unites us.

All around the world, no one is excited to commute into work early on a Monday morning.

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