Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

Breaking Down the Ban

Earlier this week, the United State Supreme Court issued two stays of injunctions, allowing a Trump administration policy barring transgender people from serving in the military to go into effect while cases against the policy proceed in lower courts.

If you’ve noticed some coverage of this case describing it as a “partial ban,” that’s because there are two exceptions baked into the now-implemented policy, which you can read in its entirety.

First, openly transgender individuals who are currently serving in the military will be allowed to continue their service, though there’s a caveat about “deployability” which I will return to shortly.

Just two and half years ago, on June 30, 2016, the Obama administration lifted the long-standing ban on transgender personnel. Known as the “Carter policy” since it was officially announced and implemented by then Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, the move came after the release of a commissioned RAND Corporation study which found that allowing transgender personnel to serve openly would have “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.”

The same study estimated that between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender people were already serving on active duty. A more recent study, released by the Palm Center in in 2018, puts that number at closer to 14,700.

In the time since the ban was lifted, a portion of those service members — an estimated 900 active duty personnel — have begun the process of transitioning. It’s worth noting here that there are service members who came out before the Carter policy took effect, and it’s entirely possible that more have been serving openly under the Carter policy without transitioning. However, I haven’t been able to find any estimates on either of those populations.

The 2018 memo describing the Trump administration’s new policy on transgender service members indicates that those who began serving openly since the Carter policy will be exempt from the ban: “The reasonable expectation of the Service members that the Department would honor their service on the terms that then existed cannot be dismissed…[they] may continue to receive all medically necessary treatment, to change their gender marker…and to serve in their preferred [sic] gender, even after the new policy commences.”

However, the new policy also includes an exception to the exemption: “the Service member…may not be deemed to be non-deployable for more than 12 months or for a period of time in excess of that established by Service policy (which may be less than 12 months).”

On it’s face, this caveat seems reasonable — it is the Department of Defense’s standard policy that “Service members who are considered non-deployable for more than 12 consecutive months will be evaluated for a retention determination by their respective Military Departments.”

Yet, the new policy on service by transgender individuals seems to have little leeway, whereas the broader policy for all military personnel allows that the “Secretaries of the Military Departments may retain Service members who are non-deployable in excess of 12 consecutive months, on a case-by-case basis, if determined to be in the best interest of the Service.” It’s entirely unclear to me, however, which of these policies would take precedence.

Furthermore, the 12-months non-deployable clause can be “gamed.” While I am not aware of any formal data on this, service member Cathrine Schmid suggests that some transgender military personnel are already being considered non-deployable for longer than necessary “as a sort of backdoor ban.”

If such manipulation seems unlikely, consider that in 2017 — before the announcement of the Trump administration’s policy — a similar backdoor move was used to discharge Riley Dosh, the first openly transgender graduate of West Point.

She recently shared her story in reaction to the new ban:

…As I prepared for my graduation from West Point, I was handed a memo from the Pentagon that said despite completing every requirement asked of me, I would not be allowed to commission as an officer. The reason? Despite the lifting of the ban on trans military troops by the Obama administration — one reason why I came out — I still required a medical waiver to become an officer. Both the previous administration and West Point supported my commission, but the Trump administration did not. Unable to receive a commission, I was discharged upon graduation. I remain the last person to be discharged for my gender identity.  Two months after my graduation, President Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the military.

While technically allowing current personnel to continue serving, the new policy creates a mechanism through which transgender troops can be forced out, and it certainly makes it clear they are not welcome.

But — I’ve only discussed one of the exceptions to the ban on transgender military service.

In a move reminiscent of don’t ask, don’t tell, the other exemption is for a sort of Schrödinger’s transgender person: a person who is somehow simultaneously trans and not trans. As the “New Transgender Policy” memo outlines:

Transgender persons who have not transitioned to another gender and do not have a history or current diagnosis of gender dysphoria — i.e., they identify as a gender other than their biological sex but do not currently experience distress or impairment of function in meeting the standards associated with their biological sex — are eligible for service, provided that they, like all other persons, satisfy all mental and physical health standards are are capable of adhering to the standards associated with their biological sex. This is consistent with the Carter policy, under which a transgender person’s gender identity is recognized only if the person has a diagnosis or history of gender dysphoria.

There’s a lot to follow in this paragraph, but it’s important to understand it. This argument is the most insidious part of the ban on transgender service members.

Gender dysphoria, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association, “involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify…People with gender dysphoria may often experience significant distress and/or problems functioning associated with this conflict between the way they feel and think of themselves and their physical or assigned gender.”

A formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a medical professional is the first step in seeking medically-necessary care related to transgender health. However, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between experiencing gender dysphoria and seeking out a medical professional in order to receive a diagnosis of dysphoria.

The diagnosis serves as a gateway for additional medical care but does not alone demarcate who is transgender. A person may be transgender whether they receive a medical diagnosis of dysphoria or not.

Furthermore, while I’ll save the American Psychiatric Association’s history of gender diagnoses for another post, the inclusion of gender dysphoria as a psychological condition is not without controversy. As Dr. Daphna Stroumsa explains:

The inclusion of gender identity and transgender-related matters in the [American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] reflects an inherent problem. Although diagnostic coding is necessary to facilitate access to medical and surgical transition care, the pathologizing and stigmatizing suggested by its designation as a mental disorder is not. Such designation gives rise to an inherent contradiction in terms: what is presented as a mental condition has recognized medical and surgical treatment. These treatments are aimed not at affecting or changing mental state but rather at addressing the physical components that lead to the dysphoria. Such logic makes GID or gender dysphoria a unique case of surgically treatable mental illness, which is an oxymoron.

In other words, while it represents a problematic pathologizing of the transgender experience, the existence of “gender dysphoria” as a validated medical condition helps transgender people receive the health care they need.

Now, let’s go back to that policy memo. “Transgender persons who have not transitioned to another gender and do not have a history or current diagnosis of gender dysphoria…are eligible for service.”

There are precisely two types of people who do not have “a history or current diagnosis of gender dysphoria”: people who do not experience gender dysphoria and people who suppress, hide, or otherwise bury their experience of gender dysphoria.

Those who do not or have never experienced gender dysphoria are not relevant to this ban at all — they are not transgender. Service members who are transgender, then, may only continue to serve if they steadfastly avoid disclosing or seeking any support for their experiences of dysphoria.

In other words, they can be transgender…as long as they’re not transgender.

Lawyer Chase Strangio describes this bind brilliantly:

…[The policy states that] trans people can serve as long as we don’t transition, are comfortable in our assigned sex at birth, and have no health care needs related to transition. But this is what defines a person as trans and why the ban is definitionally a ban on trans service. Yet, this idea that we can suppress our trans-ness or that our identity is less real than the identities of non-trans people is behind much of the anti-trans rhetoric we see in government policy and public discourse.  

And this is why I argue that this clause is the most insidious part of the ban on military service by transgender personnel.

It’s bad enough that the policy will bar good people from serving their country. It’s bad enough that current service members will be forced out or may choose to leave rather than serve in the face such bigotry. It’s bad enough that this discrimination is being justified by unfounded concerns about cost and cohesion.

But the most disturbing thing is that at its core, this policy suggests that transgender people have the choice to not be transgender; that their identity is not real, that it can be easily suppressed. This policy suggests that the concept of “transgender” doesn’t truly exist.

And that is unconscionable.

Transgender people exist and they have existed for far longer than we’ve had the word. It is no passing fad or modern invention, it a fundamental piece of the human experience. A piece we’ve collectively been suppressing and deriding for far too long. If the existence of transgender people seems like it’s “new” it is because we’ve only recently begun to grapple with a truth that has always been there.

The ban on transgender personnel serving in the military is just one element in a coordinated attack on the transgender community; an attack that aims to roll back the clock, to shove a whole population of people back in the closet and permanently lock them in there.

We cannot let that happen.

A new study from the CDC estimates that 2 percent of high schoolers — around three hundred thousand Americans — are transgender. And presumably, that number is depressed by significant underreporting. These young people are real. They exist. We cannot let them grow up in a world that would deign to tell them otherwise.

The transgender community will not be erased.

Here are a few things you can do to help:

Donate to one of these great organizations — or at the very least sign up for their mailing lists.

Call your representatives (Sorry, DC) — Even if you think they already agree with you, it’s good for them to know this is an issue their constituents are passionate about.

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Science needs humanism

I’ll start today with a somewhat bold claim: science cannot exist without humanism.

Note that I’m not merely saying that science is improved by humanists or that it might be wise to have ethics keep pace with our technological advances. To be clear, I would argue for both those points as well; but my claim here goes deeper:

Science cannot exist without humanism.

In other words, the thing we call “science” can only properly exist through a critical examination of the myriad ways in which humans create and interpret the world around them. The humanities are not some nice add-on or a means to slap an “interdisciplinary” sticker on your work — they are, indeed, an intimate a part of the scientific process itself.

To clarify, when I use the word science here, I more properly mean good science — science which is self-critical, methodical, and dogged in its pursuit of genuine understanding. There are, unfortunately, far too many things which would claim the mantel of science while definitively being bad science. Most notably, this includes some truly horrific medical experiments, but there are also more innocuous examples of bad science covering issues of replication, statistical techniques, questionable methodological choices, and even outright fraud.

My argument, then, is that the humanist orientation is a primary factor in differentiating between good science and bad science. I’m not sure I would go so far as to argue that it’s a sufficient condition, but I’ll argue here that it is a necessary condition. Science cannot exist without humanism.

I have done little so far to explain precisely what I mean by science and precisely what I mean by humanism, so let’s back up about two thousand years in order to elaborate.

Aristotle argues for three fundamental types of knowledge: technè, episteme, and phronesis. While not everyone may be familiar with these classifications, these categories still very much underly the Western conception of knowledge, especially, perhaps, within academia.

Techné, or technical knowledge, is the province of professional schools. Doctors, lawyers, and MBAs are educated in the techné of their trades. Episteme is the domain of the sciences. Closest to our modern interpretation of “knowledge,” episteme is the slow, methodical discovery of universal truths. Finally, phronesis is the core concern of the humanities. In, perhaps, a sign of our collective devaluing of this work, phronesis is the least tied to our modern understanding of knowledge and thus is the most difficult to explain.

Often translated as “practical wisdom,” phronesis is inherently action oriented. One of Aristole’s core virtues, it is the ability to determine the right action in any context and to unquestioningly follow through on that action. It is about being virtuous but perhaps more subtly about knowing what is virtuous.

Mcevilley, who argues for the translation “mindfulness,” quotes Epicurus in describing phronesis:

“[Phronesis] patiently searches out the motives for every act of grasping and fleeing, and banishes those beliefs through which the greatest tumult enters the mind.”

While the word defies a simple English translation, you can see, perhaps, why I associate phronesis with the humanities: it is the knowledge of critically analysis, of situating ethical judgements in the context in which they occur. It is the work of perpetually asking the question, what should be done?

When Thomas More, Erasmus, and others began arguing for humanist approaches which centered human — as opposed to godly — agency as a force in the world, this naturally drew on earlier conceptions of phronesis.

Now, these categories of knowledge aren’t perfectly split in the academy. Tenure track pressures of publishing, service, and teaching encourage a certain techné of their own — though someone considered brilliant in their field can often get away with poor demonstration of techné. Additionally, there have been some rather spirited discussions about a technical/humanist divide in philosophy, though here even the technical side — epitomized by metaphysics and epistemology — may still be more phronesis than techné. And Flybjerg has argued that trying to be episteme is the largest failing of modern social science — that to have meaning, social science must strive to be less like physics and more concerned with the phronetic questions of how to build the Good Society.

Yet, despite various intra-disciplinary battles, these type of knowledge have become largely separated from each other — and that divide is punctuated by a clear heirarchy of value. The war between episteme and phronesis is especially fraught – as episteme is broadly valued as a public good while phronesis is devalued as an indulgent exercise in self-reflection.

This divide is particularly striking in our so-called “post-truth” world that nevertheless pursues a strong positivist mentality. While you may be surprised to learn that we’re living in a “positivist” era, in the philosophical sense, the term roughly refers to the assertion that somethings are demonstrably factual and everything else is a matter of opinion.

This is, arguably, a core scientific tenant — if you can measure something, if you can systematically test different hypotheses, you can demonstrate whether something is factually true or not. If you cannot do these things you can make no rational argument as to the truth or validity of a given claim.

The positivist view implicitly devalues humanistic work. Anything that cannot be proven is subjective, and anything that is subjective is hardly worth rigorous study. Anybody may have a mere opinion.

Yet the positive claim also overlooks a core humanist tenant — everything we observe, measure, and interpret is done through the lens of human experience. Even in the hardest of the hard sciences we are biased by what questions we think to ask, what funding we can get to pursue those questions, what methods we choose to apply, what works we choose to cite, what interpretations we find in our results, and whose scholarship we choose to value. Science is, fundamentally, a human endeavor.

If anything, the increasing tendency of “factual” things to be interpreted as “opinion” should only serve to emphasize the permeability of the positivist line. We cannot maintain a positivist system if we cannot even agree on what qualifies as factual.

Perhaps the easy way out of this bind is to belittle those who do not see the facts that we do, who, as far as we can tell, refuse to be properly thoughtful and educated. The challenge here, then, is differentiating a noble heretic who fights for Truth against a biased system from a troublesome troll who maliciously spreads misinformation cloaked in “factual” arguments. History has seen no shortage of either type of agent, and each are equally greeted with scorn in their time.

The truth of tomorrow is not necessarily the truth of today.

That’s not to descend into total relativism and claim there is no such thing as truth and that all of reality is merely a matter of opinion. Rather, I would argue, truly good science requires remaining constantly skeptical. A good scientist interrogates the the biases of their data, methods, and fundamental way of thinking — and that inherently means being skeptical of our individual and collective ability to accurately determine what is “true.”

This is not at all easy to do — we are each products of and contributors to our collective social context and it is arguably impossible to entirely separate ourselves from that context. Given that this challenge comes at the bottom of an increasing to-do list of practical career pressures, the whole task even more daunting.

So while we each ought to seek to be humanists in our scientific endeavors, perhaps we’d do well to be glad that there are whole departments of scholars engaging seriously in this difficult work; questioning which parts of our received reality are deeply true and which parts are warping our precious scientific perceptions.

We cannot continue to pretend that science can be separated from the human experience, that it is somehow immune from the biases and fallibility of the humans who conduct it. We must recognize that the humanities are a public good and, indeed, provide the very foundation which allows for our work.

So when I argue that science needs humanism this is what I mean; that all scientific endeavors are prone to error and we cannot fully, scientifically, assess their truth-claims without first understanding the possible scope and implications of those errors. While we might prefer to separate the order of the scientific process from the messiness of human systems, aiming to do so is fundamentally bad science; it discards too many relevant variables. Good science requires self-skeptism, it requires an awareness of what is missing as much as it requires an awareness of what is there. Science needs phronesis, it needs to examine what is right as much as it needs to examine what is true.

Science cannot exist without humanism.

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The ego of public life, part III

In July of 2013, I started writing publicly every (work) day. Then, after four and a half years, in November 2017, I stopped.

There are a lot of reasons why I started writing — and a lot of reasons why I let the habit go.

I was re-finding myself in 2013. After my father passed away in early 2012, I was absolutely shattered. I spent at least a year and a half just wandering the void; existing in the world without really living in it.

When at last I was ready to start thinking about picking up the pieces, I found I had become a very different person than I had been before. More caring, more compassionate, more acutely aware of the silent struggles we’ve all gotten so good at hiding from the world. And I felt more strongly than ever the need to put my own voice, skills, and energy to work towards the ongoing task of repairing the world.

This was a quandary for me. I’d long been committed to social justice; to doing what I could to make the world just a little bit better than I found it. But, at the same time, I had come to deeply internalize the belief which was consistently reinforced through so many of my experiences in the world: my voice didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.

I had aimed to put my time and energy towards good work simply because that was the right thing to do. It was laughable to think that anything I could do would ever amount to anything or that anyone would ever care for my opinion or insight.

It’s the sort of paradox which only makes sense within the bounded logic of one’s own head. I’d worked hard to elevate the agency of others; I’d argued that the voices and perspectives of all people are critical to building a more just world; I’d put so much of myself into advocating for these ideals — but I had never really believed them. How could I, if I didn’t believe in myself?

In my first post back in 2013, I described this challenge in relation to my plan to start writing publicly:

My struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” And that can be a lot to muster.

I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute.

Over the years, this sense of egoism continued to be the hardest struggle for me. Finding time and topics weren’t always easy, but those paled in comparison to the more fundamental challenge of constantly putting myself out there. Of acting like I had something worth saying even when I felt as though I were nothing at all.

But it was a good habit. It made me a better writer. It made me a better thinker. And doing all this writing publicly helped me find my voice. It helped me discovered who I am and showed me that, indeed — words do matter. Much to my surprise, I found that sometimes even my poor, broken words could help.

So I kept writing.

As foolish, egotistical, and self-important as it seemed. I kept writing.

But things changed over the years. I got busier with graduate school, I had other writing tasks I needed to prioritize, I needed to pass my qualifying exams and propose my dissertation. I have no end to my list of practical excuses.

There are reasons and there are reasons, though. Fundamentally, I was scared. I started meeting strangers who would seek me out to tell me how much they loved the way I write; who would tell me that I had somehow managed to put into words something they had been thinking or feeling. I started getting more pushback on every sloppy mistake I made as I rushed to fulfill my self-imposed quota of posting every single day. I started to more deeply appreciate the consequences of my words as actions — while it still seems impossible to imagine, I found that my voice did have power.

As I grappled with these issues in mid-2017, I reflected:

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

This was a lot to take in. How could my voice matter? In what universe would people begin by assuming I was possessed by a comfortable air of self-confidence? What did it mean for me — a person holding so much privilege in this world — to be taking up space?

My writing started to feel like less of an exercise of civic duty and self-discovery and more of a venue for self-aggrandizement.

At the same time, I was becoming less impressed with the quality of my writing overall. I’d gotten tired, lazy — relying on tired tropes of self-righteousness without thorough thought or depth. This tone was popular in some circles, but it did little to advance the sort of dialogue I want to pursue. It didn’t reflect the sort of writer, scholar, or person I wanted to be.

So I stopped.

I’d once needed to find myself through writing in public and then I needed to find myself by reflecting in private.

But I’ve missed this. I’ve missed the intentional thought that comes from public writing. I’ve missed the ongoing learning I’ve gained through on- and offline conversations about my posts. I’ve missed hearing thoughtful criticism of my views and my writing — I remain grateful to every person who has trusted me enough to tell me when they think I’m wrong or when I could have expressed myself better. I’ve missed making time to think about things beyond what’s required of me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve continually caught myself “writing in my head” as I used to do all the time. I’m not quite sure where that voice went in the fervor and anxiety of the past year, but I’ve started to realize that I need and value this space. Something has changed in me once again, it seems.

All of this is to say: I’m back. I won’t be posting every day, but I will be posting regularly — at least once a week.

I will write about science, math, social justice, and democratic theory. I will write about mental health and graduate school and random facts I picked up somewhere. I will write about whatever I need to say that week.

As always, I invite your thoughtful reflections as I continue this journey. We will certainly not always agree, but I will value your perspectives and consider your arguments seriously and genuinely.

They say that democracy is dead — that people can’t talk about anything of import any more. But I don’t believe that. I refuse to believe that. Democracy’s not dead — it’s only resting.

I look forward to learning from you all.

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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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