Either-Or

I don’t know if I’ve talked about it here on JALC, but there was a stretch of time during my Philly years that I became a low-grade devotee of short-form improv. All of which is a somewhat pretentious way to say I took a few classes, did a few student shows, and attended the occasional improv “playdate” with other amateurs who just wanted to keep to fun of the practice going.

But one of the reasons I’m drawn towards the more pretentious phrasing around being a “devotee” is the way in which studying improv during those few years was absolutely transformational for my life, my career, and my psychological health. This is not hyperbole: legit transformed.

Continue reading “Either-Or”

Generosity Served Cold

Mr. Mezzo did the whole ALS Ice Bucket challenge this evening.

glowing-ice-bucketYes, this is thoroughly behind the times and at the tail-end of the trend, but it has taken this long for said philanthropic faddishness to work its way around to us — an artifact of precisely how deeply middle-aged and uncool we are.

Obviously, this thing has been an incredibly viral phenomenon, and it has earned its share of fans and detractors. Head among the detractors is Will Oremus in Slate, who acknowledges that the campaign has raised some real dollars for ALS research, but also complains:

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.

Arielle Pardes of Vice has a similar concern:

The idea is to dump a bucket of ice water over your head and “nominate” others to do the same, as a way of promoting awareness about ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). If you don’t accept the challenge, you have to donate $100 to an ALS association of your choice. It’s like a game of Would-You-Rather involving the entire internet where, appallingly, most Americans would rather dump ice water on their head than donate to charity.

There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most the annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism. By the time the summer heat cools off and ice water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It’s trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away.

Now, I don’t entirely disagree with Oremus’ or Pardes’ assessment. But there’s a lot that doesn’t track with my sidelines view.

First off, the complaint that the rules of the game are for people to show off with this ice-dumping video as a way to avoid donating to a good cause. Except: I don’t know a single person who has done that. Instead, it’s been a yes/and movement: participate in the fun, plus make a donation. And indeed, some presentations of “the rules” makes that part of things explicitly clear.

Sure, there may be some show-offs who are seizing their moment of Internet fame and skipping out on the charitable cause. But last I checked (yesterday’s NYTimes), the ALSA had received $41.8 million in donations since this all started on July 29th. The newspaper provides a telling point of comparison: the Association only received $19.4 million in gifts for its entire FY 2013. So, whatever else this may be about, real honest-to-Gaia charitable donations are being spurred by the frivolity.

And, moving on to complaint #2: if folks are showing off their wonderfulness and their altruism while making a donation? Here’s the thing: “Looking good” and publicly displaying one’s altruism has been part of philanthropy at least since Carnegie built his first library in 1888 — and probably a good sight earlier than that.

As Tom Watson opines in Forbes (responding to the Pardes quote I included above):

I wonder if she’s ever been to a big ticket charity gala? Seen the big shots competing for auction items? Visited a local hospital or museum and noticed the wing named for well-known local philanthropist I.M. Arichguy? Watched the main stage at the Clinton Global Initiative? Heard of corporate philanthropy? And so on.

Narcissism is part of public philanthropy, though it may be too harsh a word. Enlightened self-interest is better — because it’s not just showing off. There’s a reason why people put their names on public foundations and new hospital wings and it’s not just ego; any fundraiser can tell you it encourages others to give. Given a choice of a named gift or an anonymous one, any nonprofit organization would choose the name. Public good works encourage others.

As far as I’m concerned, the ice-bucket videos up on Facebook (or Vine, or Instagram — or wherever the cool kids have fled to now that old geezers like me know about Facebook, Vine and Instagram) are just a new-tech flavor of old-style philanthropy. And considering how many seminars and books are currently being written trying to figure out how to engage “the younger generation” in philanthropic causes, it may be a profitable idea* to examine why this has been so darn successful instead of going into pooh-poohing mode.

And, finally? As far as the awareness-raising goal of the trend? (Complaint #3.) Again, I can see where detractors are partly-right, insofar as there being tremendous variability in how effectively folks’ videos identify 1) that the challenge is for ALS awareness; 2) what ALS is; and 3) why the money and the research is so strongly needed. Nonetheless, videos like Anthony Carbajal’s, which have been amplified by big-number sites like Upworthy and HuffPo, have done a tremendous amount to hit all those data points — and to suggest that the awareness-raising goals of the challenge, if not perfectly enacted by every participant, are still powerful enough to be noticeable:

Or, to quote Bo Stern:

Another headline whined, Is the Ice Bucket Challenge Going to Cure ALS?”  Um, no (and – btw – that’s a stupid bar to set for any fundraiser.)  Critics complain that the challenge is really about feeding our American narcism and does nothing for ALS awareness or funding.  They assert that people should just quietly donate their money and move on with their lives.

I get that they’re cranky, but I think maybe they don’t realize what it’s like to face this insidious disease and then realize that it’s nearly invisible to the rest of the world.  As I watch my husband become entombed inside his own body, I feel desperate for people to understand that this sort of inhumane condition exists. . . . [H]ere’s the deal: We are in for the fight of our lives with this monster, and the very LAST thing I want is for people to give quietly, anonymously, and then slink away. Raise the roof!  Raise a ruckus!  Call all sorts of attention to yourself!  I will be happy for you and every Facebook like you receive, as you nudge ALS an inch or two closer to the collective public consciousness.

As with everything else on this planet, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a mixed bag, with a dose of the good, the bad, the vain and the open-hearted.

Still, I think it’s more in the positive ledger column than not. ‘Cos when push comes to shove, I’m going to take the votes and voices of those living “on the front lines” over the opinions of any of the rest of us talking heads. (Myself most especially included.)

* See what I did there? I so punny….

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Image credit: Grant Fredericksen, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/chatterstone/9719565845/ )

Bubbles of Holiness

I’ve been watching the spontaneous online “wake” that’s sprung up after news of Robin Williams’ death broke yesterday evening. Like so many fans I’ve seen commenting on news reports and Facebook posts, I’m saddened and touched by this loss more strongly than I’ve been affected by other celebrity deaths.

what dreams may comeIt’s kind of silly. I certainly came no closer to meeting or crossing paths with Williams than with any other famous person. And yet the humanity and empathy that shone through his stand-up and scripted performances so strongly to me made me feel, just a little tiny bit, like Williams was part of my heart’s family. And so I’m feeling a surprisingly personal (almost even self-indulgent) sense of loss.

I deliberately chose not to say anything about this last night. In part that stems from an ongoing practice of learning to slow myself down, to take at least a tiny bit of reflective time before commenting on emotionally-charged events. Mostly, I was waiting to see if the initial reports of Williams’ death as an “apparent suicide” would turn out to be confirmed. (Which they were today by the county sheriff’s office.)

I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t tripped across a lot of judgement-monkeys in my online travels. I’m sure they’re out there, though. The kind of folks described by Dean Burnett in The Guardian:

However, despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed pretty much everywhere right now, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticise, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide. You may have come across this yourself; people who refer to the suicide as “selfish”. People will utter/post phrases such as “to do that to your family is just selfish”, or “to commit suicide when you’ve got so much going for you is pure selfishness”, or variations thereof.

If you are such a person who has expressed these views or similar for whatever reason, here’s why you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run.

Burnett goes on to say some very smart things about the real, visceral, illogical and non-discriminatory nature of clinical depression — puncturing a number of misconceptions about our typical (lack of!) understanding for mental illness. He also has some incredibly on-point things to say about the lack of compassion — one could even say, “emotional selfishness,” of someone wanting to take this kind of finger-wagging response to the news of Williams’ death.

But why would you want to publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish? Especially when the news has only just broken, and people are clearly sad about the whole thing? Why is getting in to criticise the deceased when they’ve only just passed so important to you? What service are you providing by doing so, that makes you so justified in throwing accusations of selfishness around? . . . Perhaps you feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and you need to show them that you know better, no matter how upsetting they may find it? And this is unselfish behaviour how, exactly?

A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy. But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control.

Darn tooting.

Hollis Easter also has posted two very useful essays: one generally giving counsel about how to (and not to) talk about suicide in the wake of Williams’ death, and one focusing more specifically on the possible risks of using the common phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” when talking about Williams’ (or anyone’s) suicide.

In a beautiful yes/and to Burnett’s post, Easter has many of the same cautions (and more besides) against the sorts of judgmental comments Burnett criticizes — as well as calling appropriate attention to the faux-sympathetic-but-subtly-judgemental ones like talking about how “if only he’d fought harder or gotten help!” Easter also has concrete advice about how to openly and compassionately talk about suicide if there’s anyone in your life who shares with you that they’re having suicidal thoughts and ideas. I say the advice is about how to talk to people in the situation, but that’s not exactly true, since a lot of the best advice boils down to this:

But really, just do your best to be direct in listening about suicide. Avoid catchphrases and pat advice, and just listen.

Make it less about what you say and more about what they say.

The advice is especially on point for this circumstance, but the core of it — hold compassion, stay in empathy, do more listening than talking — feel pretty on point in lots of life’s situations. The notes about compassion and empathy even bring me full-circle back to the ways that I value Robin Williams. How I would even say I love him — this wild, human, warm-hearted, genius I never knew beyond celluloid and VHS tape and video disc. How I will miss him.

One final quote, from Anne Lamott:

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.

Rest in peace.

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Image credit: http://addisonround2.blogspot.com/2012/07/meiles-nera.html

Advertising Awareness

Although it was all over my Facebook wall a month or so ago, I never forwarded the Always #LikeAGirl ad before today, nor did I choose to say anything on JALC about it.

My hesitation was similar* to that when Pantene urged women “Don’t let labels hold you back” several months ago, in an ad Sheryl Sandberg helped take epically viral, or when the Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” ad went epically viral some months before that:

My feelings about these female empowerment campaigns ad campaigns are always pretty similar, one to the next. Basically, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, these ads do bring up aspects of my own lived experience, whether it’s the double standards I’ve faced around being “bossy” or “bitchy,” or my habit of being hyper-self-critical, around my physical appearance and, sometimes, pretty much everything else about me.

On the other hand, it’s a little bit galling — okay, a lot galling — to have these quasi-empowering “accept yourself” messages come from companies for whom a significant percentage of the profit margin is based on the proposition that women will feel bad enough about themselves to buy your product so that we can be groomed, tweezed, moisturized or shampooed in such a way as to overcome our innate debased female-ness and become more socially acceptable.

Quite frankly, my conflicted feelings about this trend have reached a high enough level that I never even bothered to watch the Always ad above, or Pantene’s went-viral-one-month-ago “Sorry Not Sorry” ad before tonight when I was preparing this post for JALC.

So, yeah, I’ve never been in the corner of Dr. Bernice Ledbetter, who writes over on HuffPo that these ads are “truly a banner in the battleground of the feminist movement.”

I actually find that perspective quite sincerely and incredibly baffling. Do you not see how the women in the Dove ad are mostly, white, thin, not-too-old, and conventionally attractive to such a degree that the deeper message of the piece can easily function as little more than “The hearts of conventionally beautiful women can grow a little warmer today”? Can you explain to me how women getting shinier, bouncier hair is a viable solution for misogynist attitudes and prejudices against female intelligence, agency and ambition? As Emily Shire observes about the #LikeAGirl ad:

Yes, it’s far more appealing on the surface to have pads and tampons promoted as somehow part of a larger goal to change the meaning of “like a girl.” But the campaign is shamelessly emotionally exploitative. It demonstrates real problems—femaleness as a derogatory statement, decrease in self-confidence as women mature—in a beautiful and clear way, but then pretends a corporate manufacturer of panty liners meant to “help you feel fresh ever day” can solve them.

(And again, notice here how problems that are deeply-rooted and systemic, based in cultural norms, problems that are perpetuated and policed as much by external messages as by internalized ones — the very nature of what I call “the miasma of misogyny” — are presented as something to be solved by women’s policing of their femaleness and their female bodies.)

And yet, however much I’m able to see the problematics in these “short films,” their innate and even troubling limitations, I still admit I kind of like them. My affection hasn’t been strong enough for me to join in amplifying their viral distribution, or perhaps my awareness of the flaws has been too strong to allow me to join in the fun. But I don’t have it in me to work up the same kind of feminist outrage about these ads as I’ve displayed here on other occasions.

Which is why I so appreciate Natalie Baker over at Bitch Magazine for reminding me today that it’s possible to live in a yes/and rather than an either/or place.**

So here we are, once again, stuck in another good vs. not good enough debate: either these ads are radically tackling sexism through a historically appalling medium or it doesn’t matter what these ads say because corporations don’t actually care and will say anything to make a buck.

What if it’s both? That is to say, what if these companies are forwarding feminist messaging despite not actually caring about it? And what if that still helps us?

Like Jezebel said back when the Always ad was first released:

While all ad companies are bullshit liars to a point, willing to do or say whatever it takes to get your money, I would rather have empowerment cheese over shame-based guilt, which seems to be the two usual suspects in a capitalist economy.

That’s a sentiment I can get on board with, especially when I think back to Super Bowl Sunday’s usual dreck. To return to Baker:***

For those of us who surround ourselves with intersectional anti-oppressive ideology, what’s considered progress in the mainstream can feel like a joke. But that’s our piece of the jigsaw—to be progressive is by definition to be ahead of the curve. While we don’t need to be naively over-celebratory about billion-dollar conglomerates pandering to female consumers, I do get immense enjoyment from the fact that such companies are doing so, not because they want to, but because they have to. . . . I can get down with those messages, even when they’re being generated out of corporations’ self-interest.

In fact, I like that they’re doing it out of self-interest. I don’t want feminism to be charity. I want companies to consider supporting feminism to be necessary for their survival.

(Emphasis added.)

son-you-throw-like-a-girl-raised-in-a_12707Yeah, it’s all advertising, so at some core level it’s all inherently corporatized and bullshit on account of that perspective. On the other hand, if the growing prevalence of these ads indicates (and even encourages) movement towards the tipping point when the patriarchy/kyriarchy transmutes? I can get on board with that.

So, maybe less of a banner moment (sorry, Dr. Ledbetter!) and perhaps more of a weathervane. Showing the shifts in the cultural currents, a change in the wind of how people think and talk and feel.

* Okay, my hesitation was a little different because I hadn’t yet revived JALC, so I didn’t have to make the “blog or not to blog” call on it. Just the (arguably more public) “to Facebook or not to Facebook” call.

** Yes, this was posted 3 days ago, but I read it today. As such, she reminded me today. And I am grateful for that.

*** In case I haven’t said so clearly enough, please go read the entire post in its entirety. All of it.

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Image credit: http://www.funniestmemes.com/funniest-memes-son-you-throw-like-a-girl-raised-in-a/

On Modulations and Tone

(Quick hit: another proposal due tomorrow, and also much in the way of packing/preparing for the house-sitter. Still, since these grounds will be semi-fallow for a stretch of time, I am compelled to put something up, even if it’s more quotes from others’ writing than words of my own.)

tone_police_sheriffAs I’ve been expressing my outrage over various current issues during the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of a delicate push-pull within my system around the issue of tone: how to speak strongly without “going overboard.” In short, being just a little tiny bit invested in tone policing myself.

Obviously, that investment has only been a few pences’ worth — I know what bullshit tone policing is:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

And, therefore, I don’t do a whole lot of policing myself. But I do a little.

For example, I know I’ve said the phrase “morally repugnant” a few times in the last week as I’ve been responding to SCOTUS’ shenanigans. Plenty strong of a description, I suppose. But a step or two shy of the word I hear in my head to label these decisions and the misogynist world-view they embody: evil. (Yeah, I went there.)

I’ve been lucky thus far not to have anyone outside of myself pull the tone policing card on my writing. If that had occurred, I’d probably have responded with an explanation of the ways that anger is justifiable, appropriate, and even inevitable in situations that reveal the many injustices of the kyriarchy. To quote Do or Die:

Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive . . . it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences. 

[. . .] Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to be abusive, or oppressive in response to a person who fucks up. But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

And this is all true to my understanding of the world and of human psychology, and of activism and social justice work.

But a day or two ago, I happened across something that puts even another lens on the occasional necessity of outrage and outraged speech.

If you speak about injustice and privileged people get offended, people will condescendingly explain to you that things are easier to hear if you are nice, and that you are more likely to convince people if you speak to them respectfully.

This is true, and often important to keep in mind – but people who say that to you in a conversation about injustice are usually missing the point.

They’re ignoring something fundamentally important about addressing injustice: Sometimes, the goal is not to convince privileged people to treat others better. Sometimes, the goal is to convince marginalized people that the way they are being treated is unjust and that it’s possible to resist.

Now, I’ll admit to the smallest bit of discomfort about the phraseology around “convincing marginalized people . . . that it’s possible to resist.” Something about it rings a bit too close to “white savior” territory for my liking.

Nonetheless, there’s a piece of this that’s really opening my perspective. What are the ways my writing is for the public (it is in a public forum after all), and what are the ways I am the primary beneficiary of my words? How does my writing help me overcome the habits of self-silencing?  Are there times I’m hoping to change minds and hearts, and other times where I have no expectation to “convert” disbelievers but simply need to sound a rallying cry for myself, my friends, my allies? Or sometimes a paradoxical mixture of both those strands?

What my purpose for writing isn’t an either/or but instead is a plurality, a yes/and?

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Image credit: http://thetonepolice.tumblr.com