Image by Christine Vaufrey, CC-BY

Through a glass, dimly

In their book Writing The Other, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward talk about how to avoid building characters that are mere stereotypes. This is especially tough for secondary characters, because we tend to see them only through the eyes of viewpoint characters, so we may only get a very shallow look at who they are:

Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively. Neither should all the secondary character’s few illustrated traits point to the same ROAARS [Race, Orientation, Ability, Age, Religion, Sex] category. That makes a stereotype of even the most minor of “bit players.”

I took their workshop in June, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot since–especially in light of my own transition to Plain Dress. I’m getting used to people making assumptions about me because of the way I dress. I’m getting used to people staring, photographing me without my permission, and asking me about what my deal is, because my clothing is unusual. It’s a Marked State.

Nisi and Cynthia’s advice about writing secondary characters so their traits don’t all line up with stereotypes rings very true to me, in light of this experience. I’ve seen how laughably wrong people’s assumptions can be.

It is weird to me how many folks seem to rail against such a sensible suggestion–I’ve heard it called “PC bull” that “distracts from the story” over the wailing of “but stereotypes exist for a reason.”

Indeed, they do. That reason is confirmation bias.

If you only see me occasionally, or in transactional contexts, you’re going to notice that I’m a plain Quaker. I wear long sleeves. I cover my hair. I don’t drink alcohol. I make an effort to recognize the humanity in others, even when I’m having a bad day–not because I’m saintly but because I’m really, really not, and dressing the way I do can remind me of my commitment to being a good person when nothing else does. I can be stringent about my religious beliefs, and I’m not afraid to quote the bible if I think it’ll get someone off my case about not taking oaths or using honorifics. If you see me only through a mirror, dimly, it is easy to imagine that the parts of me occluded by the old glass line up in ways that you expect with the parts that show.

I know because I’ve watched people imagine this. I’ve watched them peer at me through their clouded glass and interact with the reflection their mind has made of me, instead of with the real me in front of them.

We are all accustomed to not knowing much about people we’ve just met. But the more marked your state, the less likely people are to know how little they know about you–their mind fills in the space behind the flaws in their glass so seamlessly that they forget the flaws are there at all. They’ll believe their picture of you is much more complete than it really is.

As we get to know people, the view through our glass naturally shifts–we see them from more than one angle, and in different lights. Through this process, we learn to see around the flaws in our glass to what’s actually there.

I have a motorcycle.

The plain clothes I wear are actually typical of men’s plain dress, not women’s, because women’s plain dress made me feel out of place in my skin.

I’m a computer programmer.

I’m bisexual, but that’s never been a crisis of faith for me. God made me this way, and God doesn’t make trash.

I cuss.

A lot.

I’m trying to stop, but it’s an ingrained habit.

There’s not much of the bible I can quote without looking it up. And by ‘looking it up,’ I mean ‘with google,’ because I can’t remember where anything is in there.

This summer, I went to a science museum with some friends, including two other plain Quakers. I bought a plush space shuttle from the gift shop. Shortly after leaving, I realized the space shuttle looked like a penis (seriously, it does). I giggled about this, because I’m secretly twelve, and the others started giggling too. Another member of our party didn’t get what was so funny, so one of my plain compatriots explained the joke by, uh, gesturing with the toy.

A cab driver stopped at a red light nearby nearly died laughing. “You’re so bad!” he called, before driving away. We laughed. Even from a distance, the cab driver could tell the toy designers were having a laugh at the expense of unobservant shoppers.

Later, I realized that what made it so funny to the cab driver probably wasn’t the toy, or even the pantomime. It was that my friend was making a lewd joke while plain.

No one expects people in religious dress to make dick jokes.

Some of us do it anyway.

It would be easy to dismiss me as ‘an exception that proves the rule,’ but that’s confirmation bias as well. The saying doesn’t actually mean ‘prove’ as in ‘confirm.’ It means ‘prove’ as in ‘test, challenge–’ if you’ve found one exception, how many others might there be? If you’ve met one butch bisexual feminist Quaker biker with a pottymouth and a gutterbrain, how many other plain Quakers might be people you don’t expect? None of these traits are unique to me. For each one, I can name another Quaker who shares the trait.

We can’t always repair the flaws in the glass through which we see the world. These scratches, clouds, and nicks are borne of a lifetime of conditioning.

But when we’re aware of them, we can look around them–shift our view and actively look for the things confirmation bias would have us discard. It’s hard work, but rewarding. We live far more interesting lives if we interact with people face to face, instead of through a dim glass.

And you never know what kinds of jokes your glass obscures.

Nope by Stephen Harlan, CC-BY

Disclaimer O’Clock

I started a new job recently. I’m working with great people on really exciting stuff.

So this is as good a time as any to establish some disclaimers regarding my personal writings and social media accounts.

I honestly think it’s totally reasonable for employers to hold employees accountable for bad behavior they engage in on their own time. If I’m publicly engaging in behavior that might give the appearance of impropriety, or give coworkers a reasonable impression that I’ll discriminate against them, it is totally right and proper for my employer to have a problem with that. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

But there’s a particular brand of troll that works to silence women by trying to get us fired for having opinions on the internet. I’ve seen it happen to friends of mine and to women I barely know at all, and it can get really ugly.

So just to be clear:

When I write or post things online, I am speaking as a private citizen, and all views I express are my own. I’m not acting as an employee or speaking for my employer. My employer does not have editorial control over my blog, my social media accounts, or anything else I write online (except for some of my code, which gets published on my github account).

If I write something for my employer, it will be clearly marked as such. Code-wise, that means it’ll appear in a repository my employer owns, or else a fork of a repository they own. My job doesn’t involve writing things for public consumption other than code at the moment, but if it ever does, that content will appear on my employer’s site, or a social media account they own, or will otherwise be prominently and clearly marked as having been written in my capacity as an employee.

I will never, under any circumstances, be using this blog or my private social media accounts to host content I wrote for work.

I take responsibility for the way that I comport myself, both on the job and off. So if you have complaints about me that actually are my employer’s business, I’m not going to tell you what to do with those. But if you’re just some sexist troll who’s pissed off because I’m not taking your ****, you should be aware that I’m a federal employee, and that my employer is therefore constitutionally barred from retaliating against me for any statements that I make that are not pursuant to my official duties.

Since I never, ever post anything pursuant to my official duties on this blog or my private social media accounts, you’re pretty much out of luck on that front. Maybe you should instead spend that time examining why you’re so invested in getting women to shut up.

How To Ask Me About My Cover

Yes, that's Tux in the background. Good catch, you.
Me, with my cover, looking slightly starry-eyed for reasons I can’t recall

I wear religious dress. (Quakers call this “plain dress”). Sometimes, people ask me about my clothes or my religion. Most folks are very polite and respectful, and I’m usually happy to answer.

But I’ve also had to put up with a lot of bad behavior. Even innocent curiosity can cause a few moments of stress while I figure out if the person asking is genuinely curious, or if they’re just trying to engage me in conversation so they can be a jerk.

So I want to talk a little bit about how to approach these questions respectfully. I’m not the Voice Of All People In Religious Dress, but I’ve user-tested this conversation enough times to have run into many of the common user experience bugs. So if you’re curious about someone’s religious dress and you want to ask about it without making the person uncomfortable, here are some ways to avoid the common pitfalls.

0. Be Mindful of Power Differentials.

Questions about religion have the potential to be fraught and uncomfortable. If I’m not at liberty to refuse to answer you, or may feel that I’m not at liberty to refuse, you should think long and very hard about where the burden of your curiosity should lie. Teachers, bosses, and law enforcement officers should be especially careful here. If you’re in a position of power and not absolutely sure of your rapport with the person you’re asking, it’s best to just not ask.

1. Choose your moment.

Asking people about religion can be personal, but before we even get to that, it’s still striking up a conversation with someone, and all the normal rules apply. Take a second to consider whether I look like I’m interested in a conversation with you. Am I rushing to get somewhere? Am I using body language or other clear signals (book, earbuds) that say ‘leave me alone?’ Am I already in the middle of another conversation?

When I’m at restaurants with other plain-dressed Quakers, people routinely come up to our table and interrupt us mid-sentence to ask why we’re dressed the way we are. Follow-up questions about what Quakerism is and what we believe are common. Sometimes I just want to have a nice meal with my friends and family without having to table for Quakerism to complete strangers.

2. Ask if you can ask.

If I seem receptive to conversing with you (or better yet, if we’re already conversing, or have done so in the past), ask me if I want to talk about my religion. It helps to phrase it in a way that makes your intentions clear. People sometimes bring this up because they want to start an argument. I appreciate it when people open with something like “I’m curious about your head-covering, but I don’t want to be disrespectful. Is it okay for me to ask about it?”

When you’ve asked, respect my answer. If I’m not up for it at the present moment but I’m okay talking to you about it later or in a different context, I’ll tell you so. Also, I may be up for a quick question, but not a lengthy theological discussion–when I tell you I’m done, I’m done.

3. Don’t argue with me.

I’m not going to try to convert you or tell you how to dress, and I expect the same courtesy. Curiosity is normal, but telling me I’m wrong to dress the way I do is incredibly presumptuous. I’m also not interested in debating my beliefs or politics with strangers in this context.

4. Be careful with assumptions.

The assumptions I get about my clothes range from the benign (mistaking me for an actor in costume) to the tiresome (launching into a tirade about my assumed politics without stopping to say hello first).

I don’t tend to care when someone asks me what play I’m dressed for, but they usually look super embarrassed when I tell them it’s not a costume, and then I have to assure them that they didn’t offend me, and it’s all quite awkward. You also shouldn’t open with “are you [name of religion]?” It’s easy to guess wrong, and keep in mind what I said about making your intentions clear–I’m unlikely to answer that question unless I know why you’re asking.

If you make assumptions about my politics and try to start arguments based on those assumptions, I might troll you. I’m not sorry. You know what they say about assumptions.

 

I’m not trying to scare people off asking. I’m quite a geek about religion, and we all know that geeks like opportunities to geek out. Just, you know. Treat me like a person, not a walking Google search, and we’ll get along fine.

Clanging Cymbals

The Supreme Court has issued a ruling striking down Massachusetts’s thirty-five-foot ‘buffer zone’ around reproductive health clinics. The ban was put in place to protect patients from people who harass and assault clinic patients.

Many people have already pointed out that the Supreme Court itself enjoys a one-hundred-foot buffer zone. But I’m not here to talk about that, or the myriad other legal precedents for reasonable limitations on uses of public property.

I want to talk about clinic attackers, for a minute. Most of them claim that their actions–which include grabbing, spitting on, throwing things at, threatening, non-consensually photographing, libeling, slandering, vandalizing the property of, and otherwise committing crimes against clinic patients and staff–are rooted in Christian faith.

Y’all know how I feel about people who try to use Christianity to justify bad behavior.

We’re going to go ahead and side-step the question of whether there’s any biblical basis for opposition to abortion. If people have a sincerely-held religious belief that abortion is against God’s will, then trying to explain their religion to them is not going to do you or them any good. I can respect that some people believe that abortion is murder, even if I don’t agree.

But if you are shaming, abusing, and assaulting vulnerable people in Christ’s name, you are doing Christianity wrong. If you are going out ‘in Christ’s name’ to spread hatred, you are doing Christianity wrong.

I refer you to 1 Corinthians 13:1-7:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but I have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be abused so that I can boast, but I have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

If you go to a clinic that’s under attack, you’re going to see a whole lot of boasting, arrogance, and rudeness. You’re going to see people insisting on their own way. A lot of irritability and resentment. You’re going to see clinic attackers rejoicing in wrongdoing.

What you’re not going to see from clinic attackers?

Love.

You’re not going to see them recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of all of all people, including clinic patients. You’re not going to see them meeting clinic patients with the radical love that Paul calls all Christians to in scripture.

The sincerity of their beliefs is not the problem. The problem is that–no matter how sincerely they believe–if they have not love, they are nothing but clanging cymbals.

The pain and suffering their violence inflicts serves only themselves, and not God.

1 Corinthians 13:13:

Abide these three together: Faith, Hope, and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.

My prayers today are with clinic staffers, who bear all things, hope all things, endure all things, and risk their very lives to ensure that their patients have access to medical care.

The Deal With Crooks And Liars

The short version: For about a day, the site Crooks and Liars was displaying the entirety of “Get Your Fake Conscience Objections Off My Lawn” without my permission. When informed they didn’t have permission, they were rude and dismissive. It took me dropping Twitter on their head to even get them to stop stonewalling me. They have been rude and insulting to me and to friends of mine, and have completely failed to take any responsibility for my copyrighted material appearing on their site.

I responded by being rude right back. I called them thieves. My reaction did not reflect well on me, and while I don’t believe it in any way justifies Crooks and Liars’ behavior, I’m sorry I behaved the way I did.

The longer version begins with a thought experiment.

Imagine for a moment that I monetize this blog. I run it with a staff and make money off advertising. Imagine also that I have a deal with the Geek Feminism bloggers where I reprint their posts here. This arrangement is beneficial to me because I get to sell ads next to their work. (None of these things are true. We’re imagining).

Now imagine that I reprinted a guest post from Geek Feminism, in its entirety. A day later, people are in my comments informing me that I’m violating the original author’s copyright–she didn’t even grant Geek Feminism permission to print it; she certainly didn’t grant them permission to offer it to others.

Now, I might understandably be kind of upset to have angry people in my comments accusing me of stealing. After all, this was an honest mistake–I thought I had permission to reprint the post.

But now that several people, including the original copyright holder, have informed me that I do not, in fact, have permission, it’s not an honest mistake. I know that I am violating someone else’s copyright, and I have a choice.

I can choose to take responsibility for the content that appears on my site. I can apologize to the post’s author for the mixup and take it down. I might explain to her that I believed I had permission from Geek Feminism, and suggest to her that she might want to speak to them about this as well.

Or I can choose to stonewall her, ban her and others who’ve called me out for this from my comments (but not ban or delete the commenters of mine who are telling them to shut up), and refuse to do anything about it until I see a DMCA takedown notice for which I have conveniently failed to provide an email address. I can let my staff call her sister-in-law a troll, and use my official twitter account to call her a liar.

One guess which option Crooks and Liars chose.

It took me dropping Twitter on their head before they even supplied a takedown email address. I was not the least bit conciliatory about how I approached this on twitter. I called them thieves. They called me a liar and two of my sisters-in-law trolls. We both came out of it looking bad.

Back to our thought experiment. Maybe just taking the post down isn’t so easy. Maybe I host Geek Feminism’s content inside an iframe, so I don’t have any way to change what appears there. Maybe I don’t know how to remove a single Geek Feminism post from syndication.

I can still choose to take responsibility for the fact that an infringing work is appearing on my site–because however it got there, it’s still sitting on my site, next to ads I’m getting paid for. I can apologize to the author, explain the situation politely, and tell her that I’ve reached out to Geek Feminism to get this issue resolved so that I’m not hosting infringing content.

Or I can dismissively tell her that I’ve syndicated the post so it’s not my problem, stonewall her, ban her from comments, insult her on twitter, etc etc etc.

Those of you who’ve been following along at home already know which option Crooks and Liars chose.

(Edit to add: Based on this FAQ on Repost.us, the service they use to syndicate Liberaland’s content, it appears that they did actively choose to copy the content, and should have had no trouble removing it the moment they were informed they were violating my copyright. It wasn’t a case of a software issue they couldn’t resolve).

Geek Feminism is standing in for Alan Colmes’s Liberaland in this example. One of Colmes’s users posted the entirety of my conscience post to Liberaland without my permission. Because Crooks and Liars syndicates Liberaland’s content, the entire post ended up there as well. Crooks and Liars then reprinted the post through a syndication service. It appears that they actively chose to do so; the post wasn’t pulled automatically into their system.

I contacted Colmes and asked him to remove the post. He asked if he could do an excerpt and link back instead; I said that would be fine. He was prompt, polite, and apologetic. He took responsibility for the situation and told me what steps he was taking to keep it from happening again.

And if Crooks And Liars hadn’t already been hostile, unprofessional, and completely allergic to taking any responsibility for infringing content appearing on their site, that would have been the end of it–the post is now an excerpt with a link back on both sites, which is driving traffic back to my site, and so everyone should win.

But unlike Alan Colmes, John Amato of Crooks and Liars has yet to apologize for having my entire post up without my permission. He has yet to apologize for his and his staff’s rudeness to me, for stonewalling me, for banning me from commenting on the thread they’ve put under my post, or for calling two of my sisters-in-law trolls.

I wasn’t much of a charmer about this, either–and I take responsibility for that behavior. I regret calling them thieves, and tweeting at them in all-caps. I was under no obligation to stoop to the same rudeness they were directing at me, and the fact that I did so does not reflect well on me.

I’m a web application developer. I get that sometimes, something that seems simple–like removing a post–can be really complicated (Edit to add: this doesn’t appear to be what happened here–see edit above). But I’m also a content creator and a content publisher (I mean I publish this blog–I’m not putting on airs). I know that what appears on my site is my responsibility. If I’m violating someone’s copyright, the how and why of that is my problem, not theirs.

And while I might choose to explain to someone that I’m not originally responsible for the infringement; that I published the work in good faith, and/or that for technical reasons, removing the work from my site is a complex proposition? Those explanations come with the apology, not in lieu of it. They come politely. They come with my best effort to resolve the situation. They come with an understanding that, whatever my intentions, I did infringe on their rights–and that as a result, people saw their work on my blog (which has significantly more traffic than theirs) and were misled about its authorship.

I’m glad that more people are seeing the Conscience post. I wouldn’t have posted it if I didn’t want people to see it. But I’m not the least bit glad about how this whole situation played out. Crooks and Liars had an opportunity to be professional, polite, and responsive. Everyone could have come away from this misunderstanding perfectly happy.

They chose not to take that opportunity. I chose to respond to that badly. The only person to come out of this looking good is Alan Colmes.

‘Not All White People’ and Derailing Conversations

This is an entry from the department of Things That Activists of Color Have Already Explained More Than A Million Times. But I just saw someone shove their foot into the shoe again yesterday, so I guess I can’t hurt anything by trying to explain it too.

It’s practically a Law Of The Internet that when a Person of Color says something about racism, at least one white person will barge into the conversation to assure everyone that ‘not all white people are like that.’ Bonus points if they go on to explain that making negative generalizations about white people is ‘racist’ (spoiler: it’s not).

That’s a tiresome way to behave, and you shouldn’t do it. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

If what someone is saying about white folks and racism doesn’t apply to you, then it isn’t about you, and there’s no reason to make it about you. If you’re feeling a driving need to make it about you anyway, ask yourself where that’s coming from. If what they’re saying really doesn’t apply to you, then why are you feeling defensive about it?

Maybe you think you’re just standing up against prejudice and generalizations, because you learned during Black History Month back in school that it’s wrong to judge people by their skin color. But the thing is, racism isn’t a two-way street.

As white people, we have the enormous privilege of not having the actions of other white people held against us in any meaningful way. For example, when a white guy attacks a federal building (or a post office, or a school, or a women’s clinic, or a museum, or a theater, or another federal building, or another school), people don’t start treating all white guys like terrorists.

And while there are stereotypes about white people–some of them even negative!–they don’t impact our everyday lives the way stereotypes about people of color impact theirs’. We don’t get paid less or denied jobs over them. We don’t get stopped and frisked over them. Trigger-happy racists don’t gun us down over them.

generalizations about white people hurt feelings. generalizations about POC end our lives. there’s the difference.

— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) July 21, 2013

So when you equate generalizations about white people to generalizations about people of color, you’re not just asserting your privilege to shape the discourse around racism; you’re also demonstrating a staggering lack of empathy. You’re acting as if your implicitly limited understanding of racism is more accurate and ‘true’ than the lived experiences of people who actually face racism every day.

We accept that young children will be self-focused, and will sometimes fail to take other people’s perspectives into account. But interrupting other people’s conversations to insist that they praise you for mastering basic concepts stopped being charming shortly after you learned to tie your own shoes. If you’re still doing it when you’re supposed to be old enough to use a computer without supervision, you are embarrassing yourself.

So please. Do not insist that your effort to treat other people with dignity and respect–which really is the bare minimum of what’s expected from decent human beings–is so remarkable that you need to interrupt other people’s conversations to demand praise.

Everyone already knows that ‘not all white people are like that.’ But if you’re barging into conversations to make them about you, chances are pretty good that you’re exactly like that.

If people don’t react to that with cookies and praise, it’s not because you’re white. It’s because you’re being clueless and rude.

Conscientious Objectors using hand tools to create a fire line.

Get Your Fake Conscience Objections Off My Lawn

NOTE: If you see the full text of this post on any site but this one, it has been reprinted without my permission.

Conscientious Objectors using hand tools to create a fire line.
Conscientious Objectors creating a fire line in 1942. Photo by the US Forest Service.

The Green Family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, has asked the US Supreme Court to grant them ‘conscience protection,’ exempting them from their obligations under the Affordable Care Act. They claim that their religious convictions don’t allow them to cover employees’ birth control.

As it happens, I know a little something about conscience protection. I’m a Quaker–one of the groups for whom the first conscience protection laws were created.

Back in 2011, I wrote:

As a Quaker, I believe in Conscience Protection. I believe people should have the right to refuse work that violates their principles. If a draft were called tomorrow, I would wholeheartedly support people’s right not to serve.

But if someone serving in the military came to me and said they wanted me to defend their right to refuse military service, but that they also wanted to keep their job and be paid as if they were actually serving in combat, I would laugh in their face.

A pharmacist demanding the right to keep their job even if they refuse to dispense legal medication is like a Marine demanding to keep their job even if they refuse to follow lawful orders. That’s not “conscience protection,” that’s a handout to someone who wants to be paid not to work.

I feel the same way about Hobby Lobby’s Affordable Care Act stunt.

I will refrain from asking where Hobby Lobby gets the nerve to claim ‘conscience’ when their shelves are full of products from countries with appalling labor laws. I won’t even ask which version of the bible they’re reading where Matthew 25.36 reads “I was sick and you sued not to cover my medical care.”

Instead, I want to know exactly where they’re getting the idea that conscience protections are a consequence-free exemption from legal obligations.

During World War II, men who refused conscription for reasons of conscience didn’t get to go back to their normal lives. They were conscripted instead for difficult, dangerous jobs. They served as forest fire fighters (including smoke jumpers), psych ward orderlies, and subjects in medical testing.

That program formed the basis of the Alternative Service Program used during the Korean and Vietnam wars. If a draft were called tomorrow, the Alternative Service Program would start right back up again.

And Alternative Service applies to work that people are required to actually carry out themselves, not to things they’re only required to pay for.

Every year, I pay taxes to the United States government. I tell myself that I’m paying for roads and schools; food for hungry families and head start programs.

I am, of course. But I’m also paying for Guantanamo Bay.

I’m paying for two wars, and for racist immigration laws.

I’m paying for drone strikes, including those that kill and maim children.

I’m paying for federal executions, and for lawyers to argue that the government is not obligated to provide comprehensive medical care to Chelsea Manning.

I’m paying for the prison industrial complex.

All of those things violate my religious beliefs.

And if I refused to pay my taxes because of that? I would go to jail.

There are Quakers whose consciences really won’t permit them to pay federal taxes. Many of them manage that by making sure they don’t make enough money to incur tax liability. They live on far less than they could earn if they were willing to pay taxes, but they’re willing to make that sacrifice, because their conscience demands it.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby, demanding a consequence-free exemption to paying for birth control on the grounds that it violates their conscience.

Back in 2011, I wrote:

If your conscience prohibits you from dispensing legal medication, then your conscience prevents you from being a pharmacist. Full stop.

If your conscience prohibits you from performing abortions, then your conscience forbids you from taking a position where abortions are part of the job. Full stop.

I know firsthand that it can be hard to pass up opportunities that violate your conscience. But that is the price you pay for conscientious objection.

If you’re not willing to pay that price, you’re not a Conscientious Objector. Full stop.

If the Green family’s conscience really forbids them from meeting their legal obligations under the Affordable Care Act, then they have the option to arrange their lives so as not to incur those obligations. They can choose not to run a two billion dollar corporation.

But if they’re not willing to make those sacrifices–if their ‘conscience’ only compels them so far as they can follow it for free–then they are not conscientious objectors.

And they and their fake conscience objection can get the hell off my lawn.

NOTE: If you see the full text of this post on any site but this one, it has been reprinted without my permission.

Going Plain

Old wooden pews in front of a window looking out onto a garden at a Quaker Meetinghouse in Coanwood, England.
“Quaker Meeting House, Coanwood” by Akuppa John Wigham, cc-by

On and off through my adult life, I’ve been carrying what Quakers call a ‘leading’ –a spiritual calling–to take up Quaker Plain Dress. In college, I did an independent study on Plain Dress that involved taking it up for a while, and I came this close to committing to it as a lifestyle. Plain Dress was very grounding, for me. I don’t want to get too theological about it at the moment, but suffice it to say that it helped remind me of the person that I wanted to be. In a bunch of little ways, it made it easier for me to live my Quaker values.

I laid the leading aside at the time because plain dress is a big commitment when you’re trying to break into the workforce, especially in a tough economy. But I always told myself I’d revisit the leading if my circumstances changed. Over the years since, the leading has revisited me quite a lot. My bookmarked plain dress resources made their way into my browser history every few weeks.

My professional circumstances have indeed changed, and pretty significantly. I’m now in a profession where employee dress codes are practically unheard-of. But even if I was still working in a formal office environment, I’ve come to a place where I think I’d try to make it work anyway. Among Friends, a leading isn’t a thing you necessarily want to do; it’s a thing God is telling you to do. I’ve been answering that call with “okay, but later.” And while I wasn’t looking, I arrived at later. It’s time.

I’ve started putting together a ‘look board’ to work off of as I construct my plain wardrobe. Since I’m making my own clothes, I have a lot of leeway in coming up with a style that works for me. What I’ve settled on is a fusion of traditional plain styles and what Quaker Jane calls “modern plain.” I’m trying for a look that is identifiably plain, but still modern enough that it’s not going to cause problems for me as a woman in the Tech industry.

So I’m off to go buy some fabric. I’m pretty excited.

Original image by Renee Viehmann, CC-BY. Remixed by Annalee Flower Horne.

The Comforting Tale of the Crazed Gunman

A rifle barrel.
Remix of a photo by flickr user reneeviehmann, remixed and used under the terms of their creative commons attribution license.

In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, the narrative of the mentally ill gunman has reared its ugly head again. It’s a comforting story–one that says that people capable of mass killings are rare, and so far outside of society that they’re not really even human. It provides a neat, easy explanation of how someone could do something so terrible.

The truth is a lot more complicated than that. One out of every four Americans has some form of mental illness. The overwhelming majority of them never kill anyone, and many mass shooters have no medical history of mental health problems.

The kind of homicidal (and suicidal) impulses on display in mass shootings are a pretty obvious sign of some form of mental illness. But if someone shows no sign of having these impulses until the day they commit a mass murder, then it’s very unlikely that improving access to mental health care would do them much good.

When a mass shooting happens, derailing the conversation to talk about mental health actually just re-enforces misconceptions about mental illness, increasing the very stigma that makes it difficult for people who need mental health services to get care in the first place.

Mass shootings are irrational, so it’s easy to blame them on insanity. But we’re not going to protect ourselves or our children  by stigmatizing mental illness. We need to find the stomach for some hard conversations–not just about guns, but about how we construct masculinity, how we connect power and aggression, and the pressures we place one people who are already hurting. It’s easy to point at a mass shooter and say “they did that because they were broken.” If we’re serious about preventing these tragedies, we need to start asking ourselves what broke them.

The cover of Tobias Buckell's short story collection Mitigated Futures.

Awesome Thing On The Internet: A Game of Rats and Dragon

The cover of Tobias Buckell’s short story collection Mitigated Futures.

Lightspeed has a new Tobias Buckell short story up: A Game of Rats and Dragon, from Buckell’s upcoming Mitigated Futures collection.

He’s exploring a couple of ideas that really interest me: first, the idea of digital companions as equivalents to stuffed animals or pets–things to which we can have a deep emotional connection even when we know they’re not real.

The video game Dreamfall (which, sadly, was awful, in spite of being a sequel to The Longest Journey; one of my favorite games of all time) comes at this trope more directly, with actual stuffed animals that are given to children with some basic learning apps (speak and spell type stuff) and ‘grow’ with their owners to become personal data assistants. Even though they’re just computers stuffed inside plush toys, it’s easy to see how their owners anthropomorphize them and grow attached to them as if they’re actual creatures. After all, they talk. They walk. They play, sing, dance, teach, listen. Even without most of those traits, most people would still read humanity into them–just ask anyone who’s ever cussed out Siri.

The other thing Buckell’s getting into here is Live Action Role Play. My own experience with LARPs (yeah, I used to dress up and hit people with padded sticks. Judge me all you want; it was fun) has taught me that the more realistic the world–in terms of costume, props, setting, other players– the easier it is to get into the game and actually play a character without feeling silly. Buckell’s taking that one step further to posit that if augmented reality technology were good enough, LARPing would become a really popular pastime.

On top of that, he’s also telling an entertaining story. I heartily recommend giving it a read.