Thursday, July 11, 2013

Socially Awkward Penguins

This jumble of words will:
  1. Define some terms : "Socially Awkward Penguin"
  2. Tell some stories
  3. Detail the established narratives/explanations/theories
  4. State an alternative hypothesis - to do with "Socially Awkward Penguins"
  5. Attempt to support said hypothesis
  6. State where to go from here

Let's get started!

Defining terms

The "socially awkward penguin" ("SAP" for the purposes of this article) is a meme that has been with us for some time:

Socially Awkward Penguin is an advice animal image macro series featuring a penguin lacking both social skills and self esteem. The text typically narrates uncomfortable life situations, highlighting an exceptionally clumsy or inelegant response.

The background of the image macro is this:

Some typical examples of the "socially awkward penguin":

This establishes some idea of what we use the term "socially awkward penguin" in a general sense. How this may relate to specific personas will be detailed later. For now, moving along...

What's been happening lately

Typically the 'feminist blogosphere' is mostly concerned with a few egregious cases of misconduct (or alleged misconduct).

A story will be picked up, perhaps in the media at large first, and then opinions galore will be provided by every single 'activist' out there.

This blog is no different.

For the time being however, let's go over some background noise. Events that did not seemingly shake the world.

Attendees "Empowering Women Through Secularism 2013" reported feeling unsafe

By many accounts, the "Empowering Women Through Secularism" (EWTS) conference was a success.

It is difficult to find people saying a bad word about the discussions there.

Of course, this does not mean that no disagreements took place. There were disagreements. And not everything stated at EWTS is necessarily correct.

But it is remarkable that no drama occurred at the level we've become accustomed to.

Justin Vacula, often cast as an "men's rights activist" villain, attended the conference. And the usual cabal of "harassers" were watching events via the #ewts2013 Twitter hashtag.

Despite some anticipation of all this causing the world to end, nobody has called for a boycott or for anybody to resign.

However the following exchange was interesting:

Twitter makes it difficult to tell exactly what is going on, but the tweets seem to detail the following events:

  1. Justin Vacula writes a critique of EWTS harassment policy or lack thereof
  2. An attendee shares that she skipped a day at the conference, and thought Vacula's post was dismissive of her safety concerns
  3. Another attendee adds that she is also concerned about a 'hostile' atmosphere at the conference
  4. Specifics of one situation was cited as personal, the other was noted as being impactful of mental health

Allegations of sexual harassment at a science fiction convention

Stephanie Zvan, mediator of a discussion about trolls when she isn't saying nasty things herself, happened to share a story on her blog entitled "Opening Ranks" about a recent instance of sexual harassment.

A woman was attending WisCon, an event described as "the world's leading feminist science fiction convention and conference".

The WisCon website:
[WisCon] is the world's leading feminist science fiction convention. WisCon encourages discussion and debate of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class. WisCon welcomes writers, editors and artists whose work explores these themes as well as their many fans. We have panel discussions, academic presentations, and readings as well as many other uncategorizable events. WisCon is primarily a book-oriented convention... with an irrepressible sense of humor.

During the conference, the woman alleges she was sexually harassed by a relatively senior editor at a sizable publisher (as far as sci-fi books are concerned).

The woman writes a long post about the incident that is mirrored/linked on a number of blogs. The post includes:
  1. A long description of how the reporting of the harassment was difficult
  2. Allegations that the man was a known offender and there were previous incidents three years ago she'd heard about from other people
  3. The man's full name and employer
At the time of writing, what is missing from this story:
  1. Details of the actual event
  2. A response from the accused
For the purposes of discussion, let's assume the guilt of the accused and move forward.

Atheism Plus and FreeThoughtBlogs underline just how creepy non-sexual touching is

Miri on FreeThoughtBlogs wrote a post "Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It’s Not Sexual"

Atheism+ forums picked it up:

I'm pretty much the polar opposite of a touchy-feely person - some days, I don't even like touch by my partner, but even on a good day, he's the only person who I enjoy being touched by because I trust him to stop when I tell him to. Family gatherings and social rules about physical affection are thus very unpleasant for me. That I don't want you to touch me doesn't mean I don't like you, it just means I don't like being touched. I didn't like touch even as a kid, but now unless I really trust the other person, I actively dislike it. And I'm allowed to dislike touch, especially after my personal history with having my boundaries flat-out ignored when they weren't being actively destroyed. 
If I'm remembering correctly, there are also some very good comments in which people share how they feel when they are involuntarily or suddenly touched. (Fairly vivid stuff emotionally, so read with caution, as it may bring bad experiences to mind.)
There are high bristly walls between me and most people.
so it can look really odd when I meet up with friends who hug me, pick me up, steal my comb out of my purse to re-do my hair prefaced only with "you have time for this?" insist on the table with the couches so we can sit close....a handful of people can do this, and i don't see them often.
Yeah, I absolutely hate it when people I don't know touch me and get all indignant when I expect them not to do that again. Just because I'll hug friends doesn't mean I want some random asshole getting in my personal space. How feminine presenting people make it through the day without committing acts of violence I may never know.
I have an intense dislike of being touched by people I don't know. However, I am very into hugs and touch with people I know and trust. My husband knows full well my dislike of being touched by strangers and has often acted as a barrier to unwanted touch. He got a real education, though, about how much I do appreciate touch from people I know and trust. Back in 2000, he attended a family funeral with me. He had not been exposed to my rather large (both in size and number) family on my mother's side before. Oh and LOUD. These folks are LOUD. Anyway, because it was under tragic circumstances, there was much hugging and holding and patting and touching of me by people who were complete strangers to him. He went into high alert mode until my mother pointed out my body language to him and how I was quite comforted, even contented, to be touched and held my members of my family.
If a stranger does that to me, that person is likely to get popped in the snoot. It's pretty much a coin toss whether it will be me or my husband that does the snoot popping first.
ETA: If I don't know someone well, I always ask before I touch or hug them. Always. It's not that difficult.
Seems like culture has a big part of it. Some cultures have a lot more touching than usual, then again these cultures are more tight nit, villages where everyone knows each other. Obviously in an urban setting where you are surrounded by strangers and have a permeating sense of fear and dread of your fellow man, you will be more protective of yourself and your belongings.
One of the morning rituals at the Ethical Society is to ask the congregation to turn and give a handshake or hug to a neighbor. When I'm the one who is MC-ing the morning platform, I always modify that part to include consent. Perhaps I should just write it into the script permanently, as would be most ethical.
Add me in the category of people who don't mind being touched as long as I know the person or give explicit consent. And even with some people I do know, I'm not comfortable with them touching one case, an acquaintance put their goddamn hand on me while I was in the middle of a meltdown for some woo-ey shit to make me stop melting down. It worked because the touching made me so fucking uncomfortable that I completely shut down and fell silent so he would fucking stop touching me.
I sometimes wonder if this mucks up romanticstuff though, because...assigned male, which means I'm sorta supposed to ignore consent in the awful 'normal' world. I do the opposite and shrink away from anyone I sit next to if I happen to touch them in some way, because my assumption is that they're at least as uncomfortable with it as I am, and I dunno if my act of politeness is actually taken as disinterest x.x;

As an aside, it is interesting to see the signature of user "AndyTheNerd" being: "Yes, you may PM me." It would appear that on the Atheism+ forums, one needs to ask before sending a private message.

It's outlined in the Atheism+ forum rules:

Private Messages: Do not send a PM to anyone without their consent. When asking for permission to discuss a topic via PM, your message should be clear, concise, and free of the argument you wish to make. A one-sentence introduction of "May I PM you about X?" should suffice. Do not complain if consent is not granted, and a lack of affirmative response will always be considered a refusal. If the thread you were contributing to was locked before you had an opportunity to ask, it is permissible to start a new thread for this purpose, but attempts to continue arguments from locked threads in private are strongly frowned upon.
Note: Messages to and from moderators about forum business are excluded from this rule.


The Established Narrative

These stories circle two related, important issues - consent and safety.

Really, what could be worse?

As far as one facing these issues is concerned, either something is happening right now that is directly contradicting what they wish reality to be, or something may soon happen that will injure them.

It is no way to live, and such these problems really should not exist. Especially not in 'enlightened' feminist and secular communities. Right?

A popular explanation for why the problems arise is that some people are plagued with one or many of:
  1. Ignorance
  2. Bigotry
These higher level symptoms have more descriptive terms:
  1. Racism
  2. Transphobia
  3. Misogyny
  4. Etc...
The problem is framed in opposition to an established "old boys club" or perhaps "patriarchy" exercising its entitlement (or perhaps "privilege").

To confront the problem, the proposed solution is to excommunicate the "harassers" from the movements.

The general idea is to insert some "basic moral values" or "conscience" into the movement.

It really sounds quite plausible. Just doing a gut check will tell you that there has to be some proper jerks in the room. Interact with people online and you will get the sense that there may be millions of jerks that need to be expelled or educated.

So onward and upward! Let's destroy evil!

Or maybe not...


A Slightly Different Hypothesis

The problem faced could simply be rampant misogyny, harassment, racism, transphobia and pure undiluted assholery.

Or we could simply be witnessing a bunch of socially awkward penguins work things out.

How does this work in with observed reality?

Atheism and online activism brings a lot of unique individuals out of the woodwork

Put simply, people that think and act outside the parameters of what may be considered 'normal' by today's standards are more likely to find themselves ranting online about social justice.

Institutions of all kinds, everything from churches to binge-drinking nightclubs, have a tendency to push out or turn off a certain demographic.

When "real life" fails to entertain, the internet provides. And within the glorious net there are ways to live vicariously through an online persona.

It matters not whether one wants to be a demon slaying sorcerer, bubbly socialite or a self-aggrandizing political operative. The internet provides the ability to explore without requiring one interact with people at the same level.

The internet helps one avoid, at the very least, the very possibility that touching may occur.

Socially awkward penguins are both victims and abusers

Imagine for a moment that you are a man at WisCon, a feminist sci-fi convention.

It may be a safe bet that you are not God's gift to women. You may understand this by not opening a conversation with a stranger of the opposite sex with a sentence that would immediately reveal your profession or interest related to feminist sci-fi.

It's likely that you did not end up at a feminist sci-fi convention as a part of a road trip with "the guys".

You might be there for the money. You might be there simply because you enjoy the content. You might be there for the chicks.

It's difficult to read the motivations of all the people that would attend such an event.

However it is not a stretch to believe that the people that would spend a weekend in a hotel in Wisconsin talking about the inordinate amount of time they spend reading niche fantasy literature are peculiar people in a peculiar social setting.

A man that would sexually harass a woman at this event qualifies as an asshole. The thing to realize is that he may gain that qualification as a serial socially inept meathead.

Unfortunately the victim of the harassment may suffer from social anxiety problems and the effect of the incident is compounded.

Socially awkward penguins are often late to admit they are socially awkward penguins

Anyone who has participated in a discussion (or something resembling a discussion) online has both committed this crime and witnessed it.

An example exchange:
  1. Person A will voice an opinion or make a statement
  2. One or more of Persons B, C, D will arrive to argue or agree with the point
  3. Several messages will be exchanged
  4. One of the involved parties accepts their view is clouded by relationship/fatigue/medication/revenge
  5. Something like reconciliation may occur

Sometimes this is just some asinine debate on some political topic.

But how do we deal with issues of safety?

Let's say someone claims they feel unsafe at a conference. There is nothing to do but believe that they feel this way.

However it may not map to a view shared by many, and the feeling may occur at a frequency that is not publicized with the same fervor.

Nobody seems keen on sharing the frequency that they find themselves in an unpleasant predicament. If they did, they run the risk that many would dismiss their concerns altogether. Many might say they are simply "crying wolf" about the "facts" of the situation and such debate will undermine the perspective they wish to share.

Isn't this victim blaming?

One may state out that this 'theory' about the problems plaguing secular/feminist/progressive circles is merely shifting the blame for an incident onto victims reporting problems. It's easy to say that this is merely the same sort of "victim blaming" many women have become accustomed to.

Not only can one critique the clothing, location and sobriety of the victim, they now can consider their mental health and social skills!

This is not true.

The SAP line of reasoning, properly applied, has the following benefits:

  1. Intersectionality
    • It's easy to talk big about "harassment policies" at conferences but it's difficult to adequately contain all marginalized groups with just a few sentences. Usually the items to be ironed out first is usually circling concepts such as misogyny or sexual harassment. Under the SAP model, we simply add on the right for any group/person to be put off by SAPs or extended rights because they are SAPs.
  2. Inclusiveness
    • Sometimes the realm of protection is unnecessarily bounded. It exists to protect those preconceived to be vulnerable from the "privileged" evildoers. However the SAP model provides a way to do away with this distinction. What to do when one rich white male is annoying another rich white male? Accepting there is a good chance that at least one of the parties is a SAP may provide some guidance.

Some difficult choices for activists

Many of the "progressive" types floating around cyberspace like to pay a lot of lip service to being a part of an inclusive movement.

Everyone wants to be part of a big tent that wins political battles and shelters the like minded.

However no one seems to try to actually measure just how inclusive their little activist party is going to be.

Are you going to accommodate people that are victims of serious crimes?

Are you going to accommodate people that experience a great deal of anxiety in crowds?

Are you going to accommodate people with criminal records? (who claim to be rehabilitated, of course)

Some of these questions soon wander off into mundane but also important topics, like how far one is willing to go to look after people with allergies and other conditions.

Recall that a blind man went to an 'inclusive' conference and absolutely hated it.

Activist groups have been keen on the "come one, come all" message. They do this because the organizers themselves are lonely and embattled. In short, they are socially awkward penguins.

These penguins first owe everyone honestly before they can promise inclusivity.

Honesty in this respect first comes in two parts:
  • Honesty about your capabilities to support those with unique needs
  • Honesty about your intention to host those with unique needs
Everyone can then reset their expectations.

The blind man may understand that he would be perhaps the only blind person at a gathering of people that don't have a clue about what being blind is like.

Similarly, the touchy-feely types might take the opportunity to stay home if it's better communicated that a good number of their fellow conference attendees would rather dive into a volcano than be caught on the dance floor.

Honesty is truly the best conference policy.

A Radical Idea

The tired line that many 'feminist' activists like to use these days is the following:
"Feminism is the radical idea that women are people"
It is presented in some sense as being the basis of all their actions and opinions.

It seems fitting to state what this "socially awkward penguin" idea in the same way.

This is the radical idea that once-divorced or never-married 20-and-30-something science fiction fans may not be the all-seeing-eye of gender relations.

This is the radical idea that someone that feels uncomfortable in a movie theatre is probably not going to have a good time at your alcohol-fueled conference.

This is the radical idea that those that play Cards Against Humanity might have a difficult time trying to convince the rest of us when a joke has crossed the line.

This is the radical idea that someone taking medication to deal with anxiety or depression might not find the support they need on Tumblr, Twitter or your conference.

Consider these issues carefully. They will be resurface over and over again.

An excellent example of is coming up soon - a bunch of socially awkward penguin activists will host a conference over Google+.

The conference exists to cast out the demons of a "progressive" secular feminist community by providing an example of "basic moral values".

It's a bit like a World of Warcraft for those that cannot play videogames nearly as well as they can feel a smug sense of moral superiority.

Would the participants be better served spending the weekend getting some sunlight?

Alas, penguins do not tan well.

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