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Being an Ally

16 Apr



I’ve been  trying to answer for myself the question of what makes a good ally,  defining ally as someone who actively supports the rights of an underprivileged group of which they are not a member. I occupy a reasonably privileged place in society and I often feel like in an ineffective advocate for equality. In the name of self-improvement, below is a list of all the key points I could articulate. If anyone reading this has ideas for additions, I’d love to hear them.

1. Be informed. Know the history, know the current politics, talk to people in the underprivileged group about their needs

2. Do advocate – when someone says or does something messed up, call them out even if it’s awkward and even if it wasn’t directed at you. Don’t let your PC decency paralyze you. As in, don’t be too afraid of saying something wrong or being an outsider to get involved. Also don’t assume that your work is already done and that the battle is already won.

3. Don’t ‘white knight’. It’s okay to be, say, offended by a racist comment when you’re the caucasian in the room. But don’t try to speak for an individual in the underprivileged community when they’re there and can speak for themselves unless they have told you they would appreciate this.

4. Do listen. Make sure to actually listen to members of the underprivileged group and to add your voice as a secondary  support to theirs. Signal-boost. Pass the message on. Also, they will tell you who they are, how they feel, and how they’re going to act. None of those are things you should be telling them.

5. Don’t appropriate. An ally does not a member make. You don’t have to claim an identity that isn’t yours to be one of the good guys. This is one of the best bits of ally-writing I’ve ever read. It makes trans equality a personal issue for the author, without ever veering into appropriative, self-congratulatory territory.

6. Don’t use being an ally to offload privilege-guilt. That’s something you need to deal with on your own. No one can magically make your privilege go away, including you. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is something you’re going to have to be aware of. Your good intentions won’t make you immune to saying and doing problematic things.

7. Apologize where it’s called for. If you mess up, ‘fess up (I’m sorry, I wanted to rhyme -alliterate? whatever – so bad). So many people get defensive about how they’re not a racist/misogynist/etc, therefore they can’t have said something screwed up about race or gender. They didn’t mean it like that and that should have been obvious, etc. Don’t explain yourself. A sincere apology and examining your words does more to defend your enlightened reputation. Good people screw up sometimes.

8. Remember the underprivileged group is not a homogeneous block. They will not all have the same opinions and identities. They will not all be ‘model minorities’. They will not all be – and do not have any obligation to be – activists. Also, you are not obliged to totally agree with any given individual in the underprivileged group, as long as you are respectful of their opinions and watch your own privilege.

9. Do  self-examine. Sort of a corollary to #7  – just because you want to be enlightened and decent, doesn’t mean you automatically will be every time. Try and think about the -ist things you might be doing subconsciously or carelessly. Notice where you’re privileged or reinforcing privilege.

Thoughts? Additions? Criticisms?

The Marriage Post

1 Apr

Night of The Living Brides.


Given the recent cases before the Supreme Court, I figured now is as good a time as any for the marriage post. I’ve been trying to edit it up to my satisfaction for the last day or two and I’m officially giving up and just posting it before the moment’s past and I’m eaten by camp nanowrimo anyway. This post is pretty near and dear to my heart, so I may try to do a revised version of it one day. Or it may just stay here in all its sprawly glory.

This decision of Squiddy’s and mine to get married has actually been rather controversial in our circles. Our friends in Altlandia have a variety of reasons for being uncomfortable with and suspicious of the institution of marriage. My mom isn’t crazy about it either; my parents got married by a judge (by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actually) almost a decade into their relationship, pretty much only because they were about to have a kid. Though my parents weren’t really Altlander parents per se, my mother is as marriage-skeptical as the best of them.


How married are my parents? So married. The marriedest.


So it seems reasonable for me to try and explain why Squiddy and I want to do this.

First off, I think there are two major kinds of marriage that get conflated – marriage (legal) and marriage (social). Squiddy and I want both, but I’m going to start with the one that I think is easiest to explain. I don’t think I need to tell you that marriage opens up a wonderful world of legal protections and connections between two people. Taxes, property ownership, medical decisions, child-rearing, you name it, marriage makes it easier and safer.

Let me get this out of the way right now and say that in my perfect world, marriage as it stands would not be the only way to get allthese legal rights and responsibilities with someone(s). I’m not even going to try to encapsulate all my problems with how our governmental bureaucracy categorizes people and relationships – in my utopian fantasy its role would be descriptive rather than prescriptive anyway. In my universe, when you came of age it would be de rigeur to march off to a lawyer and explicitly state who’s making your medical decisions if you’re incapacitated and who’s getting your money if you die. There would be a family registration form of some kind and it would be totally possible to register with whoever you liked. You could register with more than one person – poly families could have the same advantages as monogamous ones and sexual/romantic/familial relationships wouldn’t get automatically privileged over all others. Squiddy and I happen to be monogamous and romantic in a way that pretty much fits the current standard model, but it shouldn’t be everyone’s default.

Wow. I am...never googling rainbow unicorns again. I got some weird shit in results.

Wow. I am…never googling rainbow unicorns again. I got some truly weird shit in results.


However, that’s not the world we’re living in and in these matters I’m rabidly pragmatic. I’ve had a lot of experience with the intersection of law, medicine, and family. I am viscerally aware of what it means for you and your loved ones to have a medical power of attorney and a written will when shit hits the fan. Even ignoring my qualms about marriage in general, the marriage Squiddy and I will be having doesn’t come with the full suite of legal protections yet. The legal security blanket of gay marriage is pretty thin. But does the inadequacy of those advantages mean we shouldn’t go get them anyway? Really no. The perfect, in this case, is the enemy of the good. Squiddy and I whatever chunk of security we can get for each other and practicality trumps everything in that area for us.

Practicality! Safety! Worrying about sad things! Real romantic. So why haven’t we moved somewhere gay marriage is legal, tied the knot in a judge’s office, and called it a day already? I think the explanation for why we want a legal marriage is pretty clear-cut, but why do we want a wedding?

This part’s more complicated.

Continue reading

Jargon and Infinity

14 Mar

I have a conflicted relationship with jargon. In academia and the workplace, it’s easy to hate on. It raises the access threshold to many topics significantly and often ends up obscuring the ideas it’s trying to convey to anyone who hasn’t spent five years painstakingly learning the field. People learn to despise it or be intimidated by it – or conversely to deploy it wantonly for reasons more related to ego than intellectual need.

A good friend and mathematician, who has asked to be referred to as Recursion Goat, eventually showed me the value of jargon. A large swath of the population doesn’t like math, in large part because it’s incredibly poorly taught. Most people are never introduced to higher math and end up thinking it’s all about algebra and moving numbers around, which is a shame. Even if they are introduced to higher math, the jargon scares them away.

Recursion Goat is a bit of a mathematical evangelist. He makes a point of explaining big, jargon-y concepts in accessible terms to anyone who will hold still long enough. He eventually got me to revise my lifelong antipathy to math by making me realize that I didn’t understand what math actually was.

Now, R-Goat does a kind of math that is truly, mind-bogglingly self-referential. He essentially does math to the notion of doing math — examining what kinds of problems are too complex to be solved by computers, extrapolating backwards from proofs to premises, using entirely different logical frameworks to think about thinking. Good stuff. He has helped me understand a lot of truly arcane concepts, without even making me feel particularly handicapped by my ‘well, you passed’ grade in calculus.

But I eventually realized a lot of the work he does actually depends incredibly heavily on jargon. Jargon lets you make huge things – complicated ideas – small enough to manipulate. Once you have the concept of what a poset  is (a notion that itself assumes the whole idea of a set), you can use them in forcing to answer questions that quite frankly would be too complex to even state if you had to build them from the ground up every time. A basic forcing proof would be the size of the encyclopedia britannica if it had to define every single word fully. Knowledge condenses to produce more knowledge.

This is cool because techniques like these let mathematicians make statements about how logic works with rigor. There is an answer to the why-question for a lot of mathematics – every time a teacher said just-because, they lied. There is totally a way to answer why addition is true (okay, actually that’s a complicated question, but it’s interesting), why first order logic is the easiest to work with, what happens if you decide you don’t want to accept all the premises they taught you in school and want to do math differently. Math can totally use a different set of assumptions than the ones you know. If you want, you can abandon the notion that things are either true or false! It’s difficult, but you can work with it. The only way to do that through is jargon.

It’s common, when trying to do math to infinite things the way R-Goat often does, to talk about local similarities. Does the infinite thing have an internally repeating pattern? Is something that’s true of this chunk in the middle of it true for all of it, or most of it? Jargon is sometimes like that;slicing the infinite in ways that lose some of the truth of the thing, but make it possible for us to interact with it at all.

So clearly, I have accepted jargon in STEM things. It’s in Altlandia that jargon sometimes concerns me. *

On the one hand, it’s so hard to talk about things you lack a vocabulary for. The phrases enthusiastic consent or microaggression collapse a set of two or three paragraphs into a word, so that you can talk about how these ideas affect the culture in a persuasive, adroit way and use them to create yet more complicated ideas. It’s mighty difficult to examine a phenomenon when you can’t speak its name.

On the other, labels are very popular in Altlandia in a way that I don’t think is entirely positive. Many Altlanders hit their jargon development all at once and in the rush of realizing that these things they’ve thought and felt are 1) real 2) only the first step in developing new ways of interfacing with the world, turn into those math guys who use jargon wantonly without stopping to think – is this necessary here? Is this adding clarity and/or enabling previously-impossible thoughts?

Lots of people start eagerly checking boxes: cis/trans/genderqueer, gay/straight/bi, romantic/aromantic, sexual/ace, kinky/vanilla – the list is long and I won’t embarrass myself by trying to be comprehensive and missing something. All of these things are real, important things that have been woefully underexplored and disregarded until the jargon moment. The existence and use of these words is good.

But I think we Altlanders could sometimes benefit from looking at ourselves and our relationships and wondering if the closest-approximation jargon is accurate enough – or if we are best-served by collapsing these things into one word instead of giving them their three paragraphs. For an example, bisexual is one of my words. This jargon fits me and I don’t have any qualifications to make to it. I might pick a number on the Kinsey scale for lols, but really I feel like my sexual preferences are locally isomorphic. Which here means they are the same everywhere, no matter where you slice them. Bisexual isn’t disguising any complications for me.

On the other hand, cis doesn’t feel quite like mine. Nor does trans, or even really genderqueer, genderfluid, or any of the other many bits of jargon we’ve come up with to describe the places where gender identity doesn’t behave in a straightforward way. I am uncomfortable with gender. My feelings on it are a complicated three (or three dozen) paragraphs and I don’t think they are well-served by being collapsed into genderquestioning or some sort of catch-all word for unsure.

As R-Goat would say (about totally unrelated math-things), sometimes you want to blackbox the complexity in order to get the proof done, but sometimes you really need to write out every step.

Also, some things are true about me that still don’t constitute a major part of my identity. Which isn’t to say they can’t or shouldn’t for someone else, but sometimes I just don’t want a fact about me to be part of my tagline.

The obvious answer to that seems to be ‘so don’t make it part of the tagline, silly, no one’s playing identity twenty questions with you’. But that can lead to problems. [Tag] might not be a major part of my identity, but sometimes I will want to talk about it. In the world of pervasive jargon-taglines, it can be hard for someone who does not regularly say they are a [tag] to still join the conversation about [tag] as a person with a valid, non-outsider point of view. Jargon constructs insides and outsides and even if they make conversations more manageable, they can exclude a lot.

Saying that you can be X or you can be Y is a huge step forward. It’s so much better than being told, ‘You can only be X. X is all there is.’ But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that you can also be XY, or 22% X and 78% Y, or Z, or POTATO. There’s someone in the world for every box, and that’s awesome. You can’t name them all – nor should you. **

In my gender example from above; I can’t join a conversation about being trans, cis, or genderfluid as an insider and definitely shouldn’t try. I would be appropriating experiences I don’t share. But I would like to be able to approach a conversation about gender as someone who is none of those things, yet still isn’t automatically other-than-you. I would like to talk in a non-labelled space about the whole infinite subjectivity that is happening there.

The rationalist’s urge, which I totally share, is to see something that’s not named and say, well name it! Problem solved! But I think that obscures the deeper problem – some concepts fall through the cracks in labeltown and no matter how many labels you have, some things will still always fall through the cracks. It’s turtles all the way down. Jargon is really useful as a practical tool. But it’s a tool. Taxonomy is not truth; it’s a way of grappling with infinity.


* I am ignoring the fact that it is funny in this context that I have just invented a word for the broad community of people who are kinky, poly, gender not-normative, ace, feminist, anarchist, or are otherwise living and defining themselves in opposition to The Mainstream Cultural Narrative.

** This paragraph courtesy your friendly neighborhood RoboSquid 🙂

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