Thursday, August 1, 2013

How to Go From Voicing Your Opinion To Man-Basher in One Easy Lesson

Recently I attended a blogging conference for women, aptly called BlogHer.

One of the keynote speakers was a guy, aptly called Guy.  

Guy Kawasaki is a baby boomer who rode the first wave of Apple's success (in marketing, I believe) and doesn't seem to have looked back, career-wise. He has more twitter followers than God. I found him to be an engaging, articulate speaker.
Most of the audience seemed to be loving his talk. I was feeling a little suspicious about how heavily he was flogging Google Plus since he, you know, works for them, but I guessed the audience were mostly aware they were being sold to and were cool with that.

Then, he dropped a couple of comments that made me feel uncomfortable- beginning with an ostensibly benign "compliment" about women having great blog names. It felt like women were being bundled together and damned with faint praise. Lea Grover further explains the concept of benevolent sexism here and why that didn't sit well.

After that the  generalisations started coming thick and fast. Next up was  "real women use android." And then "behind every successful man in social media there is probably a woman." When asked how he balances work and family life, he said he has three women BEHIND him- his wife, who runs the family ("God bless her"), a nanny and an assistant. I wondered why he couldn't say they were BESIDE him,  as an equal relationship would imply? Imagine inserting a minority group instead of the word "women": re-read it and ask yourself whether it sounds ok. 

Then there was the remark that he "didn't have the right chromosome" for Pinterest, managing to offend both women and the men who like Pinterest all at once. There was also a generalisation, maybe thrown in for good measure, that he was sure the (female) audience would disagree with his assessment of social media being a tool to market your brand because we all think it's "all kumbaya and sharing your feelings"- patronising much?

I tweeted out my displeasure, as did several others in attendance.  A few days later a piece popped up in the Huffington Post  claiming that "everyone loved it except for one person." Interesting. Untrue. Several women walked out of the talk and several others tweeted and retweeted their concerns. Not a large proportion of the audience, sure, but we're not talking the Lone Ranger here. The piece went on to lambast this mystery woman for her man-bashing, and then extrapolate that criticising one man was the equivalent to hating on all men. Anyone spot that leap in logic? 

The plot thickened when I realised that the piece, written in defence of not just Guy Kawasaki but apparently men everywhere, was written by none other than Kawasaki's assistant, Peg Fitzpatrick.  Although she assured us that she 100% thinks for herself, I do question how much impartiality an employee who presumably likes her job has when discussing her employer's  casual sexism or lack thereof. Call me crazy. I also question whether she has a full grasp of the concepts of casual and internalised sexism.

It feels a little like shadow-boxing, but since I had indeed criticised Kawasaki publicly and since she claimed only one person did it, I will assume I am said man-bashing feminist. Fitzpatrick went on with the dubious assertion that "the damage was done by the attack of one woman who felt it was her duty to project her feminism onto the only man present."  This sentence called to mind, for me, a lone feminist assassin, tweeting from the  shadows dressed all in black, determined to take down the poor, defenceless, solitary male, with nothing but a horde of angry feminists-who-love-men to stop her.

 I can assure you I adore certain men, but not all of them. Because it turns out they're not all alike. Shocking, I know. Also, perhaps equally shockingly, all I was doing was calling out some casually sexist commentary, not executing a personal attack on the dude. Why is it ok for Kawasaki to generalise about women according to his own taste, but when I call out one guy on his comments, I am accused of being a man-hater?

Guy Kawasaki is super wealthy, influential, male, American and a baby boomer. He IS the fricking 1%. Instead of discussing the issues that came out of the comments, maybe investigating why some one else might have a different view, a woman who works for him decided to come out swinging. Really now? Because engaging in reasoned debate is, what.... too hard? Too uncomfortable? 

 I don't think any one is calling Kawasaki a raging misogynist. What I, and others, are saying  is that nice guys perpetrate sexism too. It's casual, it's insidious, and it's a product of the culture we live in. I have no doubt that Kawasaki probably doesn't think he is sexist at all. Fitzpatrick assured her audience that  "if I felt something that he said was sexist, believe me, I would have been the first to call him on it." So what, if you think something is sexist it's ok for you to say so but if someone else has a different view that's not ok, they have to be quiet lest someone tells them they aren't being nice? If I see sexism,  I feel the need to call it out, whether that makes you uncomfortable or not. That makes me neither a man-basher nor slandering an entire gender.

One issue Fitzpatrick and I agree on is that bashing men is not a feminist act. I just don't think that voicing a disagreement over some comments one man made during the course of an interview I attended fits into this category. Five years ago, I may not have taken issue with Kawasaki's comments either, but I like to think I would have been open to other people's interpretations. Since then I have listened, I have read, and I have learned. Fitzpatrick would do well to do the same. In the meantime, I'm sure Guy Kawasaki is doing just fine- possible flesh wounds excepted. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For Maya Who Is Five

I did one of these for Alex a couple of months ago and now it's Maya's turn...avert your eyes if you don't want to read a completely biased account of the wonderfulness of a particularly spectacular newly minted five-year-old.

1. I love your sense of humour. I love your belly laugh, I love when you crack a joke and then laugh at yourself. Raising your glass to your dad when you were three, you announced, "Dad, you are a glorious man!" then gave a chuckle. You invented a one-year-old bald baby with a moustache named Gordon who is responsible for any malodorous smells that permeate the house or car. You are a great mimic.You're just damn funny.

2. You are a ray of pure sunshine. "Don't worry Alex, I still love you." You're affectionate and warm and always see the good. You sing and hum to yourself all day. You draw light in from all around you and reflect it back tenfold. You smile more than anyone I know. You are radiant.

3. Your creativity. You sing, dance, write stories, draw. You make up wonderful names for all of your toys. You perform hip hop and jazz without music. You make up your own song lyrics. "Family is important, they make me glad, I go and give a cuddle to my mum when I feel sad."
You are always expressing yourself. You write beautiful stories. "Damia's eyes were bursting with bigness."
Your love of books and stories, the way you get totally absorbed and lost in imaginary worlds.

4. Your temper. You throw things, get worked up, scream, spit (!), throw yourself on the floor, and then five minutes later the cloud has passed and it's like nothing has happened. Let it out girlfriend. Your spiritedness. If it's something you believe in, you don't take no for an answer.

5. Your self assurance and individuality. A relative commented on your round belly. "That's how my body is supposed to be!" you protested hotly. When asked what you would like, you don't murmur meekly, you boldly state your preference. "I don't really like macaroni but I would like some spaghetti, please." Your suggestion that I "decorate the lounge room a little" during the night so you would have something nice to wake up to on your birthday. "It's a school day but it's still special", you reminded me.
Lately you've taken to wearing a different coloured sock on each foot, because you like it. You know exactly who you are.

6. Your generosity. You would share your last grape with any one who needed it. (you love grapes). You are always looking out for other people. You're always willing to lend a hand, to try to make someone feel better.You lavish people with good feeling, you share your natural resource abundantly.

7. Your enthusiasm, your appreciation of the little things, your perception of detail - smells, sights, sounds, you revel in it all. You embrace life. You inhale deeply when we hug and say, "Mama, you smell so good that my mouth gets extra spit in it when I smell you." You run off the bus every day and into my arms. Your love of reading, and how pleased you are with your own efforts and progress.

8. Your optimism. You always want to believe the best in people. Sometimes I want to protect this in you, from people who might take advantage. You don't have a cynical bone in your body. This is a gorgeous part of who you are. You're always looking for the silver lining.

9. Your empathy. When Alex worries about the duties of adulthood, and who will help him when Mum and Dad die, you say, "Don't worry Alex, I'll drive you places. You can live with me."

10. Your affection. Your little hand slipped into mine that feels just like a tiny hug.

Happy birthday to my opinionated, creative, curious, free-spirited Maya.

Once upon a time you see
In a strange land not far away
I met perchance a little bee
In a most unusual way

And when I asked her who she was she told me Maya
No other bee could ever be like Maya
Maya why'd you question me?
Why is "no" no answer for a bee?

Oh my she's always in a pretty pickle Maya
Helping everyone is little Maya
Maya everyone loves Maya
Maya Maya
Come tell me what you see.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Always on Time

A tweep recently commented that he always shows up 15 minutes early so people don't have to wait, and asked: don't other people do this?

This got me thinking about the psychology of tardiness. It is as straightforward as rudeness? Do people who are always late value their own time more than others?

Personally, I find it annoying when some smug early-comer who has been waiting 15 minutes for me acts slightly peeved when I turn up *on time*. And yes I do know people who do that. If you're going to some one's house, I think early is actually more rude than late. But in a public place, every minute standing waiting for some one feels much longer. So ideally you both get there within minutes of each other. At least there are phones to let people know whether and how late you are running - I remember meeting people as a teen and having to agree to an exact time and place before leaving the house and then that was it - no second chances - show up or stand some one up.

I am definitely sympathetic towards people who find lateness in others supremely frustrating. And certainly it may *seem* like they just don't value your time as much as they value their own. But just because *you* think it should be easy or at least achievable to be punctual the majority of the time, doesn't mean it's as easy for other people. You can't assume that something that seems logical to you, or even to them, translates into something that is easily done. Humans are tricky that way. Isn't there any annoying habit you have yourself that you're not overly fond of, that you know you should probably do better at, that seems easy for other people to just do/not do? I know, the difference here may be that this is something that affects others too, but that doesn't mean that it is easier to accomplish, or that the reasons for not being successful are selfish ones.

I think it's more complex than just feeling other people should wait for you. I think it's tied to personality to a degree. Latecomers tend to be disorganised - maybe they just don't manage to judge the time it will take to get somewhere correctly. Maybe they were distracted, lost in their own world. Perhaps they are trying to please too many people, have over-committed themselves elsewhere and are trying to be all things to all people. Maybe they have a pathological fear of being early - I know that my mum was *always* late when I was a child, and I hated waiting for her so  much that even now I feel anxious about waiting for people to arrive. I also hate to keep people waiting, so I try to be exactly on time. As you can imagine this can be a recipe for disaster.

I have to admit that I tend to be more often  late than early - due to any (and sometimes) all of the reasons above (and my track record is improving - those who have known me for a long time may have put me in the 'hopeless' category but these days I am just as often right on time). When I am late it is usually  not by more than 5 or 10 minutes. I don't even know if you would call that late - to me, a 5-10 minute window is acceptable. It doesn't bother me at all when others do this, however I do apologise when I do it because for some people it's firmly in the 'late' category. Again, this may be down to personality - your more exacting, A-type personalities tend to be sticklers for punctuality, and I imagine the more creative types among us tend to define it more loosely. Maybe there are some people who just meander along and don't care less whether they keep people waiting interminable amounts of time, turning up whenever they feel like it, but I don't know many people like that. Being late causes me no small anxiety.

When you throw small children into the mix, of course, the concept of being 'on time' has to be continually modified to suit the level of urgency. You just can't force it all the time - and if you do, you end up one very stressed out parent. Even then, the number of variables outside your control shoot up exponentially.

When some one is deeply, undeniably, frustratingly late, and often, I think that's a whole other ball game. When people invite you some where and tell you the time is an hour before the start to try and get you there on time, things are bad. I'm still not convinced that even this kind of tardiness is connected to pure arrogance though. I am sure there is a more complex psychological reason for their subconscious reluctance, even fear, of being on time. And each case is different. But as with any behaviour that affects the functionality of your life or those around you, if that's you, it may be time to do something about it.

Just for fun, and oldie but a goodie:

I also came across this interesting piece in Psychology Today.

How do you feel about lateness? Which side of the fence do you sit on? Do you think it's a sign of rudeness or are you one of the ones who can never quite get there at the appointed time? If so, why do you think that is?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Choices We Make


n. An act of selecting or making a decision when presented with two or more possibilities.

Choices are not made in a vacuum. The choices we make are dependent on our circumstances. This should be self-evident, but it seems that the notion of "free choice" irrespective of station or context remains a popular one in our society. The possibilities we are presented with in order to make a selection are often dependent on factors beyond our control. This is what makes the notion of "choice" such a loaded, and sometimes dangerous, concept.

When we think about choice we need to think about privilege. Because the more privilege we have, generally, the greater the number of choices. I am privileged in a number of ways. I'm white, educated, comfortably off and I am fortunate to live in a country where I can vote and my rights are protected. Therefore, the choices open to me are far greater than for some one with fewer privileges. Still, there are limitations to my choices.

"I do not believe things happen accidentally. I believe you earn them" - Madeleine Albright. This sentiment goes hand in hand with the idea that we all  make choices in life. And it's up to us to choose wisely in order to "succeed."

When I was younger, I may have found these words inspiring and encouraging. Fresh out of university, the world was my oyster. I was only limited by my imagination. I was young, lovely, smart and healthy. The hardest part was having so many choices. Until then, my life had been steered in a certain direction thanks to other people's choices. I didn't consider whether I would go to university, rather - which one, which course. My choices in that area were somewhat limited due to the fact that I had to work to support myself so didn't feel like I had the choice to take on a degree that required a heavy study load. Luckily, though, my first choice was a communications degree anyway.At another point I was waylaid by illness and had to delay study for a year. I made the choice to defer in order to get better. It was a good choice. I went back when I was well and completed my degree. So far, all my choices had been fairly simple.

 Then one of my best friends got gravely ill with cancer. She spent six months in hospital undergoing chemo and radiation, and a stem cell transplant. I made the choice to get a job as a medical receptionist in a dermatology clinic next door to the hospital so I could visit her every day at lunchtime and after work. Looking back, I'm so glad I made this choice. It was another no-brainer. Important, but easy to make.

I went on to make various choices around where I worked, lived and travelled. I never considered my fate to be anything but my own making. Nothing was happening accidentally. I was earning things. I  made the most of opportunities. I moved ahead, took chances. I had choices.

Fast forward years later. My career was doing well, such that it was. Despite any real forward planning I had stumbled from one interesting-looking job to another and managed to work my way up to a fairly high level position for my age, with a salary to match. In fact, I was earning more than my husband. Then, I had a baby.

And this is where "choices" got complicated.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge again that I do have a lot of privilege. And there are many, many women with far fewer choices than me. Single mothers, women on disability allowances, women whose partners are on low incomes and who have no choice about whether to work or not, women for whom working is too expensive. I'm saying I am privileged and yet my choices are still limited. I'm just talking about me.

I took a year maternity leave. I imagined that a year was a very long time indeed to be away from work, having not been out of work since I was 15. I imagined my baby would be very independent by then, and that I would sort out some form of childcare when the time came. Oh, the naivete! But I saw other women who worked and had babies. I heard people agreeing that a year was more than enough to be away. And that I would have to get back to work at least part time if I wanted to continue having a career.

A year later, things changed. It turned out I had a high needs baby. One who was very attached to me, and my breasts. One who didn't like to be put down, let alone left with a carer. One who wouldn't take a bottle. What's more, I had spent the year researching different parenting approaches and philosophies. After a fairly inglorious trial-and-error start, it turned out I was an attachment parent. I wanted to be with my child, not just him with me. I wanted to be the one to teach him and help him grow, I wanted to be around him. Yes, all the time. This may seem extreme. But it's how I felt. I wasn't ready to let go and neither was he.

So this is where the choices become tricky. I was able to extend my maternity leave for another year, re-labelled into a vague 'general leave' category. But my  husband and I soon realised that without my salary we couldn't afford to keep living in Sydney. We could barely afford to rent in an area that was close to his work -  our hope of buying somewhere to live had faded into a pipe dream. Again, even being able to rent withing a short commute from the office was a privilege denied many. But we didn't want the "choice" of buying a house if it meant a 1.5 hour commute each way.

So we chose to leave town. We moved north and settled into a new life. Of course, for me, this meant making a more permanent decision about leaving my career behind. Because I couldn't have it both ways. See how this choice works? Luckily my husband was able to keep his job and his salary and transfer to a different office, in a more affordable city. More privilege.

Now my choices were less about getting my career back on track and more about whether I wanted to or could work at all. It would mean a new job where I had no credit or track record and a lower salary. I still didn't want to work full time and part time jobs are not that easy to come by. Choice, reframed again.

By this time I was pregnant with my second child and sick throughout. So the idea of work got shelved again. When my daughter was born, I was as attached to her as I had been my son. I couldn't think about leaving her for at least another two years. Lots of people asked me about my work plans. When describing myself as a stay at home mum brought the conversation to a standstill in certain circles, I found myself delving into my past to explain my qualifications and previous work experience, as though to assure the acquaintance that I do have an actual brain. People expressed surprise, or said "I couldn't do that" with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. It says something about the way our society views caring work when the idea that I want to be around my children a lot seems like the lesser choice, the extreme choice. It didn't seem extreme to me, and certainly not to my children.

It had now been over four years since I had had a job. My choices were getting slimmer. I had no family nearby since the move, so the only real possibility for childcare was long day care. With two small children in long day care, I would have had to earn a small fortune to break even. Suddenly the word choice seemed slightly laughable. Yes, I would tell people, I choose to stay home with my children.

Four years out of the workforce. Four years out of the loop. Four years of doing other things. It felt like a chasm. I became anxious about jumping back into the fray. Who would do all the things I had been doing to keep the home fires burning? I had friends who were working mothers who hung out washing at 5am, and did midnight grocery runs. I suppose that's their choice. And I had made mine.

I made a deal with myself. When the first child started school, the day care fees would be reduced. I'd look for a job then. But what? The part time jobs still seemed thin on the ground. And full time, with no family, seemed daunting. Who would take time off if the kids were sick? It would have to be me, since I would certainly be earning less than my husband. Who would have to leave at 5 on the dot to collect the kids? Me again, for the same reason. My husband couldn't afford to jeopardise his job.

By the time the eldest child was in school an opportunity came up for us to relocate to Canada for two years. It was a wonderful opportunity. We thought about it. It would mean a lot of adventure. Since I didn't actually have a job it seemed churlish to wonder what impact it would have on my (non-existent) career. We thought it would be a good time to go before I got stuck into anything and it became too hard to leave.

So off we went. We arrived, again with no family support and this time not even a network of friends to lean on. There was the summer, finding a place to live, settling the kids into school. My youngest is still only in school every other day. I have a work permit, so I have the choice to work. However this would mean long day care in an unfamiliar environment. If there are any places available. And with a summer that lasts two and  a half months, that is a lot of expensive summer camps. Times two. I have applied to couple of places but nothing has panned out. My availability is limited. It's just the way it is. I'm not unhappy at home. I still enjoy spending time with my children. I don't bake. I'm not a particularly good housekeeper.  When I'm not with the children I am reading, writing or tweeting. I'm expanding my mind in my own personal ways. If you care to pay attention, children give you a hell of an education as well. I find interacting with them far more fulfilling than sitting through another meeting on customer retention rates.

I have made decisions based on the choices available to me at the time. I'm happy with that. But all of a sudden, it has been seven years that I have been out of the workforce. My husband's earning capacity has long since far outstripped mine. I have broken every rule in the feminist handbook. Some would say I have sabotaged myself. I have flipped the bird to all the women before me who fought so hard for me to have the choice to maintain a career and have children. I am totally financially dependent on a man. I am a stay at home mum. Not just that, but a long-term one. How many workplaces would welcome back some one like me with open arms? How many have flexible work conditions, not just in policy but in action? How many would pay well enough to allow for before and after and school holiday care and still allow me to earn a decent living?

 For me, I could not have my children, my career and my sanity. I had to pick two. That was my choice.

Gatsby, Baz, and the Society of the Spectacle

I'm not sure whether this is going to be a popular opinion, because haters gonna hate, but: I really enjoyed seeing Gatsby given the Baz treatment.

For starters, the soundtrack is a stroke of genius. Especially the jazz/hip hop fusion but all of it. Just the right mixture of modern and nostalgic. And in true Baz fashion, the film is a visual spectacular par excellence. The party scenes will blow your hair back. The attention to detail is exquisite.

If it's a triumph of style over substance then it's perfectly poised to deliver the book's central message. The fall from grace and the emptiness behind the opulence is well rendered on the big screen. The melodrama serves the narrative well, particularly in the hot and highly charged hotel room scene with the showdown between Tom and Gatsby.

Daisy is vapid, selfish and distractable. Tom is boorish, arrogant and racist. Gatsby is obsessive, possessive and somewhat delusional. Nick is annoying in that wide-eyed, "who me?" way of his. All true to form.

As for the casting: I have issues. Mulligan at 28, and Fisher at 37  are closest in age to their characters. Di Caprio is 38. He doesn't pass for 32. Do you think they would have recycled Claire Danes or Kate Winslet from ten years ago to play the female lead? No. Also, I  know it's part of the look but Di Caprio's make up artist went too far with the bronzer. The permatan went George Hamilton ways. And he would have had that frown botox'd to hell if he was a woman.

Joel Edgerton was too old to play 30 year old Tom. He was meant to be a young arrogant buffoon not a middle aged one. Of course my main issue with these male leads is the age discrepancy with the females. Fisher's character is supposed to be mid-thirties and therefore older. The two male leads are supposed to be around the same age as Daisy, whom they are  both ten years older than. And Daisy, pale-faced Daisy, looks even younger than that. Not a line or blemish on her face.

Fisher's character Myrtle is described in the book as being "stout, thickish, no facet or gleam of beauty." This description does not hold true whatsoever. I did read that Fisher "ate lots of cupcakes" to prepare for the role. It didn't work. Film is open to interpretation of course, but it's more than slightly suspicious that every other details is rendered with painstaking accuracy except the one character who is not conventionally attractive. We can't have stout, thickish, non-beautiful women playing some one's mistress now can we?

I read Baz's explanation for making Nick narrate the whole thing from a sanitarium. He researched it. He felt the film audience needed more context. And it fit with Fitzgerald's other stories. But still: NO BAZ NO. Bad idea.

Similarly the extra dialogue. Well-researched to fit Fitzgerald's lexicon and at times even lifted straight from his other work. But still, no. It was clunky. And why do American movies always have to over explain everything? The beauty and simplicity of the novel was as much in what was left out of it.

Gatsby is a romance in the same way that Every Breath You Take by the Police is a love song. Or in the way Romeo & Juliet is a romance. It's not about love. It's about obsession, possession and the surface of things. The desire for loyalty above all else. And how meaningless it is when it's attached to arbitrary principles.

Humans get caught up in the simulacra of love: romance. They think romance is proof of love. Sometimes the distinction between love and romance can feel infinitesimally small. Other times gapingly large. It's easy, even human, to believe the hype. It's also foolish, and dangerous, if you mistake one for the other, and you perpetuate it. It's a zero sum game. It certainly was for Gatsby. Gatsby the film takes us on this ride just as well as the book did.

Guy Debord wrote a book called Society of the Spectacle in 1967. Gatsby describes the same thing. It's been going on for a hundred years. Debord describes the history of social life as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." He says "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." (this was 40 years before social media btw).

Debord posits that the spectacle came into being in the late 1920s. So just after Gatsby.

Gatsby started it! Gatsby caused the decline of modern civilisation!

And Baz, you have carried the torch.

Monday, May 13, 2013

When bad things happen to Mother's Day

I hate the "supermum" meme. I hate the "I don't know how she does it" trope. I hate the "Mother's Day is your one day off for the year" joke.

Mothers shouldn't have to be superhuman. The humanity should be shared around. It's an empty compliment.

Mother's Day shouldn't be to thank mothers for doing more than everyone else for the rest of the year. It shouldn't be about looking at mothers in amazement and awe because they cope with most of the burdens of family life.

If it is any of that, I don't want it. You don't hear similar things about Father's Day. Think about it. You don't hear "Dad, you work so hard for us, take the day off." Fathers are congratulated simply for being. Mothers are congratulated for always holding down the fort. For being everything. It's too big a burden. Don't thank them for that. Lighten the load.

Fathers and mothers should be supported and and acknowledged for the gifts of humanity that they hand down to their children. For their unique and important role in society. Raising children. Fathers who do this are just as important as mothers. But we expect so much more of mothers.

It's sexist to perpetuate the "put your feet up, love, I'll do the dishes tonight" attitude towards Mother's Day. If you're doing something that should be shared equally on any given day as part of generally being a decent human being, and you think it's doing a special favour to volunteer for it on Mother's Day, you're doing it wrong.

The reality is most women do bear the brunt of the household manual and emotional labour. But a day of fawning doesn't cut it. I think symbolism, ritual and gratitude are important, don't get me wrong. A day to celebrate mothers is welcome. But don't co-opt it.

Mother's and Father's Day, any day of celebration, should be a chance to honour the unique qualities of that individual in a way that they would like. Say thank you. But mothers deserve appreciation and support every day of the year.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Advice on how other people raise their children: proceed with caution

So here we have yet another childless guy handing out advice on what parents  are doing wrong, and why they should all just relax because it's really got nothing to do with them. Kids will turn out how they turn out, our nature is ingrained in us and there's not much we can do as parents to change or  modify it. It's a brave dude who wades into this debate wielding nothing more than an opinion.

[F]rom my vantage point, watching the kids of my three siblings and of my many peers grow up, I’m struck less by the genius or folly of diverse child-rearing techniques than by the way most of the children matured into who they seemed, from the get-go, destined to be.

I'm sorry, I didn't realise that Frank Bruni has a PhD in psychology. Despite the reams of research to the contrary he seems to be insisting that it's almost entirely nature that determines how we turn out. Why? No reason - well, no factual reason is provided, just it's kind of what he's noticed among his (no doubt middle class, white) relatives' and friends' kids. And really, (should I say Frankly? lol) I would be equally as unlikely to take his advice even if he did have children, because of the limitations of extrapolating what's good for us all on the basis of one's own experience.

So here's the thing. He gets it half right. We are all born with certain temperamental traits that aren't going to change no matter what we (or our parents) do. However, this is very different to saying that no matter how you parent a child, their outcomes will be the same. Bruni has a very eloquent, witty style. His argument is not only persuasive, it's funny. And I'm sure many readers will recognise themselves (or people they know) in his anecdotes. But 1 + 1 does not equal 5. Even though some  of his criticism is valid for some  parents, the alternatives he is suggesting are not. And neither does he take modern parenting in the context of modern life.

There is no accurate way of knowing how a whole generation of today's children (with their disparate circumstances) are going to "turn out"  because, quite simply, they are still children. We can't study something that hasn't happened yet.

Above all I’m confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs. The counsel keeps coming, from every possible corner and from unexpected shamans. The actress Jessica Alba just produced a book, “The Honest Life,” which includes her take on mothering, and she noted pointedly in a recent interview that it’s more relevant than the tidbits proffered by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow in her online newsletter, goop.

It's true that this generation of parents has way more information immediately available to them than any prior. And with that information comes anxiety over whether we are doing it right. This is a double-edged sword. Why can't we just muddle along like we used to? There is more than a bit of revisionist nostalgia in this argument. Every generation has faced its challenges. In 'our day' there were no teenagers with mobile phones, but we didn't have access to the amazing raft of knowledge that kids these days have at their fingertips either. It's possible to deny a modern teen a phone, but don't kid yourself that you're harking back to a simpler time by doing so. Most of the other kids will have access to one and it's in this context that you're making your decision.

We also didn't wear seatbelts as much so more kids died in car accidents. Smacking and hitting children was  more socially acceptable. Our parents smoked indoors. As Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better. More information means more power, we just have to use it wisely.

Why all the choices — “What would you like to wear?”— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan. I understand that you want them to adore you. But having them fear you is surely the saner strategy, not just for you and for them but for the rest of us and the future of the republic.

If Bruni is going to use anecdotal evidence as the basis of his argument to scold modern parents then I can do the same to achieve the opposite. How about this: most parents I know are more engaged with their kids, more aware of their emotional state, and have access to more relevant information on current child development. Bruni despairs about families run as democracies, and children getting actual choices  - shock horror. He ignorantly asserts the (unfortunately commonly held) view that children do need to fear their parents a little, despite vast amounts of research which indicates that all fear-based parenting does is teach the child to try harder not to get caught.

About the feeding: explain to me what’s gained by the voluminous discussions, within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina, of what he or she probably won’t eat or definitely won’t eat or must somehow be made to eat, perhaps with a bribe. Any food that lands on the table after that much tortured preamble is bound to be eyed with suspicion and ultimately spurned, in part because it has ceased to be a vessel of nutrition or an answer to hunger at that point. It has become a power struggle: the parents’ wishes versus the child’s defiance. And the battle seems to end one and only one way. With chicken fingers.

I’M equally confounded by the all-encompassing praise. Not every kid is gifted at every endeavor, and I wonder about the wisdom of telling him or her that a bit of doggerel is Shakespearean or that a wan patch of warbling is an “American Idol” audition waiting to happen. I wonder why everybody has to be a winner. You can eliminate the valedictorians from high school but you can’t eliminate them from life, which metes out Super Bowl rings and stock options with an uneven hand, and is probably best tackled with some preparatory girding for that. Do today’s parents provide it?

I agree with his basic sentiments on not using food as a power struggle and also the dangers of over-praising. Again, there is a fair amount of research and debate on this within early childhood circles. I have to question, though, exactly what type of parent he is referring to when asking whether 'today's parent' provides the necessary structure that their children need. This is just another form of stereotyping. Replace the word 'parent' with a particular nationality or gender and the same generalization becomes laughable. Does 'today's woman' care too much about her hair? Does a Chinese person these days eat too much rice? How can we discuss 'today's parent' as though they were one homogenous group? Of course there are trends in parenting, as it has always been so. The way we act generally is influence by social mores. But can we get away from the "do better" school of advice? He seems to be referring to a particular cliched version of Western, affluent parenting, which he would do well to specify (if writing for the NYT is not specific enough).

So parents: cut yourselves some slack. Take a deep breath. No one false step or one missed call is going to consign your children to an entirely different future. Make sure that they know they’re loved. Make sure that they know their place. And make peace with the fact that you don’t hold all or even most of the cards. There may be a frustrating sense of helplessness in that realization. But there’s a mercy, too.

It's okay, parents, take a load off. Quit thinking so hard about allowing your children so many darn choices. This crazy notion you have that children should somehow have some agency in their own lives is just a product of your own self-involvement. Apparently you're all trying waaay too hard. It's really simple if you just follow his age-old, baseless advice.

Of course Bruni is entitled to his narrow, presumptuous opinions. I just don't think the 'mock and judge' style of advice-giving which relies on recognizable but by-now-tired stereotypes is particularly helpful. He just comes across as a kind of smartypants. He seems to be suggesting we should take the methods by which "we" (meaning he) was raised - no phone, fear-based, not being given an over-inflated sense of self, and  translate them into today's parenting. Just a few decades ago, not only was parenting not a verb, many fathers had much less involvement in their children's development. These days, things are changing and more fathers are getting to experience the benefits as well as the challenges of intricate and complex relationships with their children. When and if your turn comes, and you try to apply ye olde parenting philosophies, good luck with that, buddy. Let me know how you get on. And when you end up with the most spirited, never-sleeping, strong-willed child in the world, call me. So that I can read back every word of that piece to you and watch you eat each one.

For Alex Who Is Seven

I got this idea from Andie at bluemilk, and I enjoyed her post so much that I decided to do one of my own.

I think it's all too rare that we celebrate and recognise our children for specifically what makes them, them. The infuriating, the great, and everything in between. Of course we all love our children but I know I am sometimes guilty of getting carried away on the abstract emotion and it's good to stop and consider what it is about this little person that's so wonderful. Occasionally the kids will say to me, "What if you had another kid instead of me? Would you love them as much?" - a philosophical doozy if ever there was one. The 'sliding doors' of parenting. Do I love my children for who they  are or simply by virtue of the fact that they are my children and I am biologically designed to love them? I tell them the answer is: both. Of course I am designed to love them, and I do. But I also love what is unique in them. The biologically-driven love is there already. The other things are what I search out and name.

So this is for Alex. I know he is quite private and so am I, but I hope he doesn't mind me sharing this, when he's old enough to understand it.

Ten Things I Love About You

1. The intensity with which you do and feel everything. You won't put a lid on it. You react viscerally to the world. This is not over-sensitivity, you do not need to "suck it up" although the world keeps telling you to. It's okay. Keep expressing yourself. The delight, the rage. It's all truth. I'm not afraid of it. It does make me worry for you sometimes, and I can see so much of myself in you. But I won't look away, or tell you to get over it. On the day before your birthday, you had been moody all afternoon. You walked up to our whiteboard and drew this.

Then looked me in the eye and walked away. I get it.

2.Your empathy and kindness. The way you come and crawl into bed for a cuddle when I have a sleep-in on the weekends, then get up and tuck me in and tell me you'll come back and let me know when Dad has made the tea. What a wonderful way to wake up.
When Maya told me at your birthday party that she was feeling left out, and you were having so much fun with your friends, I pulled you aside and told you what Maya had said, and you went over to comfort her and give her a hug. When you took treats to school to hand out to your classmates, you made sure to take an extra one for  Diego, the school bus driver.

3. Your persistence. This drives me crazy but I am so happy that you stand your ground and don't back down easily. You keep going until you are satisfied, with an answer or an outcome.

4. The way you question everything. Nothing is a given. Sometimes we go down such long paths of questioning that can only lead to both of us pulling our hair out in frustration (often while I am driving on a freeway). Sometimes the only answer I have is "I don't know." Other times it's "let's find out." When you were two you asked me who makes it day and night, when you were three it was what happens when saltwater and fresh water come together in the ocean or sea? And questions of death, theology, human behaviour ("why do kids give me presents that they would like instead of thinking about what I would like?" "why do some grown ups think they know everything more than kids? I bet they don't know as many Star Wars characters as I do"), and of course " would you die if XX happened" (often with demonstration using a teddy or toy as model) continue to come thick and fast. And innumerable questions about thieves, traps, and the Home Alone movies. You make me question and define my position on almost everything. This is a good thing.

5. Your enthusiasm. When you started Grade One you began to write  and illustrate your own books, and asked me how you would go about getting them published. One of your suggestions was to sell them out the front of the house. Pretty soon many of the other kids in your class were making books too. Your enthusiasm is catching. Since developing an interest* in the Trash Pack you find new and inventive ways to play with them. I love how you do this.


6. Your perceptiveness. You notice things that pass other people by. Your superb memory helps, but you also have a singular attention to detail. When you were three, I pointed out the sun at dusk and the way it dipped below the horizon. "No mummy," you corrected me, "It's not the sun that moves, it's the Earth." Whilst watching The Wizard of Oz, you asked what the wicked witch drank if water killed her. How did she live without water?
You also didn't like the Pete the Cat book where the cat gets his shoes covered with red strawberries followed by blueberries, and sings about his blue shoes. You felt that it should be purple shoes, since the red was already underneath, and you asked me to substitute the word purple each time blue appeared in the text.
You call me out when I'm distracted. "Mum that was the kind of 'yeah' you say when you're not really listening. Look at me!"

 A detailed rendering of the Trashies.

7. Your sense of reason. A few days after feeling disturbed by the lack of logic in Pete the Cat, you commented that perhaps they had said blue instead of purple because it fit into the rhythm of the sentence better - blue was only one beat and purple two. So it seems you had made peace with the factual anomaly for the sake of artistic license. Even after a meltdown you're always prepared (once calm) to come back and talk it through, and try to see the other point of view.

8. Your interest in and awareness of issues that affect other people. You ask me why there are not many Chinese or brown people on TV. You tell me your friend is not very lucky because there are not many brown superheroes to choose from. Mace Windu is one of the only ones. You ask about homeless people and how they got to be homeless. When you were four you said to me, "Some people might think $1 isn't much, but if you haven't got $1, then $1 is a lot."

9. Your refusal to be any one except just who you are. You won't be drawn into chit-chat by adults, you refuse eye contact because it makes you uncomfortable. You don't like having attention drawn to yourself.   Since before you wore socks with sandals for an entire term to preschool, you've never been worried about following the crowd. I was wondering whether the usual need to fit in might at some point supersede this individuality. So far it hasn't. When Maya started crying at the mention of getting a hair cut, you told her, "Beautiful is not important. Boys try to be cool, but I'm not cool and I don't care."  Ironically, this lack of concern about being cool, and this ability to be your own self, makes you the coolest kid ever in my book.

10.  The way you execute your rapid-fire karate moves, anytime anywhere. Getting ready for school, getting ready for a bath, whenever the mood strikes.

Can't Hold Us

Coolest song.

Surviving Progress

Watching TV the other night, an ad came on for a car company. The voice over said,

 "Nothing is more valued in Canada than the promise of something new."

The same could be said for any Western country. But what kind of world are we living in when this statement is used to SELL MORE STUFF rather than as a DIRE WARNING about how wrong we have got it?

I understand that it's good to want to  move forward, and that change is exciting. New things are shiny. But when does it stop?

Some may call it an ad campaign, I call it everything that is wrong with capitalism.

The next night I watched a movie called Surviving Progress. Produced by Martin Scorcese, it looks at concepts such as progress traps - ideas and technologies which may seem to be progressing us as a society but are in fact leading us right over the edge of a cliff - and examines the idea of good and bad progress.

In the film Margaret Atwood says: "Nature is not this endless credit card that we can keep drawing on."

Anthropologist Jane Goodall says: "Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite resources is bound to collapse."

I think they should show this in every school.

No I will not take a chill pill

I started to compose this post several weeks ago during the Oscars fiasco and tweeting aftermath. Then I hadn't gotten it quite right so it has languished in the drafts folder. But now all my draft posts are coming out to play, because why not?

This particular incident was a time of rapid education for me. As a white Australian woman fairly newly arrived in Canada, my field of reference on this was very limited. I could immediately see how the Oscars commentary and the ensuing offensive Onion tweet was sexist but I didn't immediately see how it was racist. I have now been exposed to a great many great thinkers and writers on the subject of race and feminist intersectionality via Twitter, and my understanding around this has taken a leap forward. I still have SO much to learn but it was a watershed moment for me.

So here is a wrap-up of as many good posts on the subject as I could find.

Alyssa at thinkprogress had this to say about how we discuss comedy and why it's problematic
Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian about the need for offensive comedy to have an underlying point, especially if it's aimed at minorities- otherwise it's just bullying.

Lindy West at Jezebel expressed her 'sexism fatigue' and her frustration at having to constantly explain why and how something is sexist to people who don't actually seem to want to know.

This post at Derora Noo on why she's tired of being a good sport.

Jose Vilson talks here about the inherent racism in the Onion's tweet and how we see our children of colour.

Margaret Lyons at Vulture argues that this kind of sexism does matter.

Here's T.F Charlton explaining why the Onion's tweet was so hurtful.

Laura Hudson says the Onion tweet was well-intentioned, but wrong.

Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony says the Onion tweet was infuriating but not at all surprising.

Pia Glenn wrote this about why she often pushes the boundary of good taste, and will even defend rape jokes, but not this.

Rania Khalek at Dispatches From the Underclass addresses the arguments about free speech, the intention of the Onion's tweet being irrelevant and the arguments that it wasn't a racist attack. I love the sub-heading of her blog: amplifying the voices of the voiceless. This, to me goes to the heart of the issue. Those with the biggest platform bear the greatest responsibility for using their power and privilege wisely. Women, gay people, people of colour - these are the groups that are so often denied a voice. So when white men say "what's the big deal?" as though it's anywhere near a level playing field, it just shows how blind they are to their own privilege and how much harder they need to work to listen to the voiceless.

And although I am loathe to link to this kind of opposing argument, because I don't think it holds any logical merit, of course you can read for yourself if you are so inclined. (yes this is a completely partisan blog, and I  make no apologies for that!)

Satire is about debasing the status quo - poking fun of something in a knowing way, so that the underlying intent is to skewer the system on which the satire is based. This works well when the satire is directed towards structures, groups or individuals who hold a great deal of influence and power, because it works towards addressing the imbalance. When you make fun of people who already cop it day in , day out, with little redress - it takes the leap from satire into plain nastiness.

When those groups who you are aiming your 'comedy' at have far less ability to reply in kind, when their voices are routinely shut down, devalued and they have far fewer channels to command attention, then all you are doing is contributing to keeping them down. I noticed a distinct lack of jokes aimed at the majority of power players in the room - wealthy white men. The only way Macfarlane poked fun at himself was to acknowledge that people would find his humour crude and offensive - a fact which he seems to take pleasure in, and therefore qualifies as acceptable humour. I didn't say it was funny, but it's fine because in making fun of himself he's not undermining anything or anyone. He clearly holds the power - he has a captive audience of a billion people - so making a self-referential joke about his terrible jokes is not going to put a dent in his confidence.

I'm also curious as to why some people seem so disturbed and frustrated, even angry, about the "outrage". If some one has a right to be offensive, in the name of free speech, as some people claim, then surely others have the right to be offended and to express this? Outrage is often mocked as though people have an obligation to find the same things outrageous. Every one just calm down, goes the argument, find something legitimate to complain about. Usually it's white men writing this, and one has to assume that they appoint themselves judge and juror as to what constitutes a "legitimate" source of outrage.

We all know words are powerful - I hope that's a basic fact that we can agree on. So why, when something is labelled a "joke", does it get a free pass? If something is supposed to be funny, do we let it slide? If any act of racism or sexism is cloaked in a "joke", should we say nothing? Evil prospers when good people do nothing. Words build a climate, an atmosphere. Speeches change minds. Attitudes spread. All of this matters. Every little bit. It's not up to me to argue whether I found something personally funny or not - but if a significant group of people, especially those who are used to being marginalised, speak out and say 'this isn't right' - then it doesn't matter whether I think it's funny or not, there is an obligation as a society to listen.

Intent doesn't make a thing racist/sexist or not -  in some instances it may make some difference to the way a comment is received but often times it makes no difference. Your intent does not equal the outcome. The outcome is based on the audience's perception. Jokes are subjective, I accept that. Harmless? No. Lots of things are subjective, from how we treat each other to whether a particular colour is more blue or more green. But the fact remains, as a society we strive for a general consensus on what's fair and reasonable. And hopefully over time we try to get rid of the rules that are less fair, and move towards equality. And in doing so we have to decide as a group, even on subjective topics, what's fair and reasonable. Think about the history of violence and oppression against women and racial minorities in the 20th century. Many atrocities were considered 'reasonable' by a portion of people in order for them to be accepted. I'm not suggesting that some off-colour jokes are *as bad* as, say, women not being able to vote, but the attitude that comes from one feeds the other. There comes a point at which an individual's right to free speech and liberty butts up against the greater good. So while I defend a person's right to have their opinion, even if it's a badly-formed one, when the pulpit from which he speaks broadcasts to an audience of a billion people? I think it's right to stand up against it and say, subjective or not, I disagree, and my opinion counts. As does the many many others who have voiced their displeasure. It's not right to sit back and brush it off as 'comedy' when such comedy does real damage. It's not a simple matter of 'causing offence' and hurting some one's feelings. These attitudes are ingrained, marginalised people are further marginalised every day as a result of these words. We shouldn't feel pressured into laughing them off at the risk of being labelled uptight, humourless, or thought police.

When some one tells me not to over-react, not to make a big hoo-ha about it, you can bet that's pretty much exactly what I am going to do. No I will not take a chill pill.

The greatest nation on earth

Crossing the border from Canada to the United States is an interesting experience. In Australia, which borders no other country, you can't do this. I am reminded of the arbitrary nature of nationalism - over here, you're in Canada, a minute later, the United States. People drive back and forth across the border to do their grocery shopping or fill up their cars with gas (petrol - I mean really, North Americans, there is nothing gas-like about it). And yet the two countries, whilst sharing many traits that could be deemed North American, have quite distinct personalities.

The first thing I notice upon entering the United States is the proliferation of American flags. It's lucky they do that because otherwise I might have forgotten where I was for a minute. We drive past many dilapidated, boarded-up houses. I'm not sure whether they are victims of the Global Financial Crisis or just that the neighbourhood we are in has always been thus. They look like they could have been that way a while.

We stop for coffee and baked goods. An older lady with grey hair is our server. We ask for tea and she somewhat defensively tells us we'll have to wait a few minutes because some one didn't bother to put a fresh pot on when the old one was finished. We say, that's fine, we'll wait. She softens and thanks us. I guess she is used to people reacting badly to having to wait five minutes for a cup of tea. Maybe she's been on her feet all day. Maybe she's had enough. She gives us an extra treat to thank us for our patience. I want to give it back to her.

The gloss and glamour of the image America projects to the world through its movies, TV shows and music is dazzling. When I was a kid, anything American was, by default, coveted. But there is an underbelly of division in opportunity that the world doesn't see. When the President proclaims with conviction (and he is certainly not the first to do so) that America is "the greatest nation on earth" one assumes this is because of the lofty ideals of equal opportunity for all. The idea that is is a place where any one can make it with a bit of hard work and determination. That in a free market, any one with an idea can work their way up to the top. Individual freedom, liberty and opportunity is prized. But it's not a level playing field. And those in greatest need often stay that way. It's interesting to me that it's taken as a given that every one should want to make it big. That every one should want to make their dreams come true. That capitalism is held up as virtuous and somehow the perfect system for perpetual motion. It's that Oprah-style "find out what you were put on the planet to do" ideation that permeates the aspirational classes. But who on earth was put on the earth to be a waitress, or a janitor, or a toll booth collector? And what would happen to those jobs if every one did what they were "supposed" to be doing? If everyone followed their bliss, the world would collapse. There would be no service workers. So in this system, true equality and liberation for all is not actually possible. Capitalism itself encourages competition rather than the sharing of resources. So this notion of egalitarianism is out of step with the reality of what it takes to make it here.

Our waitress greets us with a smile and shows us to our seats. The food is ridiculously cheap. The service is ridiculously friendly. The portions are ridiculously large. Our waitress has one of her front teeth missing. I assume she doesn't have dental coverage. I wonder what her dream is.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Trouble in Trash Pack land

There is trouble in trash pack land.

A few months ago Alex had some spare pocket money and he decided to purchase a packet of toys known as The Trash Pack. If you’re not familiar with them, these tiny squishy characters resemble a motley crew of assorted rubbish. Dirty socks, old computers, there is even an ant holding a piece of what looks like poo. Their appeal to the six-to-seven-year-old demographic is obvious. Small, detailed, and disgusting. And actually somewhat adorable. You can get all sorts of accoutrements such as the garbage truck, street sweeper and affectionately named “scum drum.” There are endless trashies to collect and swap – a marketer’s dream. As a parent, I approve of the non-violent aspect – I’m quite happy to give the existential minefield of Star Wars a miss for now.

Alex had recognised these toys from a packet he had from Australia, most of which, admittedly, were now lost. His interest was renewed with a vengeance, however, and he became duly obsessed, as is his wont. It seemed his fervour was contagious, and quite quickly the trash pack became the latest craze in Grade One. Kids (including Alex) were hosting trash pack themed birthday parties left and right. All was well with the world.

Then, yesterday, it became clear that the honeymoon was over. Out of the blue, an email was sent to the entire school containing this picture.

That says it all really. Trashies are now persona non grata at the elementary school. Apparently they were causing too many arguments and distractions. 

My first thought was, uh oh, this is all because of the toy Alex introduced to the school. 

My second thought was, if this was all because of the toy Alex brought to the school, couldn’t they have just sent a note home to Grade One? I guess they wanted to make sure every one got the message, without singling any one out. 

My third thought was, oh well, I can understand their viewpoint. Maybe some kids haven’t got as many trashies and are feeling left out.

My fourth thought was, hang on, if they ban trashies, something else will just pop up to take its place. Last year it was Bey Blades and before that Pokemon cards. If they ban trashies then they really should issue a blanket ban on any and all toys being brought from home. That would be more consistent.

Alex took it pretty well. He had been worded up by the teacher at school. He did ask me, however, why the school would ban them when any kid could just buy a packed of 5 from the shop for $6 and then be included in the game. And he would have lent his trashies out to play with until the end of recess if some one didn’t have any.

I have since found out that Trashies were invented by an Aussie company (clearly intended for the American market since no self-respecting Australian would use the word “trash”). Typically, the Aussies are using an Aussie product to create trouble in Pleasantville.

My final thoughts are this. If something takes the place of the trashies and Alex wants in, and I have to either say no or go and buy more expensive toys, I’ll have to suggest to the principal that maybe it would be better to just ban all toys at school. Also, although I can see the school’s reasoning, the rule still seems a little fascist to me. Surely there are lots of ups and downs in school life, and negotiating being a part of a group, leaving your toys in your bag during class, etc, are part of the deal.

Have the trashies been made into scapegoats?

Friday, February 22, 2013

A plain person

Recently I've had a few conversations with various people about work ethic, ambition and identity. 

How much should we care about what other people think of us? When it comes to work, how many people work harder because they want external approval, recognition and reward? And how much of it is internally driven? Is this a good or bad thing for society?

A lot of people put a lot of their identity into their job. When you can name what you do in a few words and it gives you a socially admired status, often that is a feeling that people want to replicate. So we find ways to explain our identity in terms of what we do for a living. 

For some people, work is their life. They love it, it's their passion. I admire these people. For others, particularly those in the caring professions, it's like a calling - they want to use their talents and skills to help others in a meaningful way. For some, it's just a means to an end, a way to pay the bills in order to get on with the real business of living. I don't think any of these represent the right or wrong way of doing things. But when people use their jobs as a way of exerting power, claiming superiority, or flashing the trappings of their "success" - no. And sometimes I think putting undue pressure on kids (especially from parents) to know what they want to be can cause them to think they have to go for something that others will approve of, rather than what they really want to do. I also acknowledge that it takes a certain privilege to assume that you will be able to follow your passion and still support yourself, and that sometimes the source of parental pressure is an underlying anxiety about poverty. But sometimes, it is about living up to social expectations. 

Of course I want my kids to develop a love of learning, and to be contributing members of society. But more than that, I want them to feel fulfilled by their own personal definition of success. I don't want them to worry about having to explain their occupation to people. For me, what you do is interesting only in so far as you think it is, and it doesn't matter whether you are the CEO or the janitor, if you treat people well and have the courage of your convictions. 

When I asked my kids what they would like to be when they grow up, Ms 4 ran through a list of options, and finally said, "I think I just want to be a plain person." In a world where so much of our validation still rests on what we do, I reckon being a plain person is a great thing to aim for. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

How to have a discussion (not how to win an argument)

So often when we try to make a point, if some one disagrees, our instinctive reaction is to defend ourselves. This is fair enough, particularly if it is a point we feel strongly about, or if we are trying to inform or educate others. People need to know! I have to stand up for what I believe! Dependent on temperament and inclination, the way we do this ranges in intensity, from 'sorry you feel that way' appeasement to 'fuck you' aggression.

If what we are saying has an emotional component for us, and some one criticizes it, then it's so much harder not to take it personally, even if the criticism was benign. Still, it's worth considering whether there is something to be learned from the exchange. Are we trying to win an argument or have a discussion?

Similarly, when some one says or writes something that we strongly disagree with, it's easy to launch an emotive attack. But if we choose our words more carefully, and hold back the vitriol, there is a greater chance that our words will be listened to.

When we are criticised, how we react is crucial to whether an avenue for understanding is opened or shut firmly closed. There needs to be some give and take on both sides. If some one is willing to engage with us in a thoughtful, considered way, surely the least we owe them is "I'll have a think about that" rather than "that wasn't what I meant/you're misinterpreting me/I was only joking/you're too sensitive." Because acknowledging another voice does not actually weaken our own argument. It simply says, you see things differently, perhaps I could learn from that. This  point is particularly salient when the person commenting has a lived experience of whatever it is we have said that has ruffled them.

Perhaps many people don't think things through this much: they react emotively, they write what they think, and people can like it or lump it. But this kind of communication, whilst it may take some practice if you're not used to it, doesn't actually require that much extra forethought. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Illogical responses to dissent such as "if you don't like it, don't read it" make absolutely no sense. For one thing, it's too late, I've already read it. For another, there may be aspects of the argument I agree with and other things I dispute - is it not possible to take a nuanced approach? And lastly, if I only ever read and responded to things I agree with, I would be a very dull person indeed. This nonsensical argument is the equivalent of "talk to the hand."

Similarly, starting or building an argument around the notion that "my parents did x and I'm ok" or "I did x and my kids are ok" is illogical in the extreme. A case study of one does not prove anything (nor, I might add, does it disprove anything). This spurious claim is used to back up any number of ill-conceived activities - lots of kids bounced around in the back seat of cars and are ok, but unfortunately plenty are not, hence the improved car seats and seatbelt laws. When we know better, we do better. There's nothing wrong with stating one person's case, one person's opinion, one person's experience. Of course that is completely valid, and others may feel relieved at finding some one with a similar view or experience. But saying "I did this and I'm ok" is implying that if you do it, you will be ok too, a claim that has no basis in fact. It irritates me when people say this, particularly in regard to say, the use of baby formula or particular parenting practices.

In parenting, as in life, none of us are perfect. And the guilt that's laid on seems to feel like quicksand sometimes, which is why I think people are so keen on defending their own position. But if we back down just a bit, and consider other points of view, perhaps we could take the sting out of those superficially innocuous comments. One person's "light teasing" is another person's trigger. And no we can't stop to consider every single word that comes out of our mouths, we can't be responsible for other people's feelings or whether or not they will be hurt by our words. But we can't dictate other people's reactions either, nor do we have a right to tell them what is funny and what is offensive. That is completely personal. So I think if we do or say something that a person or people try to tell us, in a reasonable way, doesn't sit well with them - and particularly if the comment relates to something that is outside our experience but within theirs - what is the harm in acknowledging their point of view, and giving its potential validity some thought?

Feminism is not static, it's not one idea, it's not cohesive. It never will be. But if we can step outside our own opinion to listen to the effect our words have on others, perhaps we can include something of their experience in the way we approach our next argument. And so we learn and grow. But it needs the person criticising to do it in such a way that they are prepared to allow for the other person's acceptance of their viewpoint. In many cases it is fair for the oppressed to be angry and vocally so, but by hurling insults at those who anger you, there is no room for education. You'll more than likely only get blocked or become involved in a slanging match. If you're the person responding to criticism, think about it this way: what if I give the person the benefit of the doubt, what if I put aside my feelings that I am being attacked and try to think this through logically? If it *still* makes no sense to you, and you can reasonably articulate why, then go ahead. But "don't read it then" is not reasonable or articulate.

Recently I have encountered this type of behaviour in social media. I have seen feminists make statements that I disagree with, and I have spoken up about it. Some of them have graciously acknowledged my points, others have brushed them off in what I feel was a fairly dismissive (although by no means hostile) way. I have also seen other conversations of varying intensity take place, ranging from civil discussion to thinly-veiled (or not at all veiled) warfare. The conversations I like best are the ones that try to find a common ground and use it as a jumping off point. Even if they then don't reach any kind of consensus on the issue at hand, when plain and concise rather than inflammatory or dismissive language is used, it usually ends well.

Feminists who sometimes use their intellect to condescend to others in what I see as a nasty way (Helen Razer for instance) are not doing feminism, nor enagaged discussion, any favours. Feminists who scream and shout and call people names? Again, maybe not going to win you much real influence. If that's not your aim, fair enough. But surely the progress of any movement or idea means getting people on board in order for it to gain momentum? When people feel talked down to, or insulted, they'll just switch off. Perhaps people like Razer don't care, she has her niche and she's sticking to it. That's ok. As long as she knows that she is  missing out on an audience because often, people don't want to hear nasty invective disguised as wit. And this tends to  happens when she is sneering at people whose experience or opinion does not match her own (case in point: mummy bloggers, women in supermarkets with crying children).

It is the same concept with any kind of privilege. It can be hard to take into account a viewpoint that does not include or affect you. But we must try. There is a danger in ignoring your own blind spot, we need to keep pushing ourselves to listen to other voices. There is a parallel between the "nice" white man, who is theoretically egalitarian and supprotive of feminism and racial equality, who still laughs at sexist or racist jokes because he can't see the harm, and feminists who say "surely a bit of teasing is ok" in regards to marginalised groups, or dismiss breastfeeding discrimination as trivial or a "non-issue".  While these feminists are working so hard to get others to see their point of view, and rightfully so, they sometimes struggle to do the same for others. This doesn't mean they don't mean well or have their own set of valid points to make, or that they are not allies (same as the "good" white guys) .I don't think it's helpful to punish people for failing to understand but I do think it's important that they have the decency to listen and acknowledge when this might be the case. Any one who dismisses or attacks some one for "getting it wrong" occasionally is going to be a very lonely human being up there on their high horse. Because when you alienate good people you are polarising debate, not educating. Some people can't see past their own anger in order to do that. And we could look to people like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr for examples of people who are completely entitled to their rage and yet found ways to better channel it in order to affect change.

Accepting someone's viewpoint or that they feel hurt is not the same as apologising for having a view of your own. In social media, comments get conflated and misinterpreted - there is little room for tone or nuance in 140 characters. And of course we know and trust our own motivations but not necessarily those of others, particularly when we have only encountered them and their views in the process of being questioned by them. I understand that in publishing something into the public domain you leave yourself open to criticism and it can be hard to feel constantly attacked for merely voicing your own opinion, but I would caution against lumping all the would-be "attackers" in together. Abuse and trolling should never be tolerated. But it's a shame to ignore genuine reactions of disappointment that have been eloquently expressed - in this instance, I think it is the writer's responsibility to be open to hearing these reactions.

Similarly, as much as it is helpful to dissect and and examine a particular approach rather than a specific person or comment, we need to be wary of dispatching vague complaints lest the wrong audience be felt as a  target, and hackles rise once more. How is complaining about "all the snark and judgement" useful? Alluding to other nasty discussions or comparing women to "SRC Princesses" smacks of the same "mean girls" mentality you are purportedly complaining about.

No one, particularly not women, should have to play "nice" and agree all the time. Refrains of "why can't we all just get along/be kind to each other" are disingenuous. We are never going to see eye to eye all the time. Ideas should be expressed and challenged, that is how we move forward as a society. One person's "judgment" is another person's astute observation. We all judge ourselves and each other in everything we do. But the judgment goes a step further when we try to prove that our way is better than yours, or that we understand all about your motivations and disapprove. Blame, disapproval and moralising are rarely helpful. And if we can all try to show empathy for another's experience that is a place to start. I can discuss different views and approaches without  losing hold of my own values. I can be a strong advocate for breastfeeding without blaming or disparaging mothers who formula feed. Tara Moss does this exceptionally well. I love everything she writes on the subject.

I find the more about an argument that I can agree with, in the case of Jane Caro's recent piece on slacker parenting- I found much of it funny and light-hearted - the easier it is to engage with the writer and try to explain what about it made me uncomfortable. There are other pieces, of course, such as this one by Michelle Bridges that I find so abhorrent I do not know where to begin, such is my exasperation. That is not to say that I find the writer abhorrent, of course, but I do find her ideas entirely misguided and lacking in empathy. I also can't see one iota of fact or research in her argument. I have nothing personal against her, it's quite probable that in her mind she feels that she is providing a service, it's just that I could not disagree more, and I think her ideas are damaging, regardless of her intentions. It's easier in these cases to not even give the argument any oxygen but I think that is a mistake. There are some positions that are so far apart from your own it feels hardly worth arguing. People against same-sex marriage, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers fall into that category for me. But of course it is a tricky balance - if everyone found these arguments so ridiculous as to ignore them, would they be allowed to thrive or would they just die a natural death? In that case I suppose it is worth considering what change you can hope to affect, if any, by wading in, and what level of influence the person arguing currently has. Is your comment going to fan a non-existent flame or is it going to help put out a blaze?

This is not about censorship. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that more people should be able to state their views, with less offence taken. But with a little consideration and care, there can be much less bloodshed in the process.

To make a point,and make it well, is to give others food for thought.  Feminists who do this well include bluemilk, cristy clark, mamabook and sunili. Their arguments are well thought out and considered, so that if any one has a dissenting view, they are prepared to discuss it and back themselves up with logic.

Personally, I don't get offended very easily. I try to see where the person is coming from and what might be going on for them to make them comment in such a way. Offence can be such a mealy-mouthed word that gets in the way of telling it like it is. Good satire is clever and funny, and it's good to be able to laugh at ourselves from time to time.

There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions, and sharing them. But we mustn't confuse this with being unwilling to extend our knowledge to include what others are able to teach us either. Of course ultimately it's up to us to either assimilate this new viewpoint into our own understanding or not, but stopping to listen is a great way to start.

As feminists, aren't we asking men to think outside of their own experience, to consider that what matters to people other than themselves is important? Shouldn't we ask each other to do the same? And don't we want to work with men rather than against them, to help those who don't quite understand (but have good intentions) to appreciate our experiences? Shouldn't we give each other the same courtesy?

As I was mulling over all of these ideas and wondering how to best express them, the following two songs came on my ipod, randomly.

The first one is an example of the danger of letting your pride get in the way of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Suzanne Vega - The Queen and the Soldier

The second one is a great anthemic track about how we are really all just after the same thing in the end.

Mark Ronson feat Katy B- Anywhere in the World