Social Media, Pleasure, and Harm Reduction

I finished two books yesterday that couldn’t possibly have been more different: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which (spoiler alert) I hated, and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism. 

I came to Digital Minimalism because after the terrorism in New Zealand I was increasingly frustrated that I spend so much time providing free content and lucrative page views for corporations who passively/actively encourage the murder of my friends. About which Newport says “I want to bypass a discussion of the potential pathologies of the social media universe and keep our focus on the zero-sum relationship between online and offline interaction.” Or, let’s skip talking about the rise of the alt-right in online spaces, and instead keep our focus where it belongs–social media is destroying conversation.

The shift to individual choice is, of course, one of the fundamental problems in discussions about minimalism. Every product is allowed to be on the market. Every space is allowed to exist. It’s only consumption that is the problem. Facebook is addictive, but we aren’t going to suggest that Facebook itself should change. Instead, it is a moral failing for you to be addicted to this addictive substance. You just need to make more rules, to keep a better eye on  your values, and to accept some “personal inconvenience.” But, in fact, social media both is and is not an individual problem. Obviously, we can do things to help ourselves. There are hundreds of articles of tips and tricks online, from turning off all your notifications to putting your phone in greyscale mode. Read them; maybe one will work for you. But only as a collective mass can we produce desperately necessary institutional change for things like hate speech.

A second problem is that minimalism as a philosophy expects us to weigh every choice against our values. Doesn’t that sound great? Except, we don’t. I don’t mean that it’s your personal failing. I mean human brains don’t do that. Nor do we want them to. You don’t slam on your brakes rather than hit a person with your car because you take a moment to weigh your options. We are ruled by habits, by unconscious choices, and by implicit biases. Our use of technology, much more than traditional minimalist topics like shopping, is almost entirely unconscious. You don’t decide to check your phone; you just check your phone. Breaking habits is hard, especially when that habit surrounds an addictive substance. Newport’s shame-based ideology that begins with prohibition and concludes that if we only stopped using technology we would recognize how awful it is doesn’t seem like much of an answer.

I would like to shift here from prohibition to pleasure.

While I read Cal Newport’s book in two days, I spent two weeks moving slowly through adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism. Brown and I are very different people, and I found most of the book to be, somewhat disappointingly, about drugs I don’t use and kinds of sex that I don’t have. Two points, though, have really impacted me.

First, in a conversation about sex work, Chanelle Gallant notes that “getting good wages is the harm reduction of capitalism.” I had never thought to consider harm reduction outside of its original context in drug use. (Harm reduction drives programs like needle exchanges.) But what happens if we think of harm reduction expansively? What is the harm reduction for late-stage capitalism? For isolation? For excessive and misogynist emotional labor? For being re-traumatized by the news every day/week/month? How do we make sure everyone survives the right now, with bodies and hearts and minds intact, so that we can still exist when something better happens?

How, most relevantly to this conversation, do we exist on social media in a way that doesn’t leave either us or our friends feeling more isolated?

More generally, though, after a few days with brown’s book I found myself asking “am I enjoying this?” It turned out to be a fascinating question. Americans have a bad relationship to pleasure. We are suspicious of happiness. I grew up, like many Americans do, in a religious context that deliberately embraced the fact that life is suffering, and that by suffering now we will be eternally joyful. Earthly joy is not Godly. In the social justice circles I inhabit as an adult, it’s also pretty hard to be happy, both because we’re aware of a lot of terrible things and because we are so conscious of the unfair conditions that created our happiness. On top of that, women are taught that our happiness is less valuable than the comfort of others. Pleasure is seen as both a useless frivolity and selfish, and enjoyment becomes a sign of moral failure.

In that context, “Am I enjoying this?” is a quietly revolutionary question. Obviously the answer isn’t always going to be yes. We do a lot of things for reasons other than enjoyment. (I don’t enjoy flossing my teeth, but it’s a lot better than dental work.) At the same time, we can also make choices that improve our pleasure-outcomes. I’m much more likely to wash the dishes if the window is open where I can see the birds. I love two cups of coffee, but the third makes me feel ill. “Am I enjoying this?” leads to “Could I be enjoying this?” and/or “If not, is there a reason I’m doing it?”

On the flip side, denying and troubling our right to happiness actually creates the conditions that let addictive technology thrive. We lose our ability to say, “this isn’t fun anymore” after the third hour of Netflix because we don’t honor our ability to say “this is fun” during the first episode. If the first episode is already something that you shouldn’t be doing, or shouldn’t be enjoying, then you have already impeded your ability to intervene in the autoplay cycle. If every check of Facebook is giving in to the temptations of evil, then why not stay for an hour once you click? But these things aren’t failures. It’s okay to do things that bring you happiness, no matter how fleeting, and it’s okay to stop them when that happiness ends. 

I’m fully aware that this is also in some sense a shift of collective responsibility to the individual. I feel, though, that a shift based on consent, on saying yes, is liberatory rather than shaming, and only in liberation can we move forward. (It’s also easier to build a habit than eliminate one.) Within that context we can better extract the actual benefits from a largely inescapable system that we want to change but also don’t have very much power to change. That is, we can revel in the ways that social media and technology bring us pleasure and thus have a more nuanced and full understanding of the ways that they don’t. The language of authentic pleasure gives us a methodology for interacting with dopamine-based manipulation. As brown says, speaking of social justice but also applicable here, “our misery only serves those who wish to control us, to have our existence be in service to their own.”

Pleasure and connection and authenticity are the harm reduction for technology. Let’s inhabit them.

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An Alternative Framework for Resolutions

I love the New Year. I love the beginning of a new calendar; the beauty of a blank slate. I love, to be honest, that the crush of winter holidays are over.

New Years’ Resolutions, on the other hand, are awkward. The most public resolvers are women, and their resolutions are very often geared toward being better as a woman. This year, they will manage to fit the gym in amongst their crushing duties as a parent and worker and caregiver. This year, they will have the perfect summer body. This year, they will finally be the size that the diet-industrial complex wants them to be. This year, they will drink enough water to have luminous, dewy skin.

In February, we’ll see a host of conversations about how resolutions fail. None of those conversations will address the core issue: you absolutely, cannot, be good enough at any of those goals to consider them achieved, because that is how women are kept as consumers of commodities. If you lose five pounds, you should have lost ten. If you lose 50 pounds, you’re too thin. If you go to the gym three times a week, you should have run a marathon. If you ran a marathon, didn’t your kids miss you while you were training? You cannot complete a goal whose goalposts are constantly changing, and constantly changing goalposts are absolutely essential to the construction of femininity. If we achieved it, we could move on to something, anything, else.

Instead, I would like to posit an alternative conception of the commercially co-opted “self-care.”

Several weeks ago, I read Adrienne Rich’s feminist reclamation of Emily Dickinson. One of Rich’s points is that Dickinson was not “crazy”; she was a recluse (to oversimplify the argument slightly) because she was a genius with excellent boundaries: “Given her vocation, she was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.” The nineteenth century ate women artists alive, and Dickinson declined to be eaten.

Rich herself had had her work brought to a halt as she struggled to wed a poetic practice to a conventional 1950s marriage and motherhood. Her career only flourished after her children were older; there is a touch of longing in her argument.

One of the artist Jenny Holzer’s most resonant pieces is the text banner: SAVE ME FROM WHAT I WANT. Holzer’s language is always intended to be ambiguous, but clearly here she hit a nerve with a female audience that recognizes the destructive power of desire. (At my local art museum, you can buy it on a tote bag. A conversation for another day.) Wanting, for women, either destroys or reifies the entire system. We are only allowed to want within certain parameters. It can be easier to opt out of desire entirely than to face that, but in opting out of real desire we fall prey to shallowness.

The dialogue we have on social media now is about self-care. Audre Lorde called it an act of “political warfare,” which is mostly quoted by people who forget that Lorde was a radical black woman, dying of cancer as she wrote those words. Every day that she was alive was one more day to do her work, and for that she was willing to adhere to a strict medical regimen that she hated. That is the forgotten urgency that “self-care” as a practice was born in.

In the latest issue of Bitch Magazine, Evette Dionne defines self-care as “a set of cultivated habits designed to improve mental, emotional, and physical health.” Later in the issue, s.e. smith calls out the commercialization of what should be powerful: “getting a $5 manicure from an immigrant making minimum wage without adequate workplace health precautions is certainly an act of political warfare, but not the kind Lorde referenced.” (Many immigrant manicurists do not even make minimum wage.) Smith praises our urge to “nourish and support,” in Dionne’s sense, but the framework of self-care has become relentlessly consumerist and anti-feminist. Our supportive actions are bought and sold as quickly as we can think them up, and that buying and selling undercuts both their purpose and their radical potential.

I put these images out to suggest that we should consider the revolutionary power of wanting what we really want, not what we think we should want or have been told to want.  We can then fiercely cultivate the practices that support us doing that thing. That kind of self-care is a praxis that allows the creation of our most radical, most real, most free humanity.

On Shopping Fervor

I did something today that I haven’t done since the old, old days of indie yarn–I snatched up a limited edition item in a product launch.

I sat, heart racing, and refreshed a browser screen until a product popped up, and then I bought it as quickly as possible before someone else could beat me to it.

I won.

And I realized, even as I was doing it: that feeling is actually gross. The eager anticipation, the feeling of triumph. I didn’t particularly like that person sitting there, shopping with ferocity and intent.

Then I went by the related Ravelry thread, and saw all of the people lamenting desperately that they were not in time to receive said item. Someone else typed faster; someone else had already programmed in their payment details. They should have warned us that there were so few available.

I think there’s supposed to be a gentle smirk in that act of checking who got cut out; a subtle gloat that you were the one who was right on time. Instead I just feel queasy that grown women are, if they are being sincere, actually crying with disappointment about some knitting-related geegaw.

I don’t mean to mock people who are heartbroken. Instead, I see it as proof that being in communities where consumption is a valued, praised, habitual activity is inherently corrosive and infantilizing. This is why I stopped participating in knitting communities back in the height of indie-dying. I want to support individual women and their businesses, just as I don’t want to shop like it’s the most important thing in my life.

I think about that nexus a lot, and if you’ve been to my blog before you’ve seen other versions of this conversation. I don’t have an answer.

I bought a limited edition, highly-sought after thing that I can afford but only vaguely justify, from a woman whose business I admire. I will be happy to have it, and I will use it. I find, though, that the experience reminded me very much of the rotten heart of even the best-meant commerce.

I wish that crafting, of all places, could be a celebration of skill, tenacity, and understanding rather than a shopping mall on Black Friday.

Finished Object: Some Time Alone

I am not a prolific knitter. This year I’ve finished two sweaters, a hat, and now this shawl, and that makes more than probably the last four years combined.

I’m also not someone who includes making as part of a social practice. That is, while I think that some people successfully position their craft as a revolution of sorts, it has never worked that way for me. Maybe that’s because, as I’ve written here before, I find that makers often displace marketplace capitalism uncritically into their making, as  either a frantic pace of production or of consumption. Or, it’s possible that having lived mostly in climates where all handknits are purely decorative items, I simply can’t make the same case.

I’ve always considered that to be unfortunate, and I think the truly ancient parts of this blog were an attempt to do that in spite of myself. I wish I could imagine my knitting as, somehow, an act of rebellious justice. Instead it’s just a thing I do, sporadically, when I remember that I could be doing something else while I watch TV. It feels like a missed opportunity.

In any event, I made this. Pattern: Sylvia McFadden, Some Time Alone, from her book Gentle Armour. Yarn is Backyard Fiberworks American Wool 2017–the CVM/Raw Silk blend they produced for Mason Dixon Knitting last year. This is exactly the kind of yarn I like best, in exactly the kind of knitting I like best.

Sylvia McFadden, Some Time Alone shawl

Social Justice is Not Charity

In the eighteenth century there was a popular and lively belief that the good feeling we get from charity was the earthly reward for doing something worthwhile. I wrote a (literal) dissertation on how that idea changed, but let’s just say that it has lingered in various ways.

Charity is emotional. We give to causes that we respond to, and charitable organizations market toward those feelings. If you don’t cry over the ASPCA commercial, it’s not because you weren’t meant to. Open hearts, open pockets.

Organizations that accept physical (as opposed to strictly monetary) donations get caught in the fallout of this. People will drive a considerable distance and go to a great deal of trouble to donate trash, just for that hit of feeling like they are helping. (They are not helping, but the volunteers who accept those donations are strictly coached to never imply that.) You will notice right now that fire-relief charities are begging people not to donate physical objects for exactly this reason. On the monetary side, organizations are often pressured to accept strings-attached funding for glamorous or high-profile projects, while basic services go wanting.

Charity is about giving gold stars to donors, no matter what they donate, because their good feelings are the only thing keeping you afloat.

This might sound harsh, but I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with donating to, or volunteering with, a charitable organization or participating in acts of private charity. I am simply drawing attention to the ways that work is rewarding.

People come to social justice work with that same attitude. I am helping! I need a gold star! And when that glowing moment of recognition and gratitude is not forthcoming, those same people tend to become angry that the environment is too hostile. These people are not grateful for my work.

But social justice isn’t charity. Charity is charity.

Social justice is about rectifying serious, structural problems. It usually starts with a deep recognition of how you participate in and benefit from those structures. That doesn’t feel good–it feels bad. The fact that it feels less bad for you than it does for the victims of those structures also feels bad. But it doesn’t matter that you feel bad, because this isn’t charity.

(Charity, in fact, exists, outside of isolated incidences, because of the problems activist work is trying to solve, and there can be an odd resistance  from people who really love charitable work to truly liberating people from that framework.)

In some activist spaces, the resistance to “gold stars for participation” has led to an active antagonism toward good feelings. This can be tricky to navigate if you aren’t used to it. The emphasis on bad feelings isn’t intended to drive people from the work, though. It is intended to cut short that moment where the good feelings stop. If you bring your trash to social justice spaces, you are going to get called on it, so that you will bring less trash next time. In order to do serious activism, as opposed to charity, you need to be willing to be uncomfortable. If you aren’t, it’s best that you try again later.

Social justice is a slog. It is hard, and strategic. It is banging your head against the wall of both your own internalized misogyny/racism/transphobia/homophobia/ableism and the very structures of your own daily life. And that slog is not undertaken because those poor people need your help, and you can save them–it’s undertaken because it’s the only right thing to do. You may find that work internally rewarding sometimes, but oppressed people do not owe you thanks for taking the boot off their neck.

Writing About The White Women’s Vote

Today I read what feels like my twelfth think-piece written by a white woman about how white women vote. I’m not linking them, because they are tiresome. You’ve probably read them, too. They all say, at greater or lesser length, that white women vote against their own interests because they like white supremacy more than they like womanhood.

Setting aside momentarily the fact that white feminists co-opted this entire argument from black women, which I’ll get to, can we please consider the implications of this whole discourse?

Before I begin, two points. First: I’d like to ask why we are discussing at such mind-numbing length how white women vote, when I haven’t seen a single piece about how white men vote. Is it that we think we have an “in” with women? That they aren’t so hopeless? Why are we more frustrated with our sisters than our husbands, for the same behavior?

Secondly: I’m skirting a “not all white women” line here, which, somewhat contrarily, is the opposite of my intent. Stay with me.

Now, let’s talk through some numbers.

Nationally speaking, using the exit polls from the 2018 midterms, women as a whole strongly prefer Democrats (59/40), while men as a whole slightly prefer Republicans (47/51). White women are either evenly split or very slightly left; the Pew poll has them at 49/49, but I’ve also seen 50/49. White men are heavily conservative, at 39/60. If this would make more sense to you in a chart, you can see it here.

White women are much more likely to be liberal than white men, while black women are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate (in the 90% range). This is what tips the “all women” vote that extra ten points left.

There are some great details in this long piece here, which I will summarize with the following generalities:

-College educated white women are majority Democratic

-Millennial white women are majority Democratic

-Non-religious white women are majority Democratic

-Urban women are majority Democratic

Statistically, then, everyone reading an article written by a white woman about how white women are terrible voters (and thus white supremacists) is probably a white woman who is not a terrible voter. Which makes them not think pieces at all, but a weird kind of defensive take down of those “other” women. The “not all white women” isn’t usually stated–some of these articles even work against it–but it remains right there for the taking. “Well, I didn’t vote for patriarchal white supremacy, so I’m not who this article is about.” That’s where it matters that this idea re-entered popular consciousness from black women, who mean all white women, without the implicit “except me and you, dear reader.”

“Except us” is obscuring that most fundamental problem–white women are all complicit in white supremacy, no matter how we vote. It glosses over the work that we all need to do. It turns voting “correctly” into a pass, no matter how you frame the argument. You can’t write an article about how women who vote a certain way are white supremacists and not, in some way or another, put your readers, who voted the opposite way, on a pedestal, even if that pedestal is the lowly “we aren’t as bad; at least we voted right.” This is a disservice to white liberal women, who need to take anti-racist work much more seriously at the daily level, not just in the voting booth.

It also does a disservice to white conservative women by stripping them of their legitimate concerns. Once liberal white women argue that conservative women, and only conservative women, are voting for white supremacy, they lose every chance of actually broadening the percentage of white liberal voters. Instead, consider that rural/older/more religious white women might have (however misguided they seem to you) valid priorities. From the assumption of valid priorities, you can build sensitive and inclusive platforms and legislation, or at least have sensitive and inclusive conversations about things like race. From “conservative women are white supremacists” you can’t build anything except hate, which entrenches and justifies the entire divide you are pretending to explain.

On Voting

This morning I ran across a cluster of memes encouraging me to vote “as if this were the last fair election America will ever have.”

Excuse me? Fair?

This election is already not fair.

So, first, some historical disenfranchisement. Black men couldn’t vote until after the Civil War, and they were immediately disenfranchised by a variety of discriminatory means, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Women, both black and white, were not able to vote until 1920, although the black female vote was still suppressed by racist polling procedures. New Mexico didn’t enfranchise Native Americans until 1964, and many Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote until the 1980s. Maybe our golden moment of fairness was from 1980-2011, when a surge of voter ID laws led to Shelby v Holder? Probably not.

Now, let’s talk about making voting unnecessarily complex: Voting has been heavily suppressed in Georgia and in North Dakota, as I’m sure anyone reading this knows. 33 states have some form of Voter ID law, with varying levels of strictness–in Texas in 2014 my ballot was flagged because my voter registration didn’t have my middle name. Getting my last Texas ID took effectively an entire work day, and that was in an urban area with a car. In rural west Texas, you might be hours away from a place to get your ID. It’s not a huge deal to get a correct ID if you are a person with privilege. If you have a financial, location, or language barrier, it’s difficult to impossible.

We also withdraw voting rights from people convicted of certain crimes. (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia, which has a lovely map.) Policing is heavily biased against minorities, who are stopped, arrested, and convicted disproportionately. Racist policing + racist judicial processes = racist politicians and racist laws that the affected community is less able to stop.

Beyond that, voting hinges on a series of ableist and/or racist and/or classist general practices. My mother desperately wanted to vote while she had stage four cancer, only to find that her rural polling place had moved to somewhere with only one or two perpetually occupied handicapped parking spots. Able bodied people were parking on the shoulder of a busy highway and walking; those with physical limitations didn’t vote. Translation services may or may not be available. The number of voting machines and/or poll workers create long lines that poor or disabled people may not have the time or energy for. In some polling locations, self-appointed poll watchers are racially profiling and harassing voters.

This is not a comprehensive list.

So, no, princess, this election is already not fair. It feels fair to you because you have privilege.

Now, let’s talk about voter turnout.

It’s something of a truism that Democrats win if voter turnout is high. In part that’s because voting, as mentioned above, takes time, energy, and money that is much easier to come by if you have privilege. Low turnout means mostly privileged people are showing up, which means mostly Republicans win. (The fracturing of the white college educated vote in the last few elections is fascinating, but let’s stick with the historical generality here.) Thus, most get out the vote efforts are targeted at minorities or young people.

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate special election, I read an interview with an activist from Selma. She said, roughly, that she was putting in the work and getting the black community out to vote even though she knew that it wasn’t going to make any difference for them. Doug Jones won. I cried. I’m not sure if he’s done anything in the Senate or not, but I promise you that children in majority-black Lowndes county are still getting hookworm from unprocessed sewage.

That is what you are asking, when you encourage poor minority communities to vote. You are getting turnout from people who have never been well served by any politician of any kind. You are asking people to lose time from work, to pay for an ID, to arrange transportation, for benefits that have never actually trickled down.

One day in a community center serving recent immigrants, I walked past a display of letters from school children to the president. One of them said, in little wobbly print, “You promised us immigration reform, but every day I am afraid that my neighbor will be deported.”

That president was Obama.

Be mad at your white friends who think voting is ethically impure; don’t expect people of color to save you in the polls. That’s not labor you are entitled to.

What do we do?

I’m writing this on election day, when we still have the optional future in front of us. So I’d like to put out three scenarios:

1) The “blue wave” does not happen, for some reason or another.

2) Democrats win the House, but not the Senate. (This seems to be the dominant prediction.)

3) Democrats win both branches of the legislature.

And here are my three action plans:

1) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

2) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

3) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

Your vote matters. Cast it.

But then remember that the very thing that you are voting for (or against) will still need doing.