Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Retweeting is Not Enough

Well, this really hasn't been a banner week for race relations in America.

Marissa Alexander took a plea bargain to avoid a potential 60-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot when her estranged husband assaulted her.  Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler thought it would be funny to make watermelon jokes when presenting Jacqueline Woodson with the National Book Award.  Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, was killed by police who mistook his toy gun for the real thing.  And then, of course, a St. Louis County grand jury made the statistically exceptional decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Mike Brown.  EDIT: And manslaughter charges have just been dropped for the officer who killed 7-year-old Aiyana Jones during a botched police raid. 

So really what I should be saying is, this has been a god-awful week for black people in America.

I should mention that my Twitter feed blows up pretty reliably for every social shitstorm: Wendy Davis' filibuster, the Israel-Gaza conflict, #YesAllWomen, GamerGate, and so on.  And thanks to the magic of the retweet function, it's an eye-opening education every time: I get to hear from the most amazing, eclectic assortment of people - folks I never heard of or would have known to follow - because their voices have been signal-boosted around the world.

I don't tend to say anything myself.  Partly because I find social media tediously stressful whenever I use it as anything besides a newspaper.  Partly because Author Training School teaches you to play nice and get along, because the Internet is forever and the world is watching.  And partly because I'm either worried about appropriating victimhood within a group I belong to (for example, what right do I have to shout about sexual harassment when I've never been sexually harassed?), or else - as this week, when it's about a group I *don't* belong to - anxious not to speak out of turn.

We feel that a lot, don't we?  Whenever we are members of the dominant/majority group, there is always that urge not to be seen as insensitive, bigoted, or tone-deaf.  Maybe you don't want to be attacked for saying the wrong thing.  Maybe you don't feel qualified to render an opinion.  Maybe you are worried about speaking over the voices of the people who are most affected by the issue at hand.  Regardless, in this age of "like", "share", and "retweet", it is easier than ever before to let a one-click "yeah, what s/he said" do the talking for you.

But the National Book Award foul-up last week let me hear a really interesting case against that.  Here, let me re-blog-tweet it for you (and then advertise this post on Facebook for a veritable turducken of media incest):

(Please note that I have curated this page above - for the unabridged version, I recommend following @djolder himself.)

It's a hell of a proposition, isn't it?  Maybe it's just surprising to me because I've steeped for such a long time in the 'Hippocratic' school of social activism: don't tone-police, don't concern-troll, don't speak for, over, or above marginalized voices, and definitely, definitely don't make your feelings their problem.  "First, do no harm" sounds good until it turns into doing nothing, which is actually harmful.

But at the same time, this conversation up here was also a big relief to read, because it says so explicitly what maybe I should have realized a long time ago.

That EVERYbody struggles with this stuff, first of all.

That getting it wrong is as inevitable as it is survivable, secondly.

And most importantly, like... you know, doing the right thing is not like making a box of mac 'n cheese.  There is no such thing as a clear, unvarying, universal set of instructions to follow.  Doing the right thing is uncomfortable, messy, and different every time, because the issue at hand is different every time.  In fact, the only place where consistency seems to congregate is in the act of doing the *wrong* thing - that is, in saying little and doing nothing.  Maybe consistency itself is at the root of the problem, via those pattern-hungry urges we have to make everything fit into a reliable narrative - to treat everything we experience according to the same set of four-legs-good/two-legs-bad mental protocols.

So from here on out, I aim to do a better job of speaking up.  And here is my first exhortation: resist the pattern-spiders, people.  Fight them as hard as you can.

Love the NRA?  Ask yourself where their open-carry fervor went when Tamir Rice and John Crawford were shot for even appearing to exercise their 2nd-amendment rights.

Think this Ferguson mess would be better if we'd voted in more Democrats?  Gotta deal with the fact that the prosecutor on the Darren Wilson case (not to mention the state governor and the president) is a Democrat.

Big on men's rights?  Can't sit this one out: the overwhelming number of black boys and men who are incarcerated or killed by police, *especially* for appearing 'threatening', makes the problem of gender profiling incredibly clear.

Feminist at heart?  Definitely can't sit this one out: not only does a movement advocating equality for everyone need to stand up when it's men's turn on the institutional chopping block, but it also has to acknowledge that those deaths and convictions above are still being perpetuated by white feminine finger-pointing.

I'll stop here, because snark is unbecoming, and you wonderful people have almost-certainly done more than I have (which is again, shamefully close to nothing.)  But you get my point: we are biologically programmed to look for patterns, build a worldview around them, and then sort out everything we encounter in a way that fits that vision.  Making changes to that framework - demolishing bits we've realized were wrong, making new additions, remodelling the existing parts to fit together in a different way - is uncomfortable, messy, and different every time. know, kind of like doing the right thing.

Anyway, I'm going to do a long-overdue right thing, chip in for Ferguson, and get me one of Daniel José Older's books.  Good luck in your own striving for rightness, y'all: it's a hell of a challenge, but one we can't afford to sit out on.

"The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment."

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Xenolinguistics and Snow

Guys.  Guys.  I am reporting live from a third-floor window in Ohio, where there are *multiple inches* of snow on the ground.  This is not a drill.

There is snow ON THE SNOWMEN. 
Up is down. Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.
There are many wonders in this foreign land.  In the past three days, I have driven on ice (and not died), attended services at my New Favorite Church (and not not-cried), paid a toll for driving on an Interstate (and felt Eisenhower rolling in his grave), parked on the lawn like a mannerless double-wide Visigoth because I couldn't see the curb for all the leaves, eaten insanely delectable quorn kimchi, gotten from somewhere to somewhere else in less than ten minutes, and experienced firsthand the power and majesty of a well-tuned ukulele.  This kind of thing is liable to happen when you work with a linguist who is smart enough to craft languages for your books, but dumb enough to tell you where he lives (and let you spend a weekend living there too.  Thanks, Jason!)

And y'all, I'm just so geeking out about all the wordomancy we did together.  I love that the fishmen have a human racial slur that translates to "belly button".  I love that Vuchak uses men's speech and Weisei doesn't, and now I know what that sounds like.  I love that ei'Krah now has words for deer-haggis and the drowning song and a "bite the bullet" expression that sounds like AND means "suck your teeth", and even though 95% of my readers will never notice or care, *I* know all those things are there, and someday somebody is going to discover them and love them to pieces.


You can't love any of our cool new language stuff until Medicine for the Dead comes out next year, but here is an amazing thing that you can love RIGHT NOW.

You see, there are not one but TWO genius linguists living in this Midwestern house of miracles, and the one who didn't stay up 'til 1AM crafting past-particles with me was in fact freshly returned from the SETI Institute, where she gave a presentation on xenolinguistics.  That is a great, smart, scholarly-sounding term for a thing that we actually know nothing about – namely, alien languages.

But let me tell you: just because we are wallowing in ignorance doesn't mean we can't have a phenomenal conversation about it.  I'd often thought about the Han and Chewie problem – you know, what it would be like to have mutual intelligibility, but lack the anatomy to actually speak the other person's language – but Sheri brings up an even more dire possibility: what if we just don't have the brain-wiring to understand each other at all?  Like, think back to Helen Keller, and how enormously difficult it was for her to first realize that the sensations she experienced with one hand were linked to the signs that Annie Sullivan spelled into the other.  As Sheri says, we need that "oh, that's what we're doing here!" epiphany before we can connect the things/ideas/actions/qualities to the sounds/signs/smells/colors/temporal-disturbances that name them.  The notion that we would have trouble communicating is not a new one to me – but the idea that we might not be capable of realizing that someone is trying to communicate just blows my mind. 

After all, people who can't speak or write or sign in the usual way have been enormously creative in finding ways to communicate with the muggle world.  Think about Stephen Hawking's voice synthesizer, or Jason Becker's grid-alphabet, or the book Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote by blinking his left eye.  So many times, we have moved heaven and earth to connect with each other – but none of that can happen until we realize that there is another mind to connect with.  (And now I'm thinking of Odo from Deep Space Nine – an infant shapeshifter whose natural form is a fluid, and who spent years being tortured by a curious, well-intentioned scientist who never realized that the goo in the glass was a sentient life-form.)

Though there is always hope for the next generation.
Anyway, this-all isn't meant to sound as gloomy as it does: after all, anticipating challenges is a great first step to recognizing and overcoming them.  Definitely, definitely check out Sheri's presentation for all the wonder and wisdom that this blog post is so lacking, and stay for the questions afterward.  Should animal communications ever count as language?  When it comes to intelligent life in the universe, is our sample size really n=1?  If it's so cold that wiper blades routinely freeze to their windshields, are humans flaunting God by living here?

I'll work on that last one and get back to you.  Stay warm in the meantime, e-friends – I'm off to go learn how to wear a scarf!

Do you like it?  Does it smell good?  Does it have teeth?