Feeding the Trolls: Different Perspectives

Over the past few weeks I’ve reflected on the experience about which I wrote in my first blog for my Advanced Human Development course. My professor (Hi Judy!) pointed out that the male aggressor on the YouTube thread used a pseudo-rational/scientific argument to deliver a largely aggressive message. I’ve been turning this over in my head. This aggressive pseudo-rationality is one of the main forms of aggression (and perhaps micro-aggression) I’ve observed on online discussions and forums. What is this phenomenon? Why do we use it? What purpose does it serve? Several different ideas have surfaced for me.

On a whim, I looked up pseudo-rationalism and found out it was a thing. A German philosopher named Otto Neurath presented a paper in 1913 that presaged the wider adoption of the limits of scientific rationality and immutability presented by Kuhn in the 1960s. I bring up this little tidbit because I think the ideological wars being played out on the national and digital stage are often argued with the help of “scientific fact”, no matter how grossly outnumbered or untested the facts actually are (man-made global warming, for example). The wider populace now has access to an almost infinite amount of information from which they can cherry pick the data that supports their emotional, irrational, and largely ego-defensive views. I don’t exclude myself from this assessment; I too have often used science and surface rationalism to rationalize my feelings. Since I became aware of this, I’ve started clicking through to the referenced study every time I read an article based on the phrase “studies show”. As I learned in Research Methodologies course (722B represent!), published, peer-reviewed studies often do not show any compelling argument for the claims they make due to shoddy research, small or unrepresentative samples, or conflicts of interest. “Studies show” is not code for fact.

I recently wrote a very emotional blog about an article I read in Huffpost on fat discrimination. The article, mainly a combination of whining and self-loathing about body issues, pissed me off, so I wrote a rebuttal on my website. While you may find my rant entertaining, what actually stands out the most about the subject article was the discussion in the comments section at the bottom. A few excerpts:

“I am like you in many ways. I am sorry that people cannot understand that health issues and not overeating are sometimes what contributes to our weight. You seem like a wonderful woman and I pray that soon people will stop judging others on how they look.”

“I know how it feels to be invisible.”

“You are beautiful; inside and out. Very brave of you to share your story! Thank you!”

Most of the comments are either sympathetic, empathetic, or encouraging. There is little to no policing of her science or rationality, as she does not claim to be happy with her weight, just unhappy with her perception that people don’t like her because of it. If I had to break the comments into categories, they would be: 1) I hate myself, too, 2) You’re beautiful anyway, and 3) Dude, get over it.

Compare this to comments made on a photo posted by a successful independent plus sized model, Tess Munster. Here’s a representative argument between two people who follow Tess’ posts:

Person 1: It really worries me that people actually find this attractive… Says a lot about one of the biggest and fastest growing world problems: overweight/obesity. Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal.

Person 2: Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are! If you’re not a fan of Tess, unlike the page.

Person 1: … i didn’t even liked the page thin people can be unhealthy too, but it doesn’t mean they actually are. However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal. (Although some people start to think it is, so indirectly they say that it’s normal to have a highly increased chance to get cancer, diabetes, heart diseases or anything else.) Your weight definitely matters! I can’t believe people ignore that… But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place.

The first article doesn’t really challenge any of the existing norms about body image, as the author is apologetic and self-abasing for her body. Hence, she doesn’t attract aggression as the norm-defying plus model does.

But back to pseudo-rationality. See what happened there? The two people are trading “facts” while avoiding whatever emotions prompted them to post in the first place (just like the conversation I had in my last post on this topic).

After scanning about 100 comments, they seem to break down into three categories: 1)You’re Awesome, 2)You’re Gross, and 3) Get Lost, Haters (in response to #2 comments). What’s interesting is how much of the discourse around 2 and 3 are based on semi-rational arguments that are betrayed by highly emotional language. If I apply Vaillant’s defense mechanism spectrum to these exchanges, they look very much like the one I documented before:

  1. Person A projects directs negative emotions on public figure using pseudo-rationality (reaction formation) as the justification for the aggressive act (ex. “Stop eating crap and please stop acting like this is normal“;
  2. Person B takes it personally and rebuts Person A with more factoids (ex. “Thin people are unhealthy also… doesn’t matter what weight you are!“) ,
  3. Person A responds with a mix of pseudo-rationality and ridicule (acting out) (ex. “ However, overweight is always unhealthy and it’s definitely not normal...But please enjoy your meal at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or any other fucked up fast food place“,
  4. Person B either tells person A to fuck off, or doesn’t respond, OR the conversation turns into a pseudo-rational clusterfuck on both sides with multiple citations of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles. It eventually peters out or devolves into name calling and cursing.

On the surface, these exchanges are pretty depressing. They seem to be a draw at best; the highest level of adaptation observable is at what Vaillant (2000) would call the Compromise Formation Level – repression (ignoring feelings), isolation (withdrawal) and reaction-formation. Reaction formation seems to be closest to the pseudo-rationality visible in these online forums. Those who exhibit reaction formation repress a taboo or shadow emotion such as rage, jealousy, or misogyny, and replace it with the appearance of its opposite; in this case rational, critical discourse. However, in most of these forums the veneer that masks the infantile emotion is quite transparent, as the aggressive commenters often use words that betray the repressed emotion. What I find particularly interesting is that the participants who respond often let the initial aggressors set the rules of the game; they respond in kind with either rational arguments or aggressive attacks.

In relationship counseling, there is an assumption that both parties, regardless of outward behavior, are usually at the same level of differentiation. Meaning if my husband never picks up his socks and I am righteously angry about it, I’m probably not any more mature than him; I just express my immaturity/aggression in a different, perhaps less obvious way. This seems to be the case on online forums, as well.

Tess Munster may be just a self-employed model who has more supporters than detractors, but she is a lightening rod for the same kind of conversation we see happening on a national scale about abortion, gay rights, global warming, and immigration. Whichever side we find ourselves on in these issues, we believe that science and rationality are on our side, while the judgement of those on the opposite is clouded or flawed. And in the digital era, these arguments take place not just between news anchors, presidents, or pundits, but between all of us, every day, in multiple forums and on multiple issues.

Giselle Labouvie-Vief (1994) talks about tension between the forces of mythos and logos in the human psyche. Traditionally logos, rationality and strength was assigned to the masculine principle while mythos, emotion, nurture, and creativity, were assigned to the feminine principle. Labouvie-Vief deconstructs these arbitrary classifications as reflections of the relative social status of men and women, and looks instead at the myth of Psyche and Eros as the dialectic between the rational and imaginative mind necessary for integration and adult development on a personal and social scale.

Online personalities like Mary Lambert and Tess Munster who provoke  such vociferous critique, defense, and discourse are perhaps examples of mythos in action; choosing to be visible, vital, and alive in a world that marginalizes certain types of people is not a rational act; it’s an emotional and spiritual one. In order to be creative–to embody Mythos–they must defy social norms. They knowingly expose themselves to anonymous aggression, conquering  fear of rejection and judgement. While the people caught in this seemingly endless and stuck cycle of aggression and argument do not seem to be progressing, perhaps there is a larger force at work.

Neo-Jungian James Hillman (1997) discusses pathologizing as a vital force for eventual integration and individuation:

…I am introducing the term pathologizing to mean the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective. (p.143)

Wow! Look at that language! If I had a dime for the number of times I’ve read the words “morbidly obese, disorder, disease, and abnormal” on the forums I observe, I could pay off some student loans!

Hillman believes that the projection of abnormality on others is really an unconsciously shared experience of our  our unavoidable physical and mental flaws (which will lead to our eventual death), displaced and experienced on the Other. From a Jungian perspective, this is profound! The aggressive online troll who verbally bashes a happy fat person and is confronted with the mirror reflection of his own aggression (even when masked in pseudo-rationality), is actually reaching towards the integration of his or her own fear of mortality, disease, and death. Forcing the image outward makes it semi-conscious, allowing for the possibility that the irrational, emotional, and imperfect can be eventually integrated. Perhaps the seemingly endless skirmishes and standoffs are really a cultural movement towards awareness, which is scary as hell, and integration which is necessary for our spiritual and collective survival. Remember, deviating from the socio-economic-racial-sexual norm was unthinkable and often punishable a scant century ago in our country (and still is in many parts of the world). But in the wild, wild west of the internet, these ripples of disruption, of people who refuse to hide, are forcing our aggression out of hiding and into the observable world.

Hillman, J. (1997). A Blue Fire. (T. Moore, Ed.). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1994). Psyche and Eros: Mind and Gender in the Life Course. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms: Their role in a positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89–98. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.89

Big Sigh: The difference between self-shaming and self-acceptance

I read an article on Huffpost a couple nights ago and became full of ragey, judgy feelings. The title alone is totally cringe-worthy: Yes I’m Fat. But Why Is That All Anyone Sees?. Ugh. Just, ugh.

The author talks about how becoming fat has made her invisible, or judged, or reviled by others, obscuring her accomplished past as a journalist, athlete, expat, and parent. She feels vulnerable to the perceived (but rarely given) criticisms and judgements of others. She assumes that her fat body makes it impossible for others to think that she has had any kind of life beyond slamming oreos and bacon.

I’m trying to feel for her; I really am. But she demonstrates a trope in the body-acceptance/weight discrimination movement that I’m mightily tired of. “I can’t be okay until everyone in the whole world stops having judgmental thoughts about me! Fat discrimination is ruining my life, because it makes it impossible for me to love myself!” <–these are made up quotes that summarize the underlying message I’ve gotten from many activists and bloggers.

But then she goes on:

Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to be fat. I want to feel the way I used to feel. I am on a constant diet and trying every new one that comes along. I watch the weight loss shows and fantasize. I exercise with a personal trainer; I obsess over food and how many calories there are. I get creative with vegetables and eat a ton of them. I get discouraged and pick myself up again. But since my transplant and the steroids I take to keep my body from rejecting my new kidney, I can’t seem to lose the weight that I put on since that life-saving surgery. But losing weight is not what this is about.

Oh God, please make it stop.

Gurl, the diet industry is not your friend. America’s Biggest Loser is not your friend. There is a whole socio-economic system built around making you feel shitty about yourself so you will buy things, continue to feel shitty about yourself, and then buy more things. Diets. Supplements. Idiotic television shows. Spanx.

And here’s the little secret that one one tells you: This system makes all women (and many men) feel shitty about themselves, not just the fat ones. Even if you’re thin, you fear being fat or you monitor yourself obsessively, compare yourself to other women, and feel like slitting your wrists when you read a fashion magazine. The system is rigged, and it doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin. So GET OVER THE SYSTEM. Get therapy (lots of it), find positive, healthy, fat role models, sit with your shame and fear and realize that they are just feelings, and your “new body” is the same body you’ve had your whole life, and will continue to have when you’re old and realize that all the time you spent hating yourself was wasted and could have been better spent LIVING.

You do not need to be thin (or white, or straight, or tall, or able-bodied) to have sexiness, mojo, success, or visibility. Cases in point:

Mary Lambert, Queen Latifah, Tess Munster, Jill Scott, Adele, freaking Oprah! And so many more…

The great thing about the internet era is you can curate your media and entertainment experience, which means instead of consuming the bilge that the advertising industry has been feeding us via network television for the last 60 years, you can choose instead to expose yourself to people who don’t fit norms attainable only by winning the genetic lottery and lots of surgery. Discover YouTube (just don’t read the comments if you’re having a bad day). Look up some of the gorgeous, independent plus models and bloggers who are telling social norms to fuck off and celebrating their bodies. Read The Beauty Myth. Today. Opt out of the social hysteria surrounding fat and just LIVE, girl. Your body survived a transplant! It made a child! The same body that did all those awesome things you lament the loss of is THE SAME BODY YOU HAVE NOW!

And here’s a little secret, from one fat girl to another: When dating, being fat screens out a great many asshats.

I don’t know how old the author is, but she reminds me very much of myself in my teens and 20s. I dieted, dabbled in eating disorders, struggled, hated on myself, compared myself to other women, and generally bought into the big lie that only one kind of female body was beautiful and it was never going to be mine. I was miserable. With a lot of therapy, determination, and a conscious re-focusing on my whole self health instead of my weight, I became the self-loving badass I am today. I still have shitty moments, but they’re just moments. I am happy, loved, and fulfilled while fat. I’m much more worried about writing my dissertation or getting my kid to eat vegetables than I am about the size of my jeans. I like my jeans. Amazing! Is this legal?

The author closes with this:

My dream, of course, is to lose some weight. But, if I continue to be unsuccessful, will I ever been seen and acknowledged again the way I used to be? Will anyone step back and see me, want to know me, or will they just continue to see that I am fat?

My dream is not to lose weight. My dream is to raise a confident, strong daughter filled with self-love and respect who sees all bodies as beautiful and sacred. My dream is to help more people reject social norms that have nothing to do with health or happiness. My dream is to make a difference in this hard world, not to whinge that what I do doesn’t matter unless my body somehow reflects my awesomeness so hard that everyone else can see it all the time.

Get a new dream, girl.

 

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.  I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.

Feeding the Trolls: Part One

I’m starting to get my act together around my dissertation, which is on how people express aggression online, and how the online environment facilitates reinforcement or change of social norms. While I have a very specific sample in mind, I recently stumbled on another idea through getting caught up in a YouTube flame-war.

A few days ago I watched this video on YouTube of Mary Lambert, a gay and body acceptance activist and pop artist/spoken word poet. It’s a really raw, powerful statement about the dual forces of self-love and internalized hate. I was moved, but then I read this comment:

feedingtrolls1

I saw red, and in retaliation openly engaged in the kind of aggression that I usually avoid or observe at a distance:

feedingtrolls2Mr. TheThird trolled me back (aggressively). Note his use of the words gluttony, shameful and violent imagery:

feedingtrolls3I was not the first person to get riled up by Mr. TheThird’s comment, apparently this thread had been going on for a while:

feedingtrolls5And then Mr. TheThird posted a long missive, not long after my comment:

feedingtrolls4Wow. I found his use of words like foul, vile, insidious, morally corrupt, medically aberrant more than a little off-putting and creepy. Disturbed and a bit scared, I took a step back to think about how we seem to keep our aggression in this endless loop on the internet.

Perhaps Mr. TheThird is projecting his unconscious fears of losing control on the woman who is singing about self-esteem-while-fat. When I react, I am in turn projecting my own anger at the forces that have led me to empathize with Ms. Lambert back onto him; rinse, repeat. We are locked in this dance of aggression where there is no understanding or compassion, just lots of anger, disdain, rationalization, and condescension. What might it take to change this pattern?

So, as an experiment, I came back, apologized for my ire, and instead explained my feelings and asked him some genuine questions.

feedingtrolls6He never responded, which is not surprising given the research I’ve read on cyberbullying.

However, the experience made me think about my upcoming dissertation in a different way. Perhaps I was choosing to observe instead of participate in the online communities I am studying as a way to distance from my own discomfort. The inadvertent effect of engaging in this interaction was gaining insight into 1) what motivated me to react online, 2) The effects and repercussions of my engagement, and 3) various ways in which I can try to change the dynamic.

As a way to investigate these ideas further, I’m going to observe online conversations around body image and fat-acceptance, and also engage in them when moved to do so. I will document my experiment on this blog, analyzing the different expressions of aggression using George Vaillant’s interpretation of the Differential Identification of Defenses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here’s a quick run-down from Vaillant’s book, The Wisdom of the Ego (1993 pp. 36-37)):

  1. Psychotic Defenses: Delusional projection, Denial, Distortion
  2. Immature Defenses: Projection, Fantasy, Hypochondriasis, Passive aggression, Acting out, Dissociation
  3. Neurotic (intermediate) Defenses: Displacement, Isolation/Intellectualization, Repression, Reaction formation
  4. Mature Defenses: Altruism, Sublimation, Suppression, Anticipation, Humor

So, trying this out, let me take a look at the interaction between Mr. TheThird, me, and some of the other participants.

Mary Lambert, the artist on which whose YouTube page this conversation resides, could be said to be utilizing sublimation, a mature defense, to deal with her negative feelings about her body, or trauma she has survived that was directed at her body (Ms. Lambert has been open about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse). Sublimation is the ability to direct the residual trauma towards a constructive activity such as songwriting and poetry. Further, her public role-modeling of self-love and survival might be considered altruism, the ability to identify with and alleviate the pain of others, which also may aid in her own healing.

Mr. TheThird’s comments seems to fit into aspects of projection, such as splitting (splitting negative from positive impulses) and demonstrating a superiority complex (obscuring feelings of inferiority), all of which are characterized as immature defenses. While I can only speculate about his psyche based on the language he uses, the voracity of his wording suggests that he is projecting an aspect of his personality that he as “split” off from his core personality, such as desire, craving, or low self-control. His later, lengthy post displays some of the same traits, but also utilizes intellectualization as a way to justify his verbal attacks. Reaction formation could also be demonstrated by his desire to appear rational and scientific in a discussion where he also uses terminology that clearly demonstrates strong negative emotions.

My initial posting could qualify as displacement (neurotic) or perhaps acting out (immature) as I was well aware of my angry feelings, but chose to inflict them impulsively and without forethought. My personal history with my body image is painful, and while I’ve become very accepting of myself and others, my ego is still vulnerable when it comes to aggressive criticism. I personalized Mr. TheThird’s comment and responded as if it was directed specifically at me (and perhaps also as a projection of my own vulnerability onto other participants, who I felt the impulse to defend).  When he responded with more violent language, I became frightened and considered withdrawal, a neurotic defense I’ve used frequently to avoid painful memories, impulses, and feelings. I think this default defense is also the reason behind my initial choice to observe online aggression rather than engage with the participants more directly.

When I took ownership of my feelings and asked genuine questions about Mr. TheThird’s motivation, I was perhaps engaging in courage and self-regulation (mature defenses); I opened myself up to dialogue with an aggressive person, and made some rules for myself around how much time I would spend online in order to project my psyche.

While Mr. TheThird has not yet chosen to respond, so perhaps he has chosen withdrawal, a neurotic defense more mature than his initial behavior.

It has also been interesting to look at the comments of others, which range from mollifying both groups, to enraged all caps cursing, to a lot of arguing of various facts. Intellectualization seems to be the default stance in these arguments, which frequently devolves into passive aggression, acting out, and distortion. I consciously choose not to debate the facts around obesity and health as I think it really amounts to arguing about the validity of a stereotype, which is by its nature persecutory. There is a ton of medical information that both validates and refutes the dangers and perimeters of obesity, but this has nothing to do with our individual lives, choices, and feelings. It seems like trying to justify or rationalize our positive and negative feelings about ourselves and others using cherry-picked science only gets us so far. What I’m really interested in is the larger patterns that emerge in these mini-explosions of aggression. What is their anatomy? Is there a common pattern? Are there different kinds? Do they evolve, or just die down and re-emerge elsewhere?  I’ll be looking at these questions as I observe and participate in other discussions around body acceptance. Stay tuned!

Words Words Words

My life is words. I read, write, and talk for most of my day, every day. So many fucking words. So instead of blogging to wind down, I’ve taken to drawing (again). The only thing I can do in the evening to quiet my mind is watch some Netflix with my husband and draw. Behold, this is where my spare creative energy is going these days:

If you like this sort of thing, check my Instagram.

Question: When is the perfect time to blog?

Answer: When one has so many other things to do that are critical that one cannot decide which to do first and chooses instead to blog, do dishes, fold laundry, or take a nap.

My every day blogging has not been every day. However, let me expand on a certain tendency that might shed light on this.

I have too much to do. I have a four-year old daughter. I teach college. I’m working on my PhD. I have a house (currently in shambles) that does occasionally need cleaning. So what makes sense when one is overloaded with stuff to do EVERY DAY? In my case, it seems to be adding things on. I have this idea that I will somehow kick into “high gear” (yes, those are real air quotes, sue me) if I add MORE THINGS into my life. In recent weeks I have considered joining a gym, taking African dance classes, taking modern dance classes, taking voice lessons and auditioning for an ensemble, and daily blogging. Does any of this sound productive? Does it make sense to add more things into my overloaded life in the hope that my body will somehow produce some miracle juju that will make everything easy and every moment of my day will be perfectly optimized?

There are times in my life when I am hyper-productive. Think finals week: you study and produce far more than you do during the rest of the semester. However, you are probably also between the ages of 18-22 and have fantastic metabolism and limitless energy, which you squander on stupid relationships and binge drinking/eating. Ahem.

Even in my middle, gently deteriorating age, I have these bursts of peak productivity. However, they are not sustainable because I have a body that needs rest, and a family that needs attention, and a deep desire to take naps. I also can’t tolerate caffeine much any more; it usually gives me a short-term boost that makes me want to shop wildly followed by a long-term crash that makes me grouchy and difficult and super tired. Dammit.

So why am I trying to reverse engineer these brief, peak energy moments by adding more shit onto my plate? I have no idea.

Last week, I cooked meals for my family, exercised, carted my daughter to and from school, studied, graded papers, taught class, worked on the syllabus for my new fall class, negotiated two class contracts for the fall, applied for IRB approval for a project (which included creating a proposal, an informed consent form, and taking several hours of online ethics training and testing), bought a new phone (I include this because iPhone users know how freaking long it takes to go through the purchase process and then get the phone to actually synch and load your stuff and then it hasn’t really loaded all your music so you end up using your cellular to download music from the cloud in your car because you really really need to hear “Stay With Me” right this minute while you’re stuck in traffic), and survived the weekend which included a kid party, an ill-advised drinking experience, and more kid time (which included my daughter’s first mani-pedi which was unbelievably adorable okay I’ll stop now).

What I didn’t do: blog, join any new dance classes, or start taking voice lessons again. There is a reason for this. Adding more stuff into my life is not going to make me more productive–it’s just going to make me feel like I’m sucking at more things. I also wonder if I daydream about all these little hobbies because I spend a lot of time feeling incompetent, and I like the idea of doing something that I’m either already good at, or something that doesn’t require me to be particularly talented or smart to accomplished. I like things like dance because I don’t expect to ever compete with professionals, so I can take as long as I need to to get to be okay at it. There aren’t that may things that I feel okay with being okay at.

School is hard. I’m used to being the smartest kid in the room, and I’m not that kid anymore. Getting a PhD is totally different than getting a Masters. A masters is like undergrad, but more fun. You’re also not petitioning to get into the club that your teachers belong to.  Getting a PhD is like training for a marathon and spending a lot of time trying to figure out why you can’t seem to get your feet to work (while your trainer runs around you in circles going “Do what I do and one day you’ll be a real runner!”)

Blogging is good for me — it frees up my voice, which can get mighty raspy when all I’m writing is academic papers. Still, I can’t keep setting myself up to fail at little things to avoid the discomfort that comes with the big things. Parenting is hard. School is hard. Teaching is hard. I can’t always be the prodigy to whom everything comes easily. Instead, I need to just keep plodding ahead, while leaving myself some time to just chill the hell out. So I expect my blogging will continue to come in bursts. I will not be writing every day unless I really feel like it. But I will continue to post sporadically, and I have some social commentary stored up in my brain, so maybe I’ll write that next week when I’m trying to write my final Org. Studies paper. Woo!

P.S. Please send me some IRB juju! This is my first time applying and I’d really like to get approval. Light an IRB juju candle for me.

Weekend blahs

studyI didn’t finish my paper. I have a forgiving professor who’s giving me an extension. I was able to get a few hours of writing in yesterday, but today I’m in charge of the kid. We had three birthday parties on tap for the weekend, and made it to two. Outdoor summer kid parties are NOT MY BAG. I think I need to start carrying a really embarrassing parasol. I’ve never been a fan of heat or hot sunlight, but with my middle-aging body, extreme heat is just a no go. If I stay in the shade I’m okay for a bit. Texas in the summer is not a great place for me, obviously. Luckily my husband loves the heat, so he and my daughter spend a lot of time at the pool while I hide at home in the air conditioning.

I’m also feeling a bit left out, because I opted not to go to Fielding’s Summer Session, which is one of our twice-a-year conferences. It’s a good place to network with professors, learn about classes they’re offering, and connect with other students and alumni. I went to the winter one in Santa Barbara, which was fun, but exhausting. With teaching, wrapping up a class, and trying to get ready for fall classes, I didn’t feel able to blow town for a week. Plus, we’re taking Lillian to Disneyland in the fall (don’t tell her!) and I wanted to put some resources towards family time.

So this is the time of year when I feel a bit grouchy and shut-in and start daydreaming about sweaters and socks and longing for fall. Maybe it will come before November this year.

 

Healing the Maiden

This isn’t going to be an epically long post, but I do want to expand on it later (I’m procrastinating on a paper for school. Yippee!)

John Legend just reduced me to a puddle of tears:

You may have to click through to YouTube to watch it. Watch it, and then come back and read the rest. You may need a tissue.

Having been steeped in feminist culture for the last couple years, I’m sure there will be a “Who are you to tell us what we need, you person with a penis?” kind of backlash. Don’t really care.

What this video meant to me, and why it made me cry, was because I have a four year old daughter who is so confident, extroverted, and full of spunk, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine her feeling the same kind of insecurity, unworthiness, and self-hatred that I did around my body (and as a women that means my innate value) until my early thirties. I can’t imagine her trying to starve herself into invisibility. I can’t imagine her wanting to hide her body, or plotting to have plastic surgery to change it, or having relationships with abusive, controlling people who make her feel bad about herself. I can come up with lots of reasons why this won’t happen to her, (although all those things happened to me) but I’m wrong.

The question isn’t, “How can I prevent this?”, it’s “How can I prepare her for this?” and “How can I help her get stronger when it happens?” How do I help her strengthen her inner voice, instead of swapping it for the judgement of others? How do I help her remember (or maybe even never forget) that she is always loved, always accepted, and always valued by the people who truly love her, by the part of herself that is connected to God, and by whatever force in the Universe brought her soul into being? My body may have built her body, but her soul is sacred, unique, and absolutely without flaw, regardless of what ANYONE (including me) might make her feel.

It took me a long time to learn who to let into my emotional inner sanctum and who to keep out. I wish I could somehow teach her those lessons without having to watch her go through the pain of internalizing the messages peers and society will give her about how she is not enough, or too much, or most likely both at the same time. This video made me realize that I can’t, and that’s heartbreaking. But I can be there for her when she goes through those moments. Even if she’s 15 and she hates me just for breathing the same air as her, I will be there. When she falls in love with a boy or girl who makes her feel bad about herself, I will be there (possibly with a baseball bat). When she screws up, or makes someone else feel bad because she’s in pain, or hurts my feelings, I will be there.

I will have to let her feel pain, because that is the only way she will grow to not question her worth. But it will be hard, because I love her more than life, and I want her to see how every cell in her body is a miracle, every time she looks in the mirror.

 

Mostly little thoughts today

I’m taking a break from the War on Women for a few days because a) It’s terrifying and draining, and b) I have a paper due Friday-ish. I’m taking an organizational studies class, which has been interesting since I’ve already got a master’s degree, several publications, and consulting experience in organizational development. That said, much of the material I’m reading seems more advanced than what I encountered in my masters program.

It turns out that the Org. Development field tends to look at phenomena through a few lenses, which always have underpinnings of the mechanistic, industrial revolution origins of the modern corporation, while ignoring or only partially integrating several other theoretical lenses. So instead of charting new territory, as I have for much of this program, I’m revisiting places I thought I knew well and noticing all sorts of stuff I didn’t see before.

From a sociological perspective, there are several more ways to regard organizations, leadership, change, etc., which have the advantage of not being tethered so much to the practical aspects of helping organizations survive. This may seem a lofty and unuseful perspective, but in reality it is difficult to get a holistic perspective on how organizations work (or don’t) when you’re being paid by them, either as an employee, owner, or consultant. It’s been intellectually refreshing to take the birds-eye view of the scholar. This also helps me recognize similarities between my dissertation sample population, online communities, and organizations.

Through a series of totally unrelated click-throughs, I ran across this article on Politico:
The Pitchforks are Coming…for us Plutocrats

It’s a memo by a billionaire to his fellow billionaires, where he says that refusing to raise the minimum wage on the grounds that it will tank the economy is bullshit, while our current cult of rich-person entitlement and the myth of trickle-down economics is what is actually tanking the economy. He believes that unchecked, it will also destroy our democracy.

So maybe some people in the trenches (or flying above them in their private jets) can also see that the appropriation of the American Dream mythology (work hard, have a good life) by the far-right (or whomever is funding them) may actually not turn out so well.

Whoops! Guess I can’t go apolitical for even one day… Wish me luck on writing a coherent essay for my class.

Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.