Live(ish) blogging SXSW: Keynote with Cory Booker

I’m co-hosting a meetup at SXSW Interactive on behalf of Pantsuit Republic Texas, who I volunteer with as a digital psychology and content consultant. Lucky me, I get a platinum pass, which means I can go to everything I can get to – music, technology, film, and everything in between. It’s kind of a cross between a conference and a festival on steroids. The last time I went was 2004.

This morning I picked up my badge and hightailed it to the first major speaker – Senator Cory Booker.

I’ve been aware of him for a while, though not as long as I should have been. He’s been an outspoken opponent of legislation and appointments that infringe on human rights. He’s also a straight up mensch.

He started with an impassioned speech about love. He pointed out that tolerance is a lame goal, because we tolerate a cold. Loving our country, loving the children of others, loving those with whom we disagree is the path to healing.

Damn.

He told a story about an activist who he worked with in the projects of Newark. An older black man who lived in poverty, but was totally present for the people he was trying to help. He was a mentor for Booker. Booker said that his mentor lost his sight as he aged. When he would visit him in the rest home, he’d say, “Hey, it’s Cory” and his mentor would say, “I see you.” Those words, along with “I love you” were his last words to Booker.

Booker seems incredibly present. He sees all the problems, all the crap going on, but he also sees it in the larger picture of human history and human nature. I found what he said really affirming.

I’ve had a hard time in life at times. I struggle. I’m also crazy privileged, which can lead to guilt over not doing enough. But something in what he said affirmed my stubborn need to see the glass as half full. No matter how shitty things seem to be, I can usually turn it around to something hopeful. Yes, the internet is a cesspool, but I found a way to study the cesspool and find evidence that people are not as broken as they seem. I’m attracted to learning about the way people grow from breaking, rather than why they break and how to fix them.

The other thing Booker said that I found inspiring was in answer to a question I posed (we could pose questions online through an app and then he read them on a teleprompter or something). I asked how to turn digital activism into real world activism. And instead of talking about calling senators and marching, he talked about community service. It really struck me. I feel like I’m not doing enough as an activist, which is partially from the knowledge that what I do won’t stem the tide right now. But I know from my teaching that I can make a huge difference in one person’s life, and that’s real.

So how can I take those skills and use them more in the community? What can I do that is small and simple and makes a real difference in a person‘s life instead of worrying about the big political picture? Not that political activism isn’t important, but Booker doesn’t see a difference between political activism and community service. He’s got a point.

Surfing the Waves: When Corporations are Trolls

Okay, so now that I’ve looked a bit at how the onslaught of triggery clickbait is beginning to damage my calm, and I’ve looked at my own role in participating, how about them internets then? When did they get so clickbaity and why?

Facebook. Facebook. Facebook.

It used to be not-profitable. Then they added targeted ads. Fine. I occasionally click them, realizing with a mild malaise that they must have some access to my browsing history. Ick. Still, easily filtered as long as it’s not for diet products or plastic surgery or Trump swag.

But then came what seems to be the major dominance of news outlets in the feed. It used to be if I “liked” a news source (HuffPost women, for example), I would occasionally articles in my feed. Then they started to repeat. Then they started to clog the crap out of my feed. And then they got more and more clickbaity. “Ten reasons to wear a fatkini.” “Should you get married?” “What women over 30 need to know.” Then I started following more social justice groups. Repro rights. BOPO. LGBT rights. Political candidates. Feminist magazines.

And while I love my social justice, they are old-school when it comes to spamming. They seem to thing “more is better.” Email, snail mail, texts, and tons of posts. But people can filter repitition. It’s harder to filter clickbait, especially if it’s scary. Our brains gravitate towards scary as a means of self-protection. Advertisers are hip to this–have been since Freud’s nephew invented psychological marketing in the aughts of the 20th century.

My Facebook feed became a veritable clusterfuck of informing, emphatic, repetitive, and often disturbing content. This content is often also propagated by my friends who generally share my beliefs*. (This is a whole other topic. If I have a friend or relative that has beliefs I find offensive, I’ll “unfollow” rather than “unfriend” them. This means my view of the interwebs is even more myopic. Except for my research which doesn’t filter ANYTHING so there’s that.)

No matter how many times I click on “less of this” there doesn’t seem to be less of that. If I don’t see it, one of my friends may post it and my outrage/anxiety/helpessness will be reactivated. We used to use Facebook to connect. Sometimes just on the surface (dinner pics!) and sometimes on a much deeper, more meaningful level. This discourse has been pushed to the margins of my feed by often worthy, but exhausting content. I’m exhausted.

It’s all about the money.

I’m not a scholar on this. I’m sure there are some well-researched think pieces that I haven’t read. But it’s pretty obvious that the foundering news industry has taken to the internet like nutria to the Louisiana swamps. And like nutria, they’ve changed it fundamentally. That’s probably why so many people gravitate to Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media less littered by advertising and paid placement.

We became used to “free” services and forgot how we, the users, are totally paying for our free services by having less and less control over the content.

Beyond that, I think that the sensationalism of the press and its ability to cherry pick content for likely audiences, is causing some major distortion in how we view our worlds. Again, not the expert. I try to do my research on stuff that is social media propagated, rather than corporate-created. But I can’t ignore that the corporations have a huge amount of control over what we see and subsequently react to. While super cool bloggers like Lindy West and Jes Baker write awesomly for Huffpost and The Guardian, they write on topics that have become very controversial (which I think is good – visibility=good) and the corporate media takes advantage of this for their own, often less than savory reasons.

Again, not a bullish attitude for a bullish researcher, but there it is. The internet was gloriously free of major structural power for about a decade. That seems to have passed. I have to watch commercials for a 3 minute clip of The Daily Show. Pinterest, my guilty  pleasure, is littered with “targeted ads” and “suggestions.” Their algorithms suck, btw. A tatted up middle-aged female person with a bunch of BOPO and recipe pins does not want ads for “the five worst foods for your waistline” or “summer body” programs. Fuck off.

Instagram is still pretty minimal. The ads are high-end and easy to avoid. Wonder how long that will last?

I don’t pretend to know the nutria-press business model. I suspect it’s built on a pyramid of something worth very little. As we’ve known for many a year, clicks do not = sales. Sales = sales. Also, internet inhabitants are pretty good at abandoning one cluttered, increasingly useless ship for a more helpful one. Facebook has so far bucked this trend, but sooner or later it will die and go to that social media outlet in the sky some obscure server somewhere.

I don’t have the answer. I realized recently, after wading into the comment fray on a Huffpost video that bugged me, that I was totally suckered. The video, a radical feminist think-piece (I use that word with some trepidation) was designed to piss EVERYONE off. So I got lots of likes, some “go you” comments, and some incoherent but virulent attacks. Blah. And I said to myself, “You know, self, you walked right into that one.” But I could also say, “Well, self, that makes you human because that video was designed to suck you in. You have not yet reached enlightenment.”

*I propagate the crap out of my political/social beliefs, but I generally relegate them to my blog  FB Page so the more conservative of my peeps are not spammed into oblivion by my stuff. My main FB feed is for general musing, kid pics, kid humor, whining, and mostly benign stuff. This is a personal decision. It may or may not make me a good FB citizen. It doesn’t really help my mental tidy all that much since I’m still reading all that stuff. Re-posting may be a way of expelling the attendant emotions. That would be interesting research. Nerd.

Surfing the Waves: You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm

My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.

Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.

Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.

Me 2: Wimp.

Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.

Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.

Me 1: Totally

Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH,  browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.

Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?

Me 1: Who freaking cares?

Me 2: Good point.

So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:

  1. Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
  2. The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
  3. My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
  4. I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
  5. I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
  6. Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.

I give you, the weather. Or something.

This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.

More to come.

 

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!

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.