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An open letter to the Indiana Daily Student

[Content note: misogyny, gender essentialism, bi/pan-erasure]

I don’t pay much attention to the student newspaper, but this terrible article was recently brought to my attention. It almost defies summary, but to make an attempt: “bisexual people don’t exist because I only care about men’s sexuality and women don’t think men making out is hot at parties.” I started writing an email to the editor, but then I remembered that I have a blog, and what are blogs for if not open letters to student newspapers after they post shitty columns? So here we are.

If anyone has some links to anything people have written about bi/pan erasure, I’d love to have them in the comments section here. I have a few down at the end of the letter, but unfortunately, my resources on this topic are pretty sparse.

EDIT: I got a response from the opinion editor and permission to publish it here; I’ll paste it below my letter.

EDIT 2: Apparently wordpress decided to make the formatting all terrible after the first edit, on both my letter and the response. Trying to fix it now…and fixed, probably through a needlessly manual process.

Dear editors,

I read the piece “Bisexual bias” ( in the IDS this morning, and after a few readings, I’m still having trouble understanding how and why it got published. Is it supposed to be satire? I doubt it, but if so, it has failed to do anything other than reinforce the social dynamics which it attempted to mock.

Bisexual people exist. Pansexual people, too! I know because they tell me they exist, and I listen; it’s quite simple, really. They also tell me how unpleasant it is to live in a society that routinely tells them that they *don’t* exist, so finding a column in the student newspaper that reinforces this message is disappointing, to say the least. The existence of bisexual people is a matter of fact, not opinion.

Furthermore, this isn’t even well-informed erasure of bisexuality (not that someone sufficiently well-informed would erase bisexuality, but there are degrees). The argument appears to be that prevailing market forces discourage bisexuality in men, therefore it does not exist. This is the kind of impersonal argument that has become all too popular in social discourse lately; unfortunately, it seems the editorial staff is not up to the task of making sure it stays quarantined to rambling Facebook statuses.

There is also little to no consideration given to the sexuality of women. Knowledge of bisexual women is mentioned, but quickly swept under the rug, lest it distract Mr. McDonald from his vital task of ignoring the lived experience of actual bi/pan people. He makes ridiculous assertions, such as “Two women going at it? Crack a beer and enjoy. Two men going at it? Ultimate party foul.” A pansexual woman I know (who wishes to remain anonymous) said, in response to this, “I find two men going at it extremely hot. And most of the women I have talked to agree.” No doubt there are women who are not aroused by men kissing, but asserting that all women fall into this group is an oversight of absurd proportions.

Verifying this doesn’t even require human interaction, though; a simple trip to tumblr, deviantArt, or any fanfiction site could easily refute the notion that women are not attracted to men kissing. Discounting this is not just thoughtless; it ignores the voices of women and suppresses female sexuality. It also plays into the toxic notion that bisexuality is only a performance, rather than a legitimate orientation on its own.

To recap: this column is a steaming pile of misogynistic, gender-essentialist garbage that I would expect from a tabloid or the Wall Street Journal. I suspect there will be a fauxpology that involves some variation on the phrase “we apologize if anyone was offended”, and the page may even be taken down. These are meaningless gestures. The only way to move forward from an incident like this in good faith is to commit to *not* publishing narrowminded articles like this in the future.

I have already seen people making “freedom of speech” arguments to defend the author’s right to a column. But the right to a platform is not a guarantee of the first amendment, and articles like this are actually harmful to the freedom of speech and expression of who are gender and sexual minorities. There are many people who would benefit from a well-written, insightful column on sexuality, but instead you gave this platform to Dane McDonald and his regurgitation of played-out, repressive memes.

-Zach Sparks

In case you want more resources, here are a couple of things written by people in response to bi-erasure that has happened before: This article was not written in a vacuum.

The response, via

Mr. Sparks,

Thank you for participating in the conversation begun by Mr. McDonald’s column. As always, the Opinion section of the Indiana Daily Student welcomes and encourages feedback and participation from our readers.

The Opinion section, of course, stands behind every column it publishes. In keeping with our goal of facilitating conversation, however, we find that specific topics and columns from time to time merit further discussion. Frequently, columns receive this treatment through the publication of rebuttals, responses, and letters to the editor.

In specific response to your letter regarding Mr. McDonald’s column “Bisexual bias” of January 24, I would encourage you to read the rebuttal to Mr. McDonald’s position written by his colleague Francisco Tirado and published January 25. It is available here.

I would also encourage you to listen to the community panel discussion on bisexuality that Opinion recorded with experts on sexuality from the Kinsey Institute and members of the Bloomington community who identify as bisexual. This podcast was released Wednesday, February 27, and is available in its entirety here. I moderated the discussion myself and found it fascinating and informative.

I trust you will find these two resources to be of sufficient value to share with your readers in the same fashion as you found necessary with Mr. McDonald’s column. Just as your letter was not written in a vacuum, nor was our decision made in one.


Drake Reed

Opinion Editor | Indiana Daily Student

The Choice Is Yours

[Content note: discussion of victim blaming]

Some discussion came up today on twitter that everyone agreed doesn’t really fit in 140 character blurbs, so the right thing to do seemed to be makin’ a blog about it and continuing the discussion in comments.

In my elementary school, we had the morning announcements every day, and each time they were ended with the platitude “Make it a great day—or not. The choice is yours.” This always bugged me at the time, and now that I have a few more clues than I did when I was 8, I think I can put my discomfort with it into words.

The message that I got from this boils down to “If you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault, no matter what other people have done to you,” which seems like a toxic message to be sending to kids. Something bad happened? Smile and move on, or else you’re a problem, and your unhappiness is your own fault. It’s victim blaming at its finest.

This isn’t to say that choosing to “get over” things (for lack of a better term) is the wrong choice. For some people, it’s what they need to do. But the whole point here is that word “choice”—people should be empowered to choose how they react when bad things happen, not pigeonholed into one response that’s been deemed the most appropriate by the rest of society. Sure, the “choice” is yours, but it’s a choice made under duress. Make it a great day or we’ll make it a worse one; don’t be a blemish on our perfect happy society.

What would be a better thing to say? Part of the problem with this is that it targets survivors* and makes them responsible for making things better, rather than targeting aggressors and attempting to prevent aggression. Of course, there  can and should be a healing process for victims, too, but the point is that it will differ from person to person. Unfortunately, “Respond to the shit life throws at you in whatever way you think is most healthy for yourself, also consider seeing a therapist, brains need doctors too” isn’t very catchy; neither is “Don’t make other people’s lives shitty—the choice is obvious!”, though at least that one’s shorter.

Maybe a better approach wouldn’t be to end the announcements with some kind of moral at all. Maybe the right approach is to create a culture within the school where people are treated well, malfeasance is discouraged, and sadness and anger are accepted as natural states of being that should not be unnaturally suppressed. I can’t help but wonder how many of my classmates heard those announcements (and other, similar messages that I’m sure were sent), took them to heart, and are now spreading victim-blaming and body policing on their own. Not to mention how many of us, despite our young cynicism, still managed to internalize some of it.

*I kind of want to say “victim” here, since “survivor” has very specific connotations to me, but I know some people don’t like the “victim” label, so I’m saying “survivor” instead. If someone has better terminology for this, please let me know.

Trigger Warnings

[Content note: This post contains discussion of trigger warnings and skepticism about trigger warnings, as well as discussion of various triggers. The links at the bottom contain similar material.]

In what is becoming a much more frequent occurrence, I am once again put in the position of having to explain trigger warnings/content notes/whatever you want to call them to someone. Instead of doing this individually, I’m just going to post this directly so everyone can see it. I doubt this will end the questions once and for all, but at least it will provide one convenient link that I can send people to (and one slightly less passive-agressive than a lmgtfy link!).

Now, this is kind of an odd topic for me to be explaining, since as far as I can tell I am lucky enough not to have any triggers. There are things that piss me off, of course, and kind of make my day shittier (like receiving one more goddamned question about trigger warnings!). While those are certainly good things to guard against, I don’t suffer from PTSD, I don’t experience flashbacks, etc. As such, this is going to mostly be a compilation of links with interesting bits excerpted from them, along with my own rationale for my personal policy on trigger warnings.

If I link something in here, it probably means that I expect you to read it before commenting here or giving me more shit about posting lots of content notes/trigger warnings. For the sake of legibility, links will be “cited” with a number in brackets, like this[42], with the links compiled at the end.

Why Post Trigger Warnings?

I should get the most obvious question out of the way first: what are trigger warnings, and why do they matter? I found an excellent compilation[1] of a few other[2] posts[3] that I recommend reading. The Geek Feminism Wiki explains trigger warnings as follows:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

So what does being triggered entail? As mentioned above, it could be “post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves”, but it can manifest in a variety of other ways, all of which are unpleasant. There is no one “right” or “wrong” reaction to a trigger; from what I can tell it varies wildy from person to person.

A rule I’ve seen in a few places can be summed up as “if you think it could trigger someone, post a warning.” To directly quote one of them[4]:

The general rule for posting a trigger warning is this: if you have reasonable cause to believe that what you’re posting will trigger someone, put a trigger warning.

I’m not a huge fan of the word “reasonable” there, but I’ll get to that in a bit. As Melissa McEwan says[3]:

We provide trigger warnings because it’s polite, because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.

So why provide a trigger warning? Because it’s the decent thing to do, and it has a good chance to avoid doing a lot of harm to people.

What Trigger Warnings Aren’t

One misundersatnding about trigger warnings that I’ve seen before is that they somehow attempt to dictate what people should and shouldn’t read. While this is a reasonable misunderstanding, it couldn’t be further from the truth: the point is to empower survivors of traumatic experiences to make decisions about what they should and shouldn’t read. In other words,

We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it.

The point is to empower survivors and make sure they have the ability to make decisions about what they read. A related point is that survivors (or really, anyone who has any triggers to worry about) already have it pretty rough—being triggered is a big deal! So if you want to share an article that could be triggering, why not put the warning there? Even if you think the triggers should be “obvious” from the title, that might not be the case for everyone. And as pointed out in an excellent (and very triggering) explanation of one person’s experience with abuse and the resulting triggers[6]:

Often, people who have been triggered cannot stop reading…[The trigger warning] is a warning, saying, “get out now before things get even worse”.

They also mention that another common argument against trigger warnings doesn’t work. Specifically, even if the potential triggers might not be obvious from the title of the article, they might become obvious partway through reading the article, at which point the reader can say “this is going to trigger me, I will stop reading it now”, right? Well…

[The feeling that something bad is about to happen] is the feeling that anti-warnings people often pin down as a place where any survivor should know to leave a fic, no harm (or little harm) supposedly done. But that is the place that triggers me. The textual warning triggers me, which is why I need an extra-textual warning.

In another instance, a friend of a friend on facebook mentioned that they were, for a while, triggered just by the word “rape” appearing in a text. Since I had wondered about this for a while (I think an anti-trigger warning person brough it up: “trigger warnings themselves can be triggering!”), I asked about this. Their response:

Usually, when I see a trigger warning, I can kind of brace myself. I take a deep breath and kind of.. steel myself. It’s been a long time since that’s happened, though. It’s mostly seeing the word unexpectedly.

More evidence that having the trigger warning at the meta-level is beneficial compared to requiring survivors to figure it out for themselves.

Why bother?

Another anti-trigger warning argument I’ve seen is that it’s impossible to warn against every possible trigger, so what’s the point in warning against any of them? If you’re confused about this argument, then we’re on the same boat.

The premise is sound: anything could be a trigger, from the more commonly seen things (sexual assault, violence, racism) to stuff that I’m sure most sufficiently privileged people don’t think of (misgendering, alcohol) to the seemingly mundane (slamming doors, milk, blue shirts).

This is, at least from my point of view, a bit of a conundrum. But I don’t doubt for a moment that the right answer involves a nonzero amount of warnings. Just because a task is huge and difficult does not mean we should give up and throw survivors under the bus.

My own solution is to aggressively warn for things. Often when I’m posting something, I realize that someone’s going to see a warning I post and thing it’s ridiculous or unnecessary. I’m only going to say this once: I don’t care. As long as it doesn’t cheapen the meaning of the term (more on that later), I’ll post it. If I read a post and see things that might piss someone off, I make a note of them—one person’s annoyance is another person’s trigger. Furthermore, if I see something that I know can be triggering, whether in general or specifically for one of my friends, I’ll post that, too, even if it doesn’t meet the previous rule. And I’m prepared to hear about more things that are triggering that I’m unaware of due to my privilege and take them into account, too, though to date all of the complaints about the length of my trigger warnings have been that there are too many, not that I’ve left some out.

I am particularly wary of dividing the world into “reasonable” and “unreasonable” triggers. In The Revolution Starts At Home[7] (which I think everyone, or at the very least every activist, should read), one of the essays is written by someone with a disability that is not considered “reasonable” (in the language of the Americans With Disabilities Act) and is therefore not covered; they are forced to rely on a string of abusive partners just to survive. I’m not sure how the same consequence could arise from such a partitioning of triggers, but I do know that the partitioning itself is monumentally unfair and ableist.

This is why I try to warn for triggers that I know are applicable to a broad range of people, adding new triggers as I learn about them. I try to warn for as many things as possible in order to avoid triggering people at all, but as mentioned above, this is not possible to do for every trigger since literally anything could be a trigger. But if I post something and someone tells me that they were triggered by something I wouldn’t normally think of as a trigger in it, I can now take that trigger into account.

Content Notes vs Trigger Warnings

A recent change that some people may have noticed is that I now post things as “content notes” rather than “trigger warnings”. This was not an easy decision, and I’m still not completely sure that it was the right one, but I’m sticking with it for now.

As I’ve already mentioned, I am very liberal with my warnings. If I think something has even a tiny chance of triggering someone, I make sure to post a warning on it. To once again quote [4],

Trigger warnings should be meaningful, and they should be assigned with the pain of triggered readers in mind, not the feelings of people who aren’t actually triggered. But as long as that requirement is met,  I’m happy. And it’s important to know that you don’t need to have triggers to benefit from the correct usage of trigger warnings. As the The Rotund has said, “everyone winds up benefiting when we keep accessibility in our minds.”

As a friend of mine pointed out:

I think “trigger” as in “trigger warning” is a very loaded term with connotations that don’t always fit what you’re warning about, and this is what I think is being objected to. I would venture a guess, however, that those you serve by including these trigger warnings will still be served by a warning without the word “trigger” involved, if you post it at the top of your comments as you usually have done.

Given that my heuristic was “would this piss someone off?” and not “will this trigger someone?” I think this was a good suggestion, and since Shakesville switched to saying “content note” instead of “trigger warning” around the same time I decided to adopt that terminology, too. My  main goal is to avoid triggering people, but if people like me who just get pissed off from reading too much awful stuff on the internet in one day benefit from it, too, then I’m okay with that.

My main fear is that using different, more general terminology will dilute what it means to be triggered and that people will take things less seriously. I hope this isn’t the case, but I’m curious to hear what other people have to say on the matter.

Where It Falls Apart

I mentioned above that if someone points out that something I posted is triggering and I didn’t catch the reason, I’ll accomodate that person in the future. The cases I have in mind are ones like “people in blue shirts trigger me” or “seeing a bottle of orange juice triggers me” or “reading about a parking garage triggers me”, but these don’t seem like the only kinds of trigger someone could have that I wouldn’t warn for by default. I can easily imagine someone being triggered (as in actually triggered, not just uncomfortable around) by people of a certain race/gender/sexuality/etc. I’m not sure what the right thing to do in this case would be, since I want to respect people’s triggers while still respecting people’s diversity in various ways. I don’t care about offending bigots, but when it comes to triggers it seems like either obvious solution is unacceptable. If anyone has constructive thoughts on this I’d be glad to hear them.

In Conclusion

I hope this has been a decent resource for people who aren’t really aware of any of the intricacies of triggers (and warnings thereof). Of course, since I’m not aware of anywhere near all of those intricacies myself, I’d really appreciate it if people could point out any resources that I’ve missed; I’m sure I have. The sources I used were mostly based on a quick googling, though I’ve used several of them before in my own education on the matter.

I post trigger warnings to help people make informed decisions about what links to click and what articles to read. Hopefully this prevents people from experiencing flashbacks to some of the worst moments of their lives. If I seem a bit overzealous in posting the warnings, well, I hope people now understand why, and maybe even follow suit.

On a bit of a tangent, I wonder how many other posts there are on the internet titled “trigger warnings”. Probably a lot. I should stress again that this post was conceived when I got tired of explaining to my friends why I put so damn many trigger warnings on things I post to social networking stuff. It’s not supposed to be a unique contribution so much as it is a compilation of resources that I’ve found useful combined with my own reasons for doing things so I can give people a link to click instead of making the same argument over and over again.






[6] [“Warning: Very explicit discussion of sexual assault and the nature, anatomy, cause & effect of triggers. Is itself triggery.”]

[7] [Content note: this book contains discussion and vivid detail of a wide range of triggering situations, such as sexual assault and domestic abuse, particularly within activist communities]

Privilege & Activism

Or, “movements are inherently intersectional; watch your step.”

Lately, a post from NSWATM has been making the rounds. To summarize, it is commentary on how certain groups are “invisible” when it comes to street harassment, and in addition to fat women and trans women (as Liss points out), men should also be categorized as such. The money quote is probably

Or you can be invisible, with sexual desire for you a subject of humor, because clearly it is so absurd that anyone would ever want to fuck a trans person or a fat woman or a man.

To paraphrase one of my friends when I sent them that quote: “Are they trolling?” Now, granted, I don’t know Ozymandias’ background*, so I don’t know what experience zie has had with street harassment and invisibility and the like. But to compare the plight of men to that of fat women and trans women seems like a rather large gaffe.

There are more slots people can fit in than “sex object” and “invisible”: someone could just be a human being, which seems to be how feminists believe society treats men—specifically, men who meet society’s standards for attractiveness. Men can be treated as sexy without losing their agency or having to deal with street harassment; women often cannot. Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt are often discussed in terms of their attractiveness in mainstream publications, so the statement “clearly it is so absurd that anyone would ever want to fuck a trans person or a fat woman or a man” is asinine. One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong.

Don’t believe me? Compare the first google result for “sexiest man in the world” to the first google result for “sexiest fat woman in the world”. This is not a mark of a society in which “the idea of a man being physically desired is sometimes laughable, sometimes terrifying, and mostly impossible.”

I am not arguing that discrimination against men does not exist. It absolutely does. The problem with discussion of the effect of sexism on men is that a lot of people have already given it a bad name. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to talk about reasonably, but it does make it more difficult. And after all, men are a traditionally privileged class, so it’s important to phrase things in a way that doesn’t trivialize the experience of less privileged groups. This is something that more privileged groups and their advocates appear to be astoundingly bad at.

It is very important to make real cases of men being screwed over by the kyriarchy known. I say real because there are causes that end up being misogyny (intentional or not) masquerading as men’s rights (Alas! has two great posts on one such topic). However, I will point out that a lot of these real cases—maybe not all, but a lot—are dual to misogyny.

Gender roles suck for men, too—but they usually serve to elevate men over women. Not being able to compliment women sucks—and so does not being able to walk down the street. This is not meant to trivialize, dismiss, or silence, but it is meant to raise awareness. It is possible to discuss these things in a self-aware, contextual manner; I would like to see more of it. I suspect it exists on NSWATM; I love the first post I read on it, and I absolutely do not intend to discredit it in its entirety based on one ill-conceived post (EDIT: and with further consideration, although I still don’t like some of the post’s rhetoric, I like its message quite a bit more). Alas! also tends to to have excellent content along these lines. Perhaps there is more that I am missing.

But more often, the sentiment I get from reading commentary on men’s rights is not “I am aware of my privilege and the culture in which I live”. Instead, it’s “I want to be able to do whatever the hell I want and everyone who can’t handle that is too sensitive” or “I want to hold on to my privilege and not acknowledge it at any cost” or something along those lines. This is unacceptable. We can do better. I expect more.

This isn’t the only place in which such sentiments run rampant: they’re even present within the feminist movement. I don’t understand how a movement that is at least partially about recognizing privilege and accepting others can foster these sentiments, but it does. Controversy unfolded at the recent SlutWalk march when some participants were noticed with an offensive sign [TW for racist language in link]. They took it down when asked, but the problems didn’t stop there: they continued onto facebook, where the people with the sign and their supporters made some rather familiar-sounding arguments. Here are the hilights:

Also, please stop using the “F” word, it offends me. Also, please don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, and don’t say the “F” slur that refers to homosexual men. Stop being pro-life or pro-choice, because either way, you’ll offend someone who feels just as strongly as you do about the use of the “N” word. You can’t please everybody, so please stop expecting everyone to try to accommodate your hypersensitivity to some words scrawled sloppily on a sign. YOU get no sympathy.

First of all, i invite all those who are viewing this poster/photograph to actually ponder the INTENT of the quote.

For some people, intention, facts, and reality don’t matter when you use the “n” word. Because sticks and stones can break our bones, and if anyone ever uses the “n” word in any context they’re a racist bastard.

OK, you caught us. We’re racists and we hate you. Is that what you really think? Not everything is so black and white (……)

@everyone – you know whats ironic? is that we’re being accused of being racist because we’re defending the intention and meaning of a non-racist quote and yet you are the ones assuming i’m priveleged because i’m white. nice.

Does this sound familiar? Because it sounds to me like the kind of garbage that feminists put up with all the time, coming from people who just refuse to admit their privilege. There’s intent (it’s magic, you know), there are cries of political correctness, there’s defensive sarcasm when all else fails…in short, there’s every trick in the derailing book (someone in the thread even linked derailing for dummies, which I should read at some point).

There is a common thread of a denial and erasure in these two incidents, and it cannot be ignored. Some analogies cannot be made because things are simply not analogous; other analogies should not be made because they forget important structure. It is a matter of abstraction**: when you make an analogy, you are saying “this is the structure of the situation that matters; everything else is irrelevant”. For example, if I were to say “her eyes sparkled like diamonds”***, I am implying that other aspects of her eyes—their color, shape, size, etc.—do not matter for the time being.

So, to compare the invisibility of men to the invisibility of fat women and trans women, or to compare the plight of women to that of black people, is to say that none of the other context matters. This is a remarkably insensitive thing to do, and while it is not the only problem with these incidents, it is certainly a big problem.

Here’s the thing: I am a white guy. I cannot fully understand and internalize the context of being black, or being a women, or being trans or gay or what have you. But I can listen to people who can do these things and analyze my privilege. Perhaps the sign should have read “Women and people of color are both groups that have frequently been oppressed, and hey, wait a second, there is some overlap there, gosh, it must really suck to be a woman of color, I’m going to go make a different sign now”. Maybe it would have if its creators had thought about it a bit harder.

Privilege does not take away someone’s right to point out discrimination, but with great privilege comes great responsibility: namely, the responsibility to be aware of one’s privilege and try not to do anything too ignorant. Or, when we do inevitably do something ignorant (and we do, all the time. I know I have, probably even in this blog, probably even in this very post), be willing to graciously accept it when someone points out our privilege instead of immediately going into defense mode like the people in that facebook thread did. I’m still working on this. It’s not easy.

So if you have some privilege (any privilege!) and you are talking about an issue, remember that there are groups who do not have that privilege, and think to yourself: “Am I erasing their experience? Am I ignoring structure that should not be ignored? Is this likely to turn allies away from my cause because my cause has become harmful to theirs? Is my privilege showing?” If you can honestly answer “no” to all of these, then please, post about how gender roles harm men or whatever. You probably have a point that needs to be heard! But, to quote another post on the SlutWalk sign debacle, “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!”

If this doesn’t apply to your movement, you’d better have a damn good reason why not.

*This actually worries me a bit; perhaps I am making too many assumptions and my argument is invalid. But it certainly seems like the kind of mistake a careless men’s rightser would make, so I’m leaving it in. I went through the comments for an answer (and a few people did raise the point that I raised, with no response), but I was mostly just reminded of why I shouldn’t read the comments on NSWATM.

EDIT: This post touches on some similar issues (“Prescriptive feminism is patriarchy lite”, and since prescriptive feminism is non-intersectional, they tie together nicely), and this post proves that this kind of thing doesn’t just happen to amateur SlutWalk feminists.

**hey look I’m a computer scientist

***…and not a novelist.

Stereotypes and Change

When I was a young boy in elementary school, pink was a color reserved for scary girls and cooties. My memories of the time are hazy, as it was a while ago, but I still remember that pink was taboo. After a while, though, in middle school, things started to change. One of my best friends got that shirt—I’m sure you’ve all seen it—that says “Real Men Wear Pink” on it. As soon as caught on to the trend, I got a pink button-down shirt that I think I still have somewhere and wore it because I found it amusing.

This is an excellent example of a privileged group seeing a cause, thinking it needs them, and distorting its meaning. The sentiment is sound—it’s silly for men to be stigmatized for wearing pink! But the end result in this case isn’t progression; if anything, it’s regression. Femininity becomes absurd, and any man who unironically wears pink is still probably going to be looked at funny. The underlying problem still exists, possibly worse than ever.

Middle school fashion is far from the only place this sort of thing shows up. Just the other day, I was at a bar with some friends who pointed out that I had ordered two “girly” drinks, whereas the guy next to me had ordered a shot of vodka and a gin & tonic. After I mentioned that I thought gendering drinks was absurd, I was challenged to order a Cosmopolitan to prove my point. The waitress asked why I was ordering one and smirked as I explained myself, and the whole situation was kind of ridiculous.

I suspect many people have found themselves in similar situations, laughed it off, and explained that it doesn’t matter if they order a girly drink because they are secure in their masculinity. My point, which I assert to be the correct point, is that I can order a drink because I like the way it tastes, and I should be not be expected to drink a certain thing (or drink other things with a certain attitude) because I happen to identify as male*. I hope I got this point across, though I suspect that I did not.

There appears to be a related fear among people that social movements are going to force them to act in a certain manner. Maybe they’re afraid that if I got my way, men would be forced to wear pink shirts and drink Cosmos, and women would have to wear flannel and drink nothing but vodka and Budweiser. A friend of mine’s mother once told me that she was anti-feminist because she was perfectly happy being a domestic housewife and staying in the kitchen.

This is not the point of my social justice. Maybe it differs from person to person, but I don’t want to force anyone to break out of their gender stereotypes; I want to force society to stop making gender stereotypes. If you’re a man and you want to talk about your chest hair and fart in public, or if you’re a woman and you want to stay in the kitchen all day and cook and clean, that’s fine. What’s not fine is when you expect someone to do these things because of their gender and pigeonhole others into thinking about themselves in such a way. People should be able to make their own decisions about their identities and live in a society that supports those decisions.


* I am not sure exactly how trans people think about gender, since it is obviously more important to them than it is to me. I hope I am not being insensitive with anything I say here—if I am, please let me know! And if anyone wants to send me some links that can fix my ignorance on the topic, they’d be much appreciated. I’m not even sure what the right questions are to be asking, but it should be obvious that my (potentially naive) opinion is that gender is a kind of arbitrary (and therefore useless) construct. Since I’m lucky enough to be able to ignore any of the potential effects gender would have on me, though, I’m probably not qualified to make such judgments.

Research: Starting Grad School

There are a lot of things that I could talk about (there are already four post-its on my monitor reminding me of this fact), so I’m going to be bouncing around quite a bit. I want to talk about grad school now, though, and air out some of my thoughts on the research I am doing/plan to do.

I’m taking three courses this semester. Two of them look like they’re going to consist of a lot of review (or at least looking at old concepts in new ways), but I’m also taking a linguistics course. It’s on formal semantics, so of course it’s related to the broad area of math/CS/logic/etc. that I’m interested in, but I think it’s going to be very helpful for getting me to think about things in the right way.

What do I mean by “the right way”? First off, I don’t mean objectively the right way; I mean the right way for my own style/interests. If I may paraphrase something that Bob Harper said when talking about the connections between programming languages, logic, and category theory: if you discover the same concepts arising independently in three different areas of study, it’s clear that you have hit upon a fundamental fact of the way humans reason.

My own butcherings and/or misinterpretations of things Bob said aside, I think this is an excellent thing to keep in mind when approaching research in any of these areas, for a few reasons. First, and most obviously, when you are studying something in one of those areas, think about the connections you can make to the others. Now, my category theory is still not really up to par, but the Curry-Howard correspondence (which is the coolest thing ever and the reason I’m in grad school right now) is an excellent example of a methodology. Thinking about logic? Consider how it would impact a programming language. Thinking about a programming language? Think: does it feel like something you could describe as a logic?

This has been done for a while, and even taught in a few undergrad courses that I’ve taken, but I think the other reason is a bit less emphasized, or maybe even a bit less teachable. If the connections between these things happened because they are fundamental to how humans reason, then what other, unexplored methods of human reason have applications in these areas? This, I think, is the area that I am really interested in, but I don’t think I’ve done a good job of making my meaning clear, so here are a few examples.

A while ago (as my livejournal friends know), I talked about a “logic of obligation”, as I’ve taken to calling it. It started when I was trying to formalize (in my mind, at least) what we mean when we say “X should do Y”. I think I’ve got a decent account of it now, though it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it; I should probably actually write something up about it at some point. But the point is that it came about when I took something I said quite often—“X should do Y”—and tried to think about it in a precise, formal manner.

Another example: a couple of weeks ago, I started working with some folks here on a (new, better) programming language for interactive fiction. The guy who approached me about it has actually been talking to Zarf, who is not entirely satisfied with the current state of IF languages. There are slides from a talk he gave on the topic, but the main idea was that he was thinking about things as rules, and exceptions to rules. As it turns out, there’s a logic for that (logics are kind of like apps!) called “defeasible logic” whose purpose is to deal with rules that may have exceptions. From what I can tell, defeasible logic hasn’t been studied very in-depth, which is something I would really like to fix. And again, it exactly matches the way Zarf thinks: “A, unless B, unless C, unless D, unless…”. Rules, and exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions, and so on. This doesn’t come out of nowhere, or from some contrived problem that someone came up with after being crammed in their office with no sunlight for a few weeks. This is the way we think, rigorously defined and closely examined.

Which brings us back to semantics. What better way is there to study the way we reason than to study the way we communicate? I already think about what the things we say really mean and ways to think about them formally; why not take a class on it? I’m sure my ideas about what a semantician does are a little naive, but regardless of how far off-base I am, I still think I will get some valuable insight into how to think about these kinds of problems.

I guess my point here is that cool stuff happens when you combine math and CS, and even more cool stuff happens when you take that combined approach and apply it to anything that looks like it should be formalized and understood. I have more to say about formalizing things (spoiler alert: I think it’s good!) and making them precise (even better!), but that’s now a fifth post-it on my monitor. That will probably be more of a legit blog; this was more of a rambly attempt to get some of my thoughts down. I hope I didn’t lose anyone along the way!

fun fact 0 = 1

The default first blog title was “Hello, World!”, so I couldn’t resist.

Uh, hi! This is my public-facing blog. As the embarrassingly generic blurb thing might suggest, I plan on using it to talk about various things that pop into my head, and as the title suggests, this will probably mostly be in the form of questions. Maybe eventually they will turn into answers, but not quite yet.

Three big topics that you’ll be seeing here are computer science/math/logic/etc, feminism (in the broadest sense of the word), and cooking/food in general. If some combination of these things interests you, great! If you think that’s a pretty weird list of primary interests, well, that makes two of us.

This seems like a long enough first post, I suppose, so welcome! I hope to have something more interesting up in the nearish future, so uh, hang tight.