Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The End of Beauty


The year when beauty ended. The year that robbed us of David Bowie. And Prince. And S.H. Raza. And Mahashweta Devi.  From the very first day of the year, the stars aligned against music and words and colours. Against creation and art. 

Steadily, inexorably, a dull, grey storm cloud rose until it engulfed the planet.

The storm had been germinating for a long while. Or do I mean a cyclone? Shall I call it a hurricane? Over the horizon. And yet all around us, in maelstrom of horror, it built and gathered fury. In soft nostalgia peddled by hipster cafes and fashionable boutiques. With reclaimed - upcycled - kitsch that nodded to a past that had never existed but could be sanitised and sold for ludicrous sums. It gathered strength in the swamping of literature that provokes complex thought with simplistic cliches that were lauded for their great value. And it grew monstrous in brush strokes that produced nothing of value beyond meaningless critique and auctions that were only notable for the vast sums of money invoked by newspapers. In music that nodded to our childhoods but did little to guide us into our precarious old age. 

And most of all in our obsession with digital fever dreams of what we named Reality TV - a lurid, sordid screenscape that blocked out all that we could have lived in reality itself. 

So naturally the growing storm found its core in a man who is a star of this elaborate artifice. A man who confidently proclaims that he knows words; that he has 'the best words.' A man who lumbers about an awkward lubber of a body of a colour never found in nature. A man who took that lack of meaning that we had dulled ourselves with and piped them directly into our television screens, and speakers, and twitter feeds. A man who didn't need to tell the truth because we had grown to accept and expect artifice, falsehood and meaninglessness. 

And yet we stayed transfixed by the horrorscape on our screens, incapable of action even when Reality TV bled into reality. Many never noticed that the 'best words,' the false words, the knowing words, transformed themselves into echoes that grew louder with each passing moment. And those who noticed, remained powerless as the voices of inanity, of ignorance, of brute stupidity grew into a tall cyclone. Or even the tallest cyclone, the Orange Man would say.

Those of us who love beauty could not escape the horrorscape even when those echoes became a cacophony of atavistics howls of a mob driven mad by illusions of grievance. By delusions of oppression. By false memories of greatness. 

Until one morning when that storm, that hurricane, that cyclone of meaningless words, of sloppy brushstrokes, jangling notes, of comprehensive moral vacuum swamped us. Mute, paralysed, we watched even as it grew ever nearer. Some of us shrieked, shouted, raged, warned but our voices were lost in the dissonant racket. And the monstrous storm raged and screamed and howled nothing. Until it engulfed us all into nothing. And then whirled on to become Nothing. 

1985. The year my family moved to New York City. Ronald Reagan was President. Cold War was at its height. And aptly for an international, politicised, informed family, what my siblings and I - ranging in age from six to sixteen - feared most was Mutually Assured Destruction. We knew far better than most adults - thanks to my father's job - the complex processes, the nuclear protocols, the range and time till an ICBM launched from across would be counted as First Strike. 

While the adults worried and tried to change reality, we - as kids - tried to find comfort. We wanted a plan of action. Any plan. Any action. We thought of escape. Of grab bags with passports and money. Of cars and boats. And skills required to survive the nuclear winter we were afraid would happen on any day. 

Then we realised that if a strike were launched, we lived within a mile of the epicentre. So instead we decided - as children, albeit very well informed ones - that we would walk down to the UN Plaza. We knew we could get there before that first atomic orange flash. 

There, if we were lucky, we would have time to arrange ourselves. To make shadows. To make the best shadows. The most beautiful shadows. Nuclear Shadows that would remain behind for the survivors of our world. Or aliens who stumbled upon our destroyed planet. 

Powerless yet informed, we wished to leave behind something beautiful. Something that would let the future know that there were some of who were informed. And thoughtful. And creative. And fundamentally moral. 

To leave a trace that somehow, somewhere, despite complete annihilation, ours had been a world of beauty. With beauty. It was Beauty. 

And in that beauty, we found hope. 

I no longer know if those who are children today - on this day - have any hope or ability to reach or create beauty.

UPDATE: I would like to change the end of the piece with a quote from The Buddha Smiled who tweeted:

"Yesterday my heart was breaking. Today, I ponder how to cast a shadow that will be long and enduring."

And in that shadow, there is still hope. There will always be hope.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Neutral is Really Default Setting For Male (and White): A Slightly Non-Scientific SocMed Experiment

I have written before about online gendered harassment and trolling.  The recent report by the Women's Media Centre provides horrific - if unsurprising - statistics of gendered harassment that in large part echo women's IRL experiences (please do read. Makes for an illuminating if unedifying read). The centre's director recently shared this handy illustration to make sense of the scale and forms of the issue:

The wheel however leaves out aspects other than visible gender that impact our experiences online, including but not limited to race, nationality, religion, and sexuality.  Here I want to talk about just one of the above intersections: of gender with race. 

As a non-white woman who has spent much of her adult life on line as a blogger, writer, journalist and social media user, I am particularly aware of how visible markers of race - especially name and photograph - add to the gendered interactions. Women of colour face - IRL and online - a harassment on both axis. 

Moreover, given the scope of the Speech Project, the wheel does not take into account the drip feed of gendered, sexualised and racialised micro-aggressions  (such as derailment, dismissal, sealioning) that women, and more acutely, women of colour must cope with online. It is also necessary to differentiate the two - legally defined harassment and microaggressions - even though some impacts may be similar and the intents and tactics may be on the same spectrum. 

After over twenty-five years online (cue bad memories of early web and late 1980s fashion), I have come to expect abuse, trolling, harassment (as per the wheel) but also gendered and racialised microaggressions such as sealioning as the norm. This is simply by dint of presenting as a visibly nonwhite woman at the same time as holding opinions. Yet I am still (and frequently) surprised that often those opinions don't need to be about 'big things' like war, politics, economics, or even 'controversial' topics such as feminism or free speech (or Gamer Gate!). Even opinions about relatively niche topics such as theatre or art can suddenly trigger massive pushback with gendered and racialised language.  

Two weeks ago, before going to bed I tweeted some relatively innocuous thoughts about Caryl Churchill's new play at the Royal Court. I woke up next morning to a surprising amount of pushback, some abusive, other merely condescending and/or dismissive. On another day, I would have probably moved on but this came on the heels of weeks of Berniebros who seemed to stalk the internet looking for even the mildest criticism of their idol. First hint of even a question and they would pounce. Or perhaps I was just tired of the constant dripfeed of mansplaining and whitesplaining, both online and IRL. Without particular planning, I decided to embark on a social media experiment (do check that twitter thread as it outlines the parameters and concept). 

I decided to change my twitter profile photograph. From back in 2013, when I was harassed and abused systematically for nearly ten months, I already knew that when I had used a diving photograph - underwater, with a mask and regulator hiding my face - not only had gendered abuse dropped to zero but male 'experts' also assumed I was a man and approached me in a more collegial way. This time I wanted to see if non-human avatar would have a similar result, especially as quite a few feminist friends use similarly 'neutral' photographs for their profiles. 

Then a twitter friend suggested that Sunshine Mutt as my handle as that would also partly veil my racial/ethnic identity. Of course a closer look on twitter would still show my name but it was worth a test. 

Initially, and perhaps as a defense mechanism, I used this photograph. I found it secretly amusing as it is our young puppy, a female Rottweiler named Pixie (talk of subverting stereotypes!). 

Unsurprisingly albeit sadly the results were instantaneous. The change in photograph dropped sexualised and gendered interactions to zero instantly. Surprisingly, racialised interactions also dropped instantly. The change in handle took all sexualised, gendered, and racialised interaction to zero. Some discussion with women friends on twitter raised the additional possibility that perhaps a large dog, especially a Rottweiler, was being read as male. The next step seemed to test out (1) if this were true and (2) would a dog visually read as more 'femme' change the interactions. So next photograph was of our little Dachshund.

Through the changes, I kept tabs on the progress, posting and discussing the experiment on twitter regularly: I posted: 

1. after 24 hours. Zero harassment, abuse and microaggressions although my tweeting topics, opinions, language, all remained the same. 
2. 48 hours. Still zero. This was particularly interesting as I had posted and critiqued Bernie Sanders online but received not a single one of the usual pushback accounts. 
3. Even four days later, there had been zero racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions. This again was interesting as the Iowa primaries took place in this period and despite the 'coin' controversy, I got zero racialised, gendered, sexualised pushback. (The above links are for twitter threads and may be worth a read).

On the third day of the experiment, I switched my handle back to normal to see if the pushback was primarily racial or gendered, or whether race added an additional axis to gendered pushback. Despite the switch to a racially/ethnically identifiable handle, nothing changed. With the dog avi, I still got ZERO racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions.

Initially I had planned on switching back to my normal photograph and handle after 48 hours. But testing out various permutations meant that nearly a week went by. That's when I realised the full extent of the toll of the constant online microaggressions: I was so enjoying being read as a man, so relieved that I could express my opinions without fearing immediate condescension, aggression, abuse, that I really didn't want to change back to my normal photograph.  So instead I enjoyed the fake neutrality which is really the privilege of being perceived as a man for another few days. 

A week later, I finally switched my photograph to my own. And wouldn't you know, five minutes later, I was back to be being mansplained, patronised, abused, sealioned. 

Conclusion: the primary and first trigger for online harassment - as perhaps can be said also of IRL - is gender. My name can and is often read as male so I have experienced a sort of misplaced male privilege before (especially for book sales and professional correspondence but that is material for another blogpost).  So even after my name was visibly and clearly racially identifiable, I got no aggression. This chimes with experience of male friends who are continuously surprised that they can speak on the same topics (even express the same views) with absolutely no aggression at all. 

My theory is that gender is the primary - and universal - trigger for pushback. However, race when visibly identifiable becomes an additional target. Other axis of marginalisation - including sexuality, ability, class, age - also play a part to aggrevate the silencing and erasure. Yet gender - at least - in the past two weeks of my unscientific social media experiment emerges as the first and most obvious starting point. 

And then they say feminism is dead. Or not needed. Sigh! 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Arab Spring: To Dream of a Fairer World is Not Only Possible But Also Necessary

There is something surreal, even unbelievable, about realising that today marks five years since that extraordinary January 25th when Egypt rose to demand 'bread, freedom and social justice.' Many of the voices who led that uprising have been silenced: by murder, jail, torture and exile. Yet for all the deserted, heavily militarised streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and elsewhere, the conditions that led to those now-mythical Eighteen Days have not changed. If anything, the situation has grown more acute. But this is not a piece about politics, or even war. Instead, I want to write about history, and dreams, and imagination.

On February 6, 2011, I had lamented that we had no Edward Said to help make sense of the events.  I had specifically noted that the Arab Spring movements were another set of developments in the decolonisation process for the world:

"The foundation of Egypt's uprising as well as many others bubbling around the Middle East are cultural. The key to this uprising is the not only the change in narrative, but also the newly found power to shape it. And that is also the reason that the political failure or success of these protests is immaterial in the longer term (although obviously hopefully they will succeed; failure will mean brutal oppression of these brave young people)."

In the five years since those heady Eighteen Days, my fears of brutal oppression have sadly come true. However, a huge shift in culture has also become clear. Even as voices are silenced in the region by dictators, militias, their international backers and a profitable weapons industry (Syria is an exception in this cocktail although more for the geopolitical mix of its backers instead of a difference in factors), the struggle for a narrative of decolonisation has not stopped. And just because Western mainstream media moves on, grows bored, or indeed  refuses to cover complex stories, does not mean the transformations have stopped.  On  March 21, 2011, I wrote:

"In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history."

It was obvious to me even in 2011 that we needed completely new "definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold."  

These definitions and ideals cannot and will not arise in five years. Rather they need both analysis and imagination. And most of all, these need the power to dream. It is crucial to think of the Arab Spring not in terms of days or months or even years, and not even in terms of a struggle for fundamental transformation of political, social and economics structures, but in terms of imagining new, fairer, different worlds.  In November 2011, I responded to the many 'hot takes' about the failure of the revolution

"What we are witnessing is not a blip in time but a massive and extraordinary change.  Not SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt Army's junta) nor USA's paid stooges, nor Saudi Arabia's useful idiots, nor Europe's favourite business boys will be able to withstand the wave that has risen.  And whether the revolutionaries stand or fall, live or die, are incarcerated or free, is immaterial. The change is inevitable. The only choice is the side we choose - within Egypt, and abroad - to stand."

Today as we stand at a what appears to be the nadir with the devastation wreaked by Assad in Syria, rise of ISIS, Erdogan's near ignored crimes against Kurds, and Western-backed bombing of Yemen seemingly flagging up the worst of our fears about the region. All too often in these discussion, the old Orientalist narratives are reassserted - by the region's regimes and by their often Western backers (and increasingly - albeit temporarily, I would argue - by Russia). We are told about 'blood thirsty savages' but rarely about how they are funded or armed. We are told to shudder in horror at beheadings by ISIS but to ignore those by the Saudi regime. The destruction of Palmyra is held up as evidence of 'their' barbarism but the destruction of historic Sanaa by Western bombs delivered by a Western ally (KSA) with targets identified by Western advisors is almost entirely erased from our news channels and papers (Meanwhile, the sale of Palmyra antiquities looted by ISIS and magically sold in European markets is something few are even ready to discuss). We are told about the horrors of Russian bombs in Syria but apparently Western drone and airstrikes, even on MSF hospitals, are 'humanitarian.' If the above paragraph seems like another outraged postcolonial rant, it is deliberately meant to be so. 

I am tired. Tired of seeing lives shattered, families torn apart and displaced, people slaughtered. But more than that, I am tired of the lack of imagination on part of these regimes, as well as the bulk of Western leaders and commentariat (I also add Putin to this list, with his desperate need to emulate empire-builders despite the many economic and political constraints). To varying degrees, imperial thinking has a near complete lock on Western politicians, journalists, academics, analysts, leading to little more than short-termism, and endless replication of  outdated thinking dressed up as analysis. As long as instant sales of tear gas, missiles, guns, or building another prison in the Gulf, can bump up annual profits of another friendly corporate and buy 'stability' from another dictator, our leaders seem satisfied. It is a geopolitical version of the same short-term thinking that many on the Western left accused the bankers of back in 2008-9. And it is a form of policymaking that is so locked into short-term profits and fears of losing them that it can see no further than knee-jerkism. 

But exhaustion does not mean despair. Many pieces are moving on history's chessboard, many of which we have yet to take notice of completely. Over Christmas, I re-read Frantz Fanon's Toward the African Revolution, with many of the essays written during the Algerian war. I was struck by the prescience in the writings as well as Fanon's equanamity in accepting that the decolonisation process would be bitterly opposed by the constantly mutating forms of the declining empire(s).  It reminded me of the biggest mistake in my thinking in 2011: I had underestimated the bitterness with which the decolonisation has been opposed, even as the forms of colonisation and colonisers have evolved and mutated. We no longer have  formal colonies, but the colonial elite (as described accurately by Fanon) continue to be propped up, helping shore up unjust, exploitative, brutal economic, political, social structures for their former masters and current paymasters.

But recognising the intensity with which decolonisation - of social, political, economics structures, but more importantly of culture, narrative and minds - is being resisted also gives me hope. In the past five years, even as many voices have been silenced in Middle East and North Africa region, the change has not stopped. Instead, the Arab Spring gave decolonisation another historic push - Rhodes Must Fall, for example, is a not so distant, albeit often unrecognised offspring of the Arab Spring, as are many resistances across the world. In 2011, the revolution was waged in the 'Arab' world. Five years later, it is being dreamed in many lands and minds across the globe.

And note that term: dream. Because five years later, as the former colonisers make their paucity of imagination amply clear, there are many new dreams being woven in minds across the globe. To look at the world today is to see a clash of mythic proportions. Not between civilisations, as many without imagination would prefer to think of it. Instead, it is an epic struggle between those who demand the right to dream for ourselves and those with much fear and no imagination. In this battle between imagination and fear, January 25th, is not only the Egyptian or Arab, but decolonisation's 'shot heard around the world.'

Decades from now, when historians look back at our times, that may well be the most influential legacy of the Eighteen Days.