On names and pronouns: don’t be an arse

Following on from yesterday’s daft Sunday Times story, Owl Stefania writes in iNews in defence of using the correct pronouns.

It’s just the compassionate and right thing to do. Because in the end, why would anyone deliberately go out of their way to harm another human being?

There does appear to be a double standard in operation.

People seem fine calling drag queens “she” and “her”; for example, most of the coverage I’ve seen about Celebrity Big Brother winner Courtney Act calls her “Courtney” and uses “she/her”, even though Courtney is Shane offstage and doesn’t identify as female.

But if trans people ask for the same courtesy, they’re somehow wicked.

It can’t be authenticity we’re worried about. We don’t seem to have a problem with Bono, born Paul Hewson, even though he took his name from a hearing aid shop. Guitarist The Edge was born David Evans, and took his name from an imaginary character in an imaginary village.

Fish, formerly of Marillion, isn’t a fish.

Snoop Dogg isn’t a dog.

Ice-T isn’t made of ice or tea.

To the best of my knowledge, Sting doesn’t.

And that’s before we list the many women who’ve changed their name, from Miley Cyrus (Hope) and Jodie Foster (Alicia) to Whoopi Goldberg (Caryn Johnson), Shania Twain (Eilleen Edwards) and bell hooks (Gloria Watkins).

Of course, these are pseudonyms, noms de plume or stage names. But all the world’s a stage.

If you met any of the people I’ve mentioned in real life you wouldn’t insist on calling them by their birth names because that’d be rude and their people would probably have you thrown down the nearest staircase.

There’s no reason to call anybody by anything other than their preferred name: if you insist on doing otherwise, you’re an arse.

Beware The Transgender Email!

It’s Sunday, which means anti-trans pieces in The Mail on Sunday and in The Times. This week’s effort is pretty poor, even by The Times’ increasingly poor standards.


What horrors lie inside?

Students and academics are being encouraged to sign their emails with their names, titles, telephone numbers and whether they prefer to be known as he or she — or another option.

The addition of “he/him”, “she/her” or “they/them” to the end of emails is intended to “normalise the use of gender pronouns” — and prevent transgender students from being wrongly addressed.

Students at Oxford are also being invited to declare their preferred pronouns before speaking at union meetings.

The horror, the horror.

The best democracy money can buy

This is superb journalism, very frightening and quite clearly the tip of an iceberg.

Observer: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach.

The short version: one company surreptitiously and unethically gathered data on 1/3 of US Facebook users and used it to precision-target them with political messages on behalf of the Trump campaign.

The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.

A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. And it can do all this without an need for delving into personal messages, posts, status updates, photos or all the other information Facebook holds.

Meet the data whistleblower.

How Likes became a weapon.

The same company was used by the Leave side during the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

The data in this scandal is a tiny proportion of the data Facebook has on everybody.

Here’s your regular reminder that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, plans to run for President of the USA.

Parasites and the turkeys voting for Xmas

I love this cartoon by Paul Noth in The New Yorker.

This week the Conservative MP David Davies (not the successful one; that’s David Davis. This one’s the MP for Monmouth) held a meeting of anti-trans militants in the House of Commons. The speakers are well known for their extreme views.

As Newsweek reports (the UK media hasn’t covered it beyond LGBT magazine Pink News; it contradicts the narrative of brave women standing up against wicked trans):

An academic who reportedly compared trans people to parasites during an event held at the British Parliament has been accused by LGBT rights advocates of using “fascist” and “dehumanizing” language.

I’ve read pretty detailed reports of what was said at the meeting and none of it was surprising, but it’s surprising that it was welcomed in the House of Commons.

Or maybe it isn’t, because Davies’ voting record is spectacularly anti-LGBT and arguably anti-women too. He was famously described as being on the “far right of the Conservative party”, is a climate change sceptic, was a passionate opponent of equal marriage, has problems with charities such as Save The Children and has repeatedly voted against legislation to make LGBT people’s lives and poor people’s lives better.

You might think he’s an arsehole. I couldn’t possibly comment. But supporting anti-trans bigots is hardly a stretch for him.

Still, it’s ironic to see one of the meeting’s organisers happily posing with Davies and thanking him on Twitter for “standing up for lesbians”, when his entire political career is based on doing exactly the opposite.

But then, it’s also ironic to see the same activists gleefully fuelling anti-trans hit pieces in right-wing newspapers, those famed supporters of women’s equality and LGBT rights.

I can’t help thinking that in the future, the activists rushing into alliances with hard-right conservatives here and in the US will become like the Twitter joke: “I can’t believe leopards are eating my face, says the woman who voted for the Leopards Eating Your Face Party.”

But disgust makes people do strange things, and disgust is clearly the background here. “Parasites” may be a relative newcomer, but the sentiment behind it isn’t.

The members of the Gender Cynical wiki on the social media site Reddit collated the various terms and allegations made against trans people by self-declared “gender critical” people on just that website. When you see them all listed it’s really something.⁠1

As the wiki notes (with references for each; often, lots and lots of references), our heroes claim trans people — and primarily trans women — are:

Dangerous, rapists, “the bad guys”, “easy to spot”, “paedophile rights activists”, “men’s rights activists”, “men’s rights activists with a sissy fetish”, “like men’s rights activists who go on shooting sprees”, mentally ill, too mentally ill to consent to changing sex, too mentally ill to work, too mentally ill to fly planes, disgusted by mentally ill people, insane, psychopaths, sociopaths, untrustworthy, delusional, obsessed with Wikipedia, narcissists, whiny women, screeching, shrieking, a bunch of entitled assholes, a cult, armed robbers, just another dangerous fad, submissives, “natural slaves”, unworthy of empathy, openly paedophilic, autistic, sexually exhibitionistic, stereotypical, not stereotypical enough, “correctively raping young lesbians”, “lying and deceptive creeps appropriating the experiences of an oppressed class they cannot ever be a part of”, contagious, predators, death metal fans who befriend men, representatives of rapists, in need of humiliation, sick, disgusting, unnatural, drag queens, a deviant minority, more socially accepted than gay people, mistaken, subhuman, male supremacists, male supremacist victims of psychological warfare, inherently sexualised, an elite aristocracy funded by 76 large corporations, femme gay men, straight men with low self esteem, socially awkward autistic men who hate lesbians, hysterical, fetishists, “outright perverts and criminals”, abusers, latent mass murderers, “the worst thing to happen to gay people since AIDS”.

It’s quite the list. I’m surprised nobody’s claiming we can’t swim or that we have lower IQs.

Bear this in mind the next time you hear these people say they want a reasoned debate.

1 https://www.reddit.com/r/GenderCynical/wiki/index

Preference vs prejudice and the politics of disgust

There’s a fascinating piece by philosopher Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books about sex, sexuality and entitlement.

It’s wide ranging and covers everything from “incels” – self-proclaimed “involuntary celibates” who believe they can’t get laid because women are evil – to LGBTQ people.

The core question is whether anybody is entitled to sex, and of course the answer to that is no.

But that doesn’t mean sex and sexual preferences don’t have a political element. Apologies in advance if I get any terminology wrong; I’m not well versed in the correct language to use in these topics.

Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.

Srinivasan talks about the so-called “cotton ceiling”, an unfortunate term for the othering of trans women. It’s been wrongly and maliciously characterised as trans women demanding lesbians have sex with them.

The term was coined by trans porn star Drew DeVeax in 2012 to describe what she felt was a tendency in feminist and queer spaces to welcome trans women in theory, but to think of them as weird, icky and totally unfuckable in practice. Getting past the cotton ceiling, then, would mean women believing that trans women could be sexually attractive — that trans women were women, not things.

Similar discussions happen around ableism or fat shaming, where people who don’t conform to a particular societal norm may feel that they are tolerated but not considered desirable.

Nobody’s demanding anything when they talk about this stuff. They’re just pointing out that what you prefer in the bedroom may be shaped by what you experience outside the bedroom – and that what you prefer in the bedroom may also shape how you act outside the bedroom.

Whatever gets you through the night

Let’s say you aren’t attracted to fat women. That’s a preference. We all have preferences, because that’s how people work. My particular preference is funny, smart, beautiful women who don’t fancy me, because God has a sick sense of humour. I can’t say I’ve ever been attracted to a man, the odd pop star excepted (have you seen the band REM put through a gender swap? Michael Stipe would have made a beautiful woman, because he was and still is a beautiful man). But I don’t think guys are disgusting. They just don’t float my boat.

Let’s take another example: maybe you love big girls but not big trans girls.  Again, a preference. But where does that preference come from? Is it just your personal thing, or is it because you’ve spent decades seeing men on screen vomiting after being “tricked” by a trans woman because trans women are disgusting?

Pass the sick bag

One of the most famous scenes in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is when Carrey discovers he has kissed somebody who’s trans. This revelation causes him to throw up twice into the toilet bowl and then clean his teeth so vigorously he goes through an entire tube of toothpaste.

It happened in The Crying Game too, and in Naked Gun 33⅓. Horror at trans women is also played for laughs in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover Part II and in a particularly repellent example, in the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The “trans as disgusting trickster” trope is widespread on social media.

Still, it makes a change from portraying trans people as murderers. For decades popular culture has treated trans people in a very negative way.

So it’s worth considering where preferences may come from. Are you just not into somebody, or have you been conditioned to believe that gay people, or trans people, or fat people are somehow lesser people or worthy of disgust?

This matters. There are many kinds of people I’m not usually attracted to, but I don’t think any of them are disgusting. They’re just not my type.

That’s the difference between preference and prejudice.

Guys not floating my boat is a preference. Thinking guys are disgusting, or that guys who like guys are disgusting, is a prejudice.

Not being into big women is a preference. Believing that big women are disgusting and lazy is prejudice.

Not wanting to sleep with a non-op trans woman is a preference. Believing nobody could want to sleep with a trans woman because trans women are disgusting is prejudice.

The politics of disgust

Being prejudiced doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll discriminate against a group of people, although it often does. But it does make it much more likely that you’ll support discrimination against that group. The politics of disgust – focusing on “dole scroungers” and single mums, promiscuous gay men and trans people – is widespread and keeps papers like the Daily Mail in business.

Disgust is a visceral, powerful, dangerous thing. If an entire class of people disgust you, that means you see them as lesser humans.

Here’s an example of disgust in action. The “gay panic” defence (and its successor, trans panic) has been used in court to justify murder: “it turned out he was gay. I was so disgusted that I panicked and stabbed him 37 times”. Such a defence has been used in around half of the states in the US, and only two states have explicitly prohibited it.

This isn’t ancient history. Just last week, a sex offender called Mark Lewis escaped prosecution for killing a young, black trans woman. He claims that they had been kissing, and when she grabbed his backside he panicked and pushed her into the river, where she drowned. He didn’t try to help her.

There’s no doubt that he did it. He said so, twice. But thanks to a bungled prosecution that focused not on his manslaughter charge but the much lesser crime of failing to register as a sex offender, he’s a free man who can’t be prosecuted over the death. The manslaughter of Kenne McFadden is a “terrible tragedy”. Just one of those things.

But it isn’t. Lewis’s lawyers claimed self defence, and they were confident that had the case been tried by jury they would have won in that arena too. As his attorney put it: “what my client actually did was push a person off of him who was touching him in an offensive manner.”

Call me cynical, but whenever somebody I’m kissing grabs my backside I don’t immediately panic, push them in a river and watch them die.

And this is where the personal becomes political. Would Lewis have been disgusted, would he have reacted the way he did, if Kenne McFadden had been white and cisgender, not black and transgender? Would the defence be so sure of victory? Would the prosecution have been allowed to make such boneheaded decisions? Would it still be just one of those things, a terrible tragedy in a country where such tragedies happen far too often?

Maybe. But I doubt it.

“If Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectual in the Western world, the Western world has lost its damn mind.”

There is a long and noble tradition of giving people a right good kicking in print, but it’s rarely done as well as this.

Writing in Current Affairs magazine, Nathan J Robinson sharpens his stiletto and gets stuck into Jordan Peterson, a rabble-rouser who alternates between stating the bleeding obvious and making completely unhinged claims while hiding it all behind a veil of academic language.

I could quote all of it, but I’ll just quote one bit.

Having safely established that Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing, we can now turn back to the original question: how can a man incapable of relaying the content of a children’s book become the most influential thinker of his moment?

Ricky Gervais lacks humanity

Ray Burmiston/Netflix

I don’t find Ricky Gervais funny. I thought the US remake of The Office was much better than the original, largely because he wasn’t in it: I couldn’t shift the feeling that his portrayal of a boorish, charmless arsehole wasn’t acting. I’ve been proved right many times since.

Writing in Vulture.com, Matt Zoller Seitz takes issue with his latest stand-up special, Humanity, mainly because like Gervais’s previous stand-up shows large swathes of it are tedious and unfunny. But he also takes issue with the topic that dominates the show: Gervais’ belief that he’s being persecuted.

Gervais devotes much of this special — which lasts about an hour and 20 minutes — to complaining that the world keeps telling him what he can and can’t say.

That’s a man worth £55 million, on stage in front of devoted fans, being filmed for a Netflix special that’ll be shown worldwide.

Nobody is denying a platform for Gervais, Chappelle, Chris Rock, or even Louis C.K. (who had a Netflix special last year, a few months before his career imploded). They’re free to say whatever they want during their routines, and Netflix is free to give them time and space in which to say it. What seems to infuriate these comedians, however, is that audiences can talk back more easily now and say, “I don’t like that,” or “I didn’t find that funny,” or “That seemed cruel to me.

We’re back to misunderstanding free speech. Free speech says the government can’t put you in jail for having an opinion. It doesn’t say you should be free from criticism.

What comedians like Gervais object to is being made to think about what they’ve said, and potentially feel regret or guilt over having made a poor choice of material or words. That their initial impulse is to feel anger and resentment at the person raising an objection is telling.

…What these comedians are demanding is that we respect their feelings while they exercise their constitutionally safeguarded prerogative to hurt other people’s feelings. That’s not a level playing field. It’s the power dynamic preferred by a playground bully, in which all the discomfort flows in one direction: away from them.

There’s something particularly risible about a multi-millionaire picking on marginalised groups and then claiming to be a victim.

I haven’t got lazyitis

Quack! Quack! Quack!

There’s a well known trick in the bullshit community: if you give something a scientific or medical sounding name, you can persuade some people that bullshit isn’t bullshit. It’s a technique used by quacks and scoundrels and rapacious corporations alike.

Today’s example is “rapid onset gender dysphoria”, which is appearing in various right wing newspapers and on social media.

The idea is that the sudden visibility of trans people isn’t because visible role models, online information and social media support encourages people to come out (hello!) when they’d previously stayed miserable in the closet.

No, it’s because trans is a magic space disease you can catch from internets.

The short version: bullshit!

The longer version: bulllllllllllllllllllllllshit!

The Advocate does an excellent takedown of the supposed science:

The entire theory is based on a single poster abstract in 2017 by Dr. Lisa Littman. Poster abstracts are often published when not only is the material too weak to be a journal article, but of insufficient quality to even be accepted for oral presentation at a conference. As such, the academic bar for a poster abstract getting accepted is very low. It was, however, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Littman’s abstract suffers from so many methodological flaws, logical errors, and unacknowledged biases that it fits firmly in the category of junk science.

Please do read the whole thing, but the executive summary is this: so-called rapid onset gender dysphoria is based on a survey of anti-trans activists on three anti-trans websites. Asked whether they believed being trans was something kids caught from the internet, those activists – who suggest being trans can be cured by yoga, among other nonsense – said yes. Those responses were then used to “prove” that being trans is something kids caught from the internet.

The same “social contagion” argument was used to describe the increased visibility of left-handed people in the 20th Century. Look at the scary graph!

The answer was simpler: when we stopped bullying left-handed people, left-handed people felt safer and stopped pretending to be right-handed.

As the BBC reports, quoting Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London:

“The natural rate of left-handedness is around 10% or 11%, but the rate was pushed down artificially during the Victorian period,” says Chris McManus.

“You can see it going down from about 1800 onwards through to about 1900.”

Not only would left-handed people have been encouraged not to be during this period, life was also pretty difficult for them and they quickly became very conspicuous.

“They went to work in factories using machines designed for right-handers – and the left-handers looked awkward,” says McManus.

“And then compulsory schooling came along and they were obliged to sit in classrooms and try and write with their right hand using an ink pen and they made a mess. The result of all of this was that left-handers became stigmatised – regarded as cack-handed, stupid.”

So, some of the people who had died on those Californian lists may well have been born left-handed, but spent most of their lives acting and identifying as right-handers.

What this so-called theory is trying to explain is something we already have a perfectly good term for: coming out.

Trans people are quite used to other people’s pseudoscientific bullshit. For example, a long-discredited theory called autogynephilia posits that all trans people fall into two categories: gay men who want to be women so they can have sex with men, and straight men who are turned on by the thought of being women. What about trans men? They’re all confused lesbians.

That one has been kicking about since the 80s and is still used by anti-trans activists today despite being repeatedly and comprehensively debunked; if rapid onset gender dysphoria doesn’t gain similar traction we’ll get some other pseudoscientific bullshit claiming we have madeupitis, Shatner’s Bassoon Deficiency or some other invented condition that the quick to print and slow to think can put in their articles.

Whatever they call it, it’ll be flummadiddle, skimble-skamble and arkymalarky.

(The blog title’s from Lazyitis by Manchester band Happy Mondays)

If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious. And dangerous

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but an algorithm.

In the New York Times. Zeynep Tufekci describes YouTube’s radicalisation problem. No matter the starting point, it recommends increasingly extreme content.

YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims. Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia, recently “seeded” a YouTube account with a search for “crisis actor” and found that following the “up next” recommendations led to a network of some 9,000 videos promoting that and related conspiracy theories, including the claim that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.

What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire

We like conspiracies. We want to know the news THEY don’t want us to see, the products THEY tried to ban, the secrets THEY don’t want us to know. And such bullshit has been around for centuries.

What’s different is that previously, the bullshit wasn’t mainstream. The much-derided media “gatekeepers” ensured that this shit didn’t spread beyond very small groups of people. Extreme and unhinged voices were largely unable to get a platform.

Now, we don’t have gatekeepers. For younger people YouTube and Facebook are their BBC and CNN, and there’s often an assumption that if it’s on these sites it must be okay. And it’s not okay. It’s far from okay.

Extremist content isn’t just being uploaded; it’s staying up. Good luck reporting actual Nazis to Twitter, or actual Nazi propaganda to Facebook, or bigotry and hate speech on any social network.

Free speech über alles. Fuck the consequences.

The “if it’s outrageous it’s contagious” approach prioritises the worst of us. It has turned social media into a very dangerous weapon.

We’ll be reaping the whirlwind for a long time to come.

The camera lies

If you think we’ve got problems with fake news now, wait until deepfake is mainstream.

The Guardian:

Show a neural network enough examples of faces from two celebrities and it’ll develop its own mental model of what they look like, capable of generating new faces with specific expressions.

Ask it to generate a set of expressions on one face that are mapped onto a second face, and you have the beginnings of a convincing, automatically generated, utterly fake video. And so, naturally, the internet created a lot of porn.

I haven’t seen the porn – I have no interest in seeing videos created without people’s consent – but I have seen what the technology can do in the hands of ethical people.

This is absolutely stunning: Sven Charleer replaces actors with his wife.

Beyond just pure fun, I can only imagine how people will start turning this tech into business ideas. Fashion will be huge (what would I look like with this kind of hair, this kind of dress…), fitness could be interesting (do I look good with muscles, will I really look better skinny), travel (this is you standing on a beach is going to be quite convincing). It’ll bring advertising to a whole new level. No need to imagine what if, they’ll tell you what your “better” life will look like! And it’ll be hard to get that picture out of your head…

This technology is in its infancy, but it’s getting smarter by the day. And the potential ramifications for everything from revenge porn to political propaganda are enormous and disturbing.

Back to The Guardian:

It’s grim. But it’s not going to go away. The technology is publicly available, extensively documented, and the subject of research around the globe. This is our world now. As Lucas warned MPs: “Please don’t spend too much time looking in the mirror at what Russia did to us; look through the windscreen at what’s coming down the road. That’s much more dangerous.”