A Husband and Wife hold hands during a Burning Man wedding

Sexytime, Gender Roles, and Credit Where Due

Women and the Internet: Part Three

This is part three of a four-part series. Part One, Part Two, Part Four

For all those men out there who have over the years suggested that what I need is a good fuck, don't worry, guys, I got this one covered.

I am not shy about sex, nor shy about enjoying it. Consistent with various online suggestions I have received over the years, I have had every size cock in many of my orifices. and I have enjoyed them. But I have chosen them. The men I choose to fuck these days, the men attached to these penises, have enjoyed the hell out of it too. My partners and I talk as equals about how to give and get the most out of our sex. We tell each other what we're into, make suggestions, set limits, and see to our own and each other's enjoyment. This is what makes good sex, and I have very good sex. The men and women I have sex with have admired me, my talents, my mind, and my work, at least as much as my tits. They don't want me reduced, weakened, or humiliated in any way. They find my social power sexy, and haven't ever sought to demean my professional and intellectual life, even if they're taking me from behind.

When this sex has been part of a long term relationship, being supportive to my partners is incredibly important to me. My partners of recent years have been people of the world, engaged in issues around technology and politics. They make difficult and complex decisions; they work on important problems. I do far more to support them by being engaged in the world myself and being able to bring my own wisdom and experience to the table than by bringing just dinner to the table.

I am also very good at bringing dinner to the table.

I can be a professional, an activist, a caretaker, and I can clean house. I can and do require these qualities from my partners. Not everyone needs to require all that from their partners, and I haven't always, either. But I can, I do, and I've have no shortage of romantic options.

The internet and the world are full of men who get this. They know how to treat the women in their lives as colleagues, partners, and friends. They understand that women don't fulfill them or challenge them -- but that women are people getting along as best they can. These men are not emasculated in any way. Their penises are within all the normal size ranges. Some of them really can fuck like gods, do housework, and even live happily with a woman who is more famous or more successful than they are.

The men in my life, both lovers and friends, are invaluable to me. We consult each other on our decisions and our work. We encourage each other behind the scenes when we face public criticism. The men in my life are successful and sometimes famous, and don't need to diminish the women in their lives to be men.

I have one criticism of them, which is that they don't talk about these issues in public space. I get why, they've watched me and other women they know get threatened, stalked, insulted, and hammered with every horrible thing people can say. But while their silence may damage women, I have come to believe they rob other men more.

They rob their fellow men of the deep exhale that comes with being free of fulfilling the lives others, free of having to always be invulnerable before women.

This equality and its benefits hasn't always been an option. Historically, and still in many parts of societies around the world gender roles -- those nasty assumptions about what men can do and women can not, what women are for, shape not only what women can hope to be, but men too. Where gender roles prevail, men can never take a break from justifying their power over the women in their life, and women often tear apart the men in their lives that show any human weakness.

When I think of the damage of gender roles, I often think of a moment in shame researcher Brené Brown’s popular TED talk, where she relates the story of a man who told her, “(My wife and daughters) would rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down." It’s women trapped in gender roles that destroy the inner lives of men trapped in gender roles.

A Portrait of a Union Soldier …and Probably His Ex-Wife.

Gender roles keep the enemy in your bed. Every failure counts for at least two people, but rest on one set of shoulders. Modern life lacks a distinct path that promises success and stability for men, and an interloper wife can halve success while doubling failure. In the mean time, she lives in the frustration of her man being her only expression in the world, forced to live through him. She is his first judge, the first to be disappointed in his missteps.

There is an epidemic of male suicide around the world, out-pacing female suicide despite a higher rate of mental illness in women. (The major exception to this is China; but study data coming out of China is incredibly suspect, so it's hard to tell what's really going on there.) Male suicide is inversely proportionate to economic status, and has dramatically shifted into middle age. In countries that rate high on gender equality men often commit suicide 2-3 times as often as women. In countries that rate low on gender equality -- and where such statistics are gathered -- that number can jump to nearly 8-10 times as many men killing themselves. Correlation is not causation, but it certain suggests a good looking over, especially when there's a clear mechanism. The mechanism here is not hard to understand.

If you fail in life, and you fail you, you lay down for a while and feel sorry for yourself. If you fail in life and have to face a family that depends on you for not only livelihood but for a place in the world, and you fail them, best to not come home.

The world is so much more mutable than it was even 100 years ago. And if you live in constant fear of failing all these people that depend on you, eventually your heart gives in.

In a completely non-metaphorical way, men all over the world die of broken hearts all the time.

The men who have escaped this trap, for whom a woman is an equal who is responsible for her own life, have a calmness. I see it in my friends. There is tremendous power in just falling apart and being taken care of when the time comes. I am so proud of my male friends and partners, and the amazing work they do, even though I have held many of them while they fell apart. We have watched each other grieve and fail, and in the fullness of time picked each other back up.

My male friends are not feminists just because they respect me, they are feminists because it makes their lives work better. But they watch other men eat poisonous messages about what it means to be a man and stay silent, because that conversation is a lot to deal with. Still, the men in my life, the men I love, are letting other men down.

In the absence of a useful conversation on building a manhood that serves men better, women keep talking, mostly to each other. Like other men do, we find it scary to talk to men about men's issues, even when they affect us.

Women's advice to women on how to avoid gender violence is usually very insulting to men. It admits of them no agency, as if they were nocturnal unhuman rape bots fueled by alcohol, rather than people with their own stories and their own struggles.

What women tell women to do to prevent rape and violence takes on the character of magical thinking -- rituals and talismans and rites of cleanliness meant to prevent uncontrollable circumstances. The advice is always terrible in some way, and it has a certain desperate powerlessness to it. These rituals have come to be because they are comforting and allow many women to function. The alternative to this advice is for many women even worse than this advice, even though the advice is awful. It is admitting that we live in a world of men's violence, and that we can do nothing about it. Comforting the victim means accepting that tomorrow, you could be the victim, your daughter or son could be the victim, and there is nothing you can do about it.

So we dress a certain way and tap the door three times and only walk down certain streets at certain times of day, but so many of our teachers and bosses and fathers and pastors beat us, rape us, degrade us, or coerce us into servitude anyway. There isn't a magical formula, and any of us anytime can become a victim, and we have to live with that uncertainty.

Unlike many feminists, I'm not ready to tell women they should stop giving terrible advice and face the reality of uncertainty. Uncertainty does terrible things to mammalian brains. It ups cortisol levels, causing long term stess diseases and cognitive decline. It destroys livelihoods and relationships by impairing decision making. Stress from uncertainty is associated with worse long term outcomes for the brain, the heart, and many other organs. Coping with uncertainty makes you worse at long term planning. It is not merely unpleasant, but a physiological albatross. Just-so stories that allow even an illusory break from the stress of uncertainty allow women to function. The idea that women can do something to fix gendered violence is a lie, but it's a useful lie. To a point.

Magical thinking is no longer useful when it gets in the way of real reform. When we stand on the threshold of men being able to critique and change this behavior, when men are ready to talk about and reinvent manhood, magical thinking no longer serves either men or women.

But we rarely talk to men about these problems. Women talk amongst themselves, debate the finer points of correct feminism, debate how to deal with sexism and violence in all their many forms. Of course it's reasonable that we do this, but it's also a little silly. We treat men like they're the weather, and we must simply learn to cope with them when they are bad or even disastrous weather. But men are not the weather, they are other humans, and we can talk to them about these things. We can encourage our feminist friends to talk, to argue, to try and turn this into a global conversation about what it means to be a man, now. Men need to speak up, and women need to encourage them, gently, and fully, and honestly.

This is a place where the internet shines. The internet is a place where we can take these myths apart in safety, and try out different stories of manhood.

In a world where challenges to traditional manhood are often met with physical violence, the net gives men and women the chance to reinvent our genders in ways that could not only improve the lives of women, but save the lives of men.

Both our anger and our magical thinking have served us, but like many tools, they serve to get us to a point where we don't need them anymore. When we open up these lines of communication between men and men, as well as between men and women, when we drain them of anger and magical thinking, wonderful things can happen. Not the least of which is that amazing sex the internet has so kindly suggested I go get.

Next Story — Hello Future Pastebin Readers
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Hello Future Pastebin Readers

Welcome to the New Normal

When I was 12 I begged for, and got, the Time-Life Enchanted World Series. The first book on ghosts had a line that tickled not only my fantasy-novel-addled brain, but also my budding writerly instinct. We fear ghosts, according to Ghosts, because their gazes say to us: “As I am, so shall you be.” Today, that’s what the Compromised are silently saying to everyone else, with their pained faces, naked selfies, and ruined credit histories. Ask not for whom the next Ashley Madison tolls, it tolls for you. All of you.

No matter how it happens, it’s the same thing that always gets you — the paper trail, the accounting, the database, the logs. Logging, archiving, history, whatever it’s called in this next app, this is what always fucks you in the end. It used to be it fucked you because you were running a mob front company, and someone absconded with the books, which were physical books. Now, it’s because you’re a person-who-is-on-the-internet. This is the magic of living in an age where chit-chat is no longer ephemeral. Our minutia ends up on Pastebin, on the hard drives of journalists, discussed on Reddit, tweeted in screenshots. You don’t have to be important for this to happen to you. You just have to be on the net.

Someone getting mad at me for being too busy to do a story and posting logs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Sometimes it’s hacking. We hear a lot about those in the news these days. But it’s not always, and it’s not even usually hacking. The barrier to data betrayal is so low now that it often doesn’t feel like betrayal at all. Screenshotting a Snapchat, posting a mail thread, or copy-pasting some Slack logs hardly feels like wearing a wire when you go to your friends’ house or your boss’ office. Getting it all is so easy when our devices gather it for us, and data has none of the feel of looking into the eyes of a human you are lying to in order to betray them. Most of our leak-able data is right there, burning a hole in our hard drives. It’s so easy to share data with the wide world, and then it’s done. It’s public, it belongs to the attention of the whoever.

I have a habit when I drop into apps like Slack, or start a long DM conversation on Twitter, or whatnot. I say “Hello future Pastebin readers!” or sometimes “Hello officer, sir!” If it’s a conversation with one of my sketchier friends.

While I am known for my writing about security, my chill attitude doesn’t come from my security knowledge. It comes from being hacked so many damn times it’s become a life style. I was first interviewed about what it was like to be a hacking victim 15 years ago, and it had already happened several times in the 1990s by then. When I was working with Anonymous many years later, It was important for me to assume I was compromised by not only law enforcement (and boy, does that ever look more likely now than it even did then). I was also definitely going to get hit by various hackers from the collective itself.

One day, some of my sources got worried about my finances. “Guys,” I said, “Stay out of my bank account.”
“But you have a kid to take care of!”
“Just, stay out,” I told them.

Sometimes, people ask me why I don’t keep a sticker over my webcam. “If you’ve already owned me enough to turn on the webcam,” I say, “The least I can do is force you to watch me pick my nose.”

The first time your data goes traveling without you is surreal. It’s disturbing in a way that feels like it should be physical, like you should be able to drive somewhere and get it all back. There should be someone you can talk to and set it all right. Eventually you realize it’s all copied endlessly without you, that it’s ultimately indifferent to you. It’s simply this property of math that happened to you, personally. Like any developmental milestone, over time you realize: This is how life is. Data just travels, and getting upset about it won’t do anything more than getting upset at a storm, or God.

By this point in my life, anything I say in an unencrypted or logged medium, I tend to ham it up for the day it’s released to the public. Goodbye former audience, hello unintended audience!

You’ll all be like me in a few years.

More Data, More Problems.

Mo’ Meta: Leaked logs of people coordinating the leak of celeb nude called the Fappening.

I have a law named after me by the internet. It’s very exciting, and I don’t know if it will take off and enter the pantheon of Moore’s and Godwin’s laws, but it is relevant to your interests, because you are on the internet.

This is Norton’s Law:

Over time, all data approaches deleted, or public.

All data leaks. This is not a property of the internet, but a property of data — just ask the Pharaohs of Egypt about their secret tombs. Data is observed (and therefore replicated), or obliterated through time. All public data has the power to replicate on its own. That may seem a strange statement, but I mean that it doesn’t have to be pushed to be preserved. It can be copied, learned by new people, archived in strange places, and ultimately passes out of control. I’m not yet talking about the internet, per se. This is a property of information and its relationship with entropy. It was always there, but it wasn’t something we needed to understand before, at least not on this scale. But life on the net means much more of the data gets copied, and therefore, ends up where its creators didn’t intend.

Mo’ Mo’ Meta: Leaked conversations between Sabu and Barrett Brown, while Sabu was working for the FBI and Brown was analyzing the HB Gary Leak.

Sometimes I understand why people are interested in some bit of information, like Snowden’s leaks, or the tombs of pharaohs. I don’t understand why many people are interested in a lot of datasets, like Ashley Madison or the crushing weight of millions of lines of chatlogs on Pastebin. Except perhaps that we are, as a species, information predators. We spend a few hours of our day getting and eliminating food, and most of the rest of it hunting information. It’s an interesting species trait, and probably what lead to all of this weird altered planet we have now. But not all of humanity’s personality quirks are good, especially at scale. This is something journalists in particular are going to have to start thinking about, and nothing has brought that up more than Ashley Madison.

The journalistic community is going to have to come up with a code of ethics to deal with this kind of data in the contemporary age if we want to differentiate our vocation from stalkers and shills, which has always been the point of our professional ethics. That’s pretty hard right now, this is new ground, and I don’t have much criticism about how people are choosing what to cover. I don’t have the answer, what right have I to judge anyone? But it’s the most important question journalism should be asking right now, right after how we will make money without screwing our readers over.

How should we deal with a world where all the logged data either crashes sooner than we want it to, or ends up floating free around the world? All data gets deleted, or released.

I think we should stay calm, and accept that these things happen. I think the best way to cope with the new normal isn’t to hide, but to perform for the Unintended Audience. Like bodily fluids, ephemera is a thing that can only really be exchanged face to face.

No collection of Pastebin screenshots is complete without your email and hashed password.

We chat, we laugh, sometimes we kiss and hold each other, and then it’s gone. It’s not a perfectly preserved digital experience. The analog echoes of memory become ever more strokes of the trillions of impressionistic moments that make us into people. Our records, perfectly preserved digital information, make us into legal entities. Sometimes, they make us into accidental performers, but they never make us into people.

So now, we who live so much life on the net should think about how to embrace that performance, understanding we’re all on stage, just waiting for the spotlight to fall on us next.

I’m not going to lie. Our tools are great at getting us to open up. Chatting online doesn’t feel like being on stage, it feels like being in a nice cafe with friends. But in the new normal, that’s a little bit feature, and a little bit bug. It’s not anyone’s fault this happened. It’s just how the world works now, and we all might as well get used to it.

As I am, so shall you be.

Next Story — Looking Past Our Racist Assumptions To See Africa
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He said my writing does not show him Afr…
theijeoma, theijeoma.tumblr.com

Looking Past Our Racist Assumptions To See Africa

You have to Orientalize us.” my new friend in Tunis told me.

“No,” I told her, with tight-lipped determination. “I will write the hell out of it, and people will read it.”

Flying into the lovely and modern city of Tunis. The tap water is better than DC’s, and the city smells better than New York. Much better.

I said this like I could will people to read about post-revolutionary Tunisia, simply because it was fascinating, complicated, salient on the world stage, and told us so much about what new nationhood in the 21st century might be. Most of our Africa stories cast everyone over there as the inscrutable and irrelevant other, but it’s just not true. I wanted to show how much we all had in common, and I said so.

She just laughed at me, not totally unkindly, and told me no one would read my articles.

She was right, of course. I was determined, but I still gave up by my fourth article.

After weeks of work, I had to abandoned my series. Most of the pieces I’d done to that point never even broke a thousand hits. My editor had the patience of a saint about it, but I had a family to support, and I knew I wasn’t going to keep pay coming in with those numbers. (You can read them here: Whither the Revolution? The Quiet Streets of Tunis, The Walls had Ears. I am still sitting on notes and recordings that are pure gold.)

This was in 2013, and I had gone to write a multipart series on how Tunisia was trying to work out what a state should look like in the 21st century: its struggles, economic problems, lack of jobs, but also some very strong parts of it. I went because in 2012 a Tunisian activist said to me, feeling crushed with frustration: “Did we even have a revolution?”

I said “Well, something sure-as-hell happened.”

I interviewed people from all over. Old people who remembered the French, hip hop radio DJs, activists, NGO people, congressional assistants, start-up folks, secularists, Muslims, just random people on the street, if they happened to speak English. I went to events and took long walks. I struggled with taxis. I cooked a lot, and tried to mess with Tunisian recipes. I fucking loved it, and I thought, I can write what I love. Tunisia is in northern Africa, by the way. It’s next to Libya. Two over from Egypt.

It’s the country where they shot the Tatooine scenes in the first Star Wars movie.
How I end up feeling half the time I talk about Tunisia

I first fell in love with Africa 12 years earlier, at the other end. I drove around the southern bit of the continent, mostly camping with the occasional hotel thrown in. I got sick and recovered. I saw cities, forests, and deserts. I made friends, and saw things off-putting and lovely. I stayed in touch with people for a while after. On the whole, I discovered that Africa is largely populated by people with the same picayune concerns I have, surrounded by slightly different flora and fauna.

This is why I came to hate the term “First world problems.” Most Africans I’ve met on either end of the continent, if I complained about cell phone battery life or social media or dealing with overbearing neighbors or whatever, would chime in with sympathy and understanding.

That’s not to say there are no differences — culture and economics are real, as is distance. You can find plenty of differences between a Zambian villager, a middle class tech worker in Tunis, and me, but pointing out those differences is all we’ve done with Africa for decades. The media in America has taught me that my western life is a complicated scene of interlocking facets of modernity, and Africa is a smoking crater, and so we have nothing in common.

Because of my own experience, Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s post spoke to my frustration as an American writer also trying to write about the places and people and events of Africa for an American audience. I would never claim the expertise of Umebinyuo or any other person born and raised in an African nation, but I felt if I could be honest, do my research, study, interview, and try, I could bring a good story back home to the people I do know well, and who know so little about Africa. I still believe that, I just don’t believe I can make a living doing it.

I’d wanted to tell a different story, about the things we do have in common, and why these things are as important or more than things we don’t. I wanted to write interesting stories about what real life was like in countries that have the misfortune to be globally branded as African. But it became clear to me over time that if I tried, my career was going to be the smoking crater.

This classic video deftly lampoons all the Save Africa BS.

This is not new. That nobody publishes stories which reveal that most of Africa isn’t at war, that many countries are working democracies, and people are developing their own sectors in every industry that you can think of, that sometimes you can even drink the water right out of the tap, has been cried far and wide. But blame for this is usually laid at the media’s feet. I’m not going to for a moment claim we are innocent, we write all those crappy articles about Africa-as-smoking-crater. But I do want to share some blame with you, dear readers.

If it’s not Ebola or Boko Haram, if there’s no one getting shot or starved to death, if photogenically miserable little black children aren’t staring piercingly into your soul while obviously dying, you people never click the fucking link.

This is because you are, on the whole, pretty damn racist, and you don’t really like your visions of African misery challenged by reality. You also don’t like it when someone tells you that Africa has more than just black people in it, in fact it’s a racial and cultural cornucopia. I know, people are going to see this and be all “hashtag-not-all-Americans-slash-Europeans” but I have to call bullshit. Western interest in the real lives of the people of the many African societies is so diminishingly small many of you still think it’s a country.

Here’s a few key things to know about Africa:

John Green demonstrates all the things you can fit in Africa, if you’re will to bend Maine down a bit.
  1. It’s a fucking continent. It contains 54 countries. It has deserts, rain forests, beach resorts, massive cities, very cold mountains, too much water, not enough water, poor people, rich people, and middle class people. It is, in fact, the second largest and second most populated continent.
  2. Let’s revisit that middle class thing. It’s got a little over a billion people. Of those a quarter or a third — depending on which metrics you use — are middle class. That’s a middle class which is around the size of the North American middle class. Not just the USA, but a continent-to-continent comparison.
  3. While some countries in Africa are greying, (meaning the birthrate is low, combined with youth emigration) African demographics in general skew young, and increasingly ambitious. That means if you people in the US/Europe/Japan want any working tax payers supporting your social security payments in your old age, you’d better start courting young African immigrants.
  4. But good luck with that, because many African economies are growing fast, and infrastructure is springing up all over the place. There’s a lot of reasons for people to stay in Africa, depending on which of the 54 countries they’re in; some are doing better than others. Also, Africans know the West is racist and will treat them like crap, so our ability to attract them will be limited.
  5. In many African nations, access to women’s healthcare is better than it is in Texas. That is, admittedly, a damn low bar, and they should do better.
  6. Africa has had eight women as heads of state. Continental North America has had one, in Canada, for 5 months. (There was also Acting President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot of Haiti, but if there’s somewhere you regard even more as a smoking crater than Africa, it’s Haiti.)
  7. There isn’t much famine in Africa. In fact, in many countries, obesity is becoming a public health crisis. Sound familiar, America?
  8. When you get down to it, we’re all Africans. That’s where the human species comes from. So it’s fair to say Africans, on the whole, have done pretty well around the world. Certainly better than all the other hominids we’ve encountered.
  9. African history isn’t just a dark story of native tribes living hunter-gatherer lives. That’s a lie promulgated by 19th century anthropologists who were drafted to support the scientific racism at the time. Somehow, after throwing out most of the scientific racism as the garbage it was, no one has bothered to update the bullshit made up about Africa. When most of our ancestors were barely banging rocks together, people from the region around the Horn of African were smelting iron for the first time and establishing trade with the Mesopotamian civilizations and that other great African civilization, Egypt.
  10. Sub-Saharan Africa also witnessed a few great empires while Europe was having a dark age, and established some of the great libraries of history. The Library of Timbuktu (in Mali) also housed a bunch of the Islamic research Europeans based their scientific age on. So that was pretty handy.
  11. The debt America owes to Africa isn’t mainly the Atlantic Slave Trade; it’s the debt all of humanity owes to the mother of our species. Africa is the cradle of both our biology and culture, and it has remained as vibrant, dynamic, and full of complicated drama as it was thousands of years ago.
To the left is the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a palace and city complex dating from around the middle ages. To the right is the Ruins of Carthage, where the Roman empire learned its tricks, more than a thousand years earlier.

The many nations of Africa have few universal qualities. There is little that unifies Africa or the African experience, beyond getting ignored by many outsiders, and fending off exploitation by various transnational business interests. But my desire to get my people reading and understanding events in the many disparate regions of Africa isn’t just an eat-your-vegetables form of journalism; these stories are important to the future of everyone on this planet.

Africa is the region of the planet most expected to grow in the next 50 years. It’s the home of some of the last untapped natural resources, in particular, ones that drive our technology. It has a history of leap frogging technology, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep doing that. It’s a place with diversity in governance, monetary adaptability, and cultures that often teach a kind of resilience we’re all going to need in the coming age of climate-driven civil decline.

It’s possible that we’ll wake up one day to realize we need the communities of Africa a hell of a lot more than they need us. So maybe we should learn more about that, and not the Africa-as-failed-black-wilderness that the media steadily feeds our racism and sense of superiority.

And for chrissakes, would you editors commission articles from Ijeoma Umebinyuo? This is embarrassing.

Photo of Great Zimbabwe from Vinz

Next Story — Ahimsa Online
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Adapting an ancient practice to a networked society

For the better part of a year, I have embarked on a terrifying social experiment: Being kind on the internet.

I stopped getting in fights on the net, and tried to practice gentleness and kindness with people I found here. I didn’t defend myself, rally the troops, or pick sides. Instead, in the ever-growing Mexican stand-off of social media, I decided to put my gun down first.

This is all a complicated way of saying I have sought to adapt the ancient practice of Ahimsa to my online life.

I have not always succeeded, and if you search through the net you will surely find my many failures. But I continue to try.

It has been an extraordinary time, and I’m happy to say I hope now that I will continue this experiment for the rest of my life.

It was not an easy thing to give up the idea of winning the fights, especially online. I am naturally good with words, and I’ve known it since I was young. I have felt strong winning an argument, slamming people, sometimes watching them log off, in shame. I have slam dunked the response, and crushed egos under well-timed insults. But that strength was always so precarious by comparison to a practice of gentleness — what if they won the fight next time? What if I wasn’t fast enough, and I ended with the onlookers jeering me, telling me I should go kill myself instead of my particular bad guy? Sometimes I fought with people for a show, so that onlookers wouldn’t make the same mistake my opponents did. But in my year of Ahimsa, I found that the performative gentleness was, like the gentle mind, much more powerful.

I came to see the onlookers learned more from a gentle discussion than they ever did from the verbal wrestling. To keep the humanity of the person I’m talking to in my mind and heart at all times made every conversation better, even the antagonistic ones. Especially the antagonistic ones.

The internet is made of people. The internet only gets better if we get better.

Conflict arises out of needs, and the effort to satisfy them. But most conflict is tied to an incorrect idea of how to satisfy our needs. We live mainly in a world of gaudy plenty, yet fight bitterly as if everything were scarce. Often if we can get to that nugget of need, and find a way to satisfy that pain together, we can transcend seemingly insurmountable differences and do so much more than we could alone.

As my year went on, my failures of Ahimsa, which started off feeling more like excitement and even fun, slowly turned sour. I began to feel bad, feel like I’d spoken wrong. Animosity lost its enjoyment for me. No particular sensation took its place, but I did feel that I learned more things from my encounters than I had when they were fights. The difficult parts of life got a little bit easier when I decided that I simply didn’t have room to treat people as enemies.

To Not Injure

“Nonviolence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence.” — Joan Baez

For so long the powerful have had room to speak, to say anything they wanted, and back it up with economic and violent force. For people used to power, speaking on the net gives them a granularity in their speech without precedent. It empowers them to speak in ever more sophisticated and persuasive ways.

But for those who have never had power, the difference is not one of subtlety. Internet speech is access to the world that has never existed, a chance to be heard for the first time, a chance to shout down those who have kept you silent all your life. You can say anything as horrible to them as they said all your life to you. And so it is not without trepidation that I say this: We shouldn’t speak hatefully to each other at all.

There is nothing in Ahimsa, the idea of non-violence, that requires surrender, cooperation, or compliance with violence against us. In fact, much the opposite. At its heart it is non-surrender to force, as either technique used against us or temptation for us. It is meeting anger with gentleness and understanding.

There are those who see any gentleness as surrender, and complicity with their enemies. You are either with them, and ready to fight, or your mere existence constitutes a violation against them. Sometimes they will even call this refusal of violence a violence itself. I have learned that it is my inescapable fate to always be a violent oppression to such people, to only be able to relieve them by ceasing to be. I wish it weren’t that way, but all I can do is hope they see that making an enemy of the world is terrible odds.

Ahimsa is not any kind of acquiescence. It is emphasized throughout history that Ahimsa comes from a place of strength; that the power to not injure is a power indeed. I can confirm from my own experiments that my failures to be gentle have always come when I am tired, frustrated, weak, and self-pitying. To be gentle and firm in the face of hateful or ignorant speech has come from a place of strength, and like exercise, that strength builds on its use. The more you practice the strength of Ahimsa, the acceptance of universal humanity, the stronger you feel.

The fundamental contention of non-injury, or Ahimsa, is this: all humans are human. That there is nothing you can think or do that makes you inhuman, except die. The only crime that can reduce a human to less than human is the crime of murder — not committing it, but being the victim of it. Killing and injury are tragedies, unneeded in the world, to be avoided, not just as a fate, but as the transgressor.

The Everyday of Other People

“Lmao. Please kill yourself” — Too many people online to contemplate

On the net, I can find myself talking to just about anyone, and they can find themselves talking to me. I learn and teach a lot this way, often at the same time. In practice, the compassionate mind can be very powerful. Some of my friendships and my most insightful moments started as flamewars.

Sometimes I go to the net for comfort, and that’s not what I get from it. I have learned that yelling at a dry well doesn’t fill it with water, and to go elsewhere to get what I need. I have also been humbled and brought to tears by the comfort and generosity of people on the net.

It’s difficult to just let the net be what it is, at any moment, especially when it’s not what you want it to be. But I’ve come to see it like the ocean — it has its moods, and as much as you love it, you have to let it have those moods.

I found myself on Twitter one night speaking to men’s rights advocates about sexual consent. I tried my gentleness, I tried to explain my concerns, my doubts, the outcomes I feared when people weren’t able to give sober and informed consent. I never got angry, but also tried to understand their fears. Eventually it resolved into a productive conversation. They were always hesitant, but they couldn’t seem to stay mad at me. I came to understand more about how men come to that position, and how to meet them where they are. Undoubtedly it won’t always work, but for those who only want to scream and never to talk, I can at least now see the depth of their fear and feel compassion for them.

One day I spoke with a man who hated the idea that he might have white privilege. I tried to explain gently what it meant, but he could only see his own suffering and misfortune, and those without his privilege doing better than him. I talked to him more about his story, looking for a place to explain in terms he would understand what this thing was, and why it was there even if he didn’t see it as benefitting him. Eventually he pulled his trump card: his life was so bad he was suicidal. The only reason he hadn’t killed himself, he told me, was that he didn’t have the courage. I realized this wasn’t a political conversation at all, this was a soul in pain, crying for help. I stopped that conversation and asked him if he was safe, and if he could reach out to anyone. I offered him alternative ways to talk to me which weren’t public. Whatever our political fights, the existential needs of those whom the gods place in our paths has to come first.

On social media, you can’t see the tears and searing pain screwing up the face of the person behind the updates. To my mind, it is never safe to assume they are not there. It is never safe to assume they are.

Beyond the text and pictures we see before us is the skin, and beneath, the blood and viscera, all the way to the cavern of the brain, the mind made of time and memories. We are, every one of us, creatures of need and connection, not merely eschewing disconnection but beings literally incapable of unconnected life.

We are the only vertebrate that survives in space: We do it by surviving together.

At any moment, anyone speaking to us could be a robot. They could be suicidal. They could be rich, or poor. They could be drowning in self-hate. They could be confused and trying out ideas. This could be their first month on the internet. They could feel like they finally found a group who loves and understands them, and whatever they’ve just said is what they need to do to not be alone anymore. They could have been born with a mind defective in moral sociality, and doomed to a life alone, no matter how many people are around them.

At any moment, anyone speaking to us could be a child.

We must never lose sight of the worthiness of the soul before us, no matter what state we find it in.

The Defensive State of the Present Moment

“Over breakfast this morning I lamented to R that you don’t get my jokes anymore, at least not online. Maybe not at all, but you don’t visit enough for me to be sure (<- joke). It feels as if you’re more careful with the whole world, not just me…” — From a conversation with a friend

The net is not well now. People get torn apart, people’s lives are disrupted and even destroyed by this conflict. We’re all ready for a fight, and ready to divide the world into allies and enemies. Occasionally people use the word ally with me, but I will quickly remind them that I’m no one’s ally. And I’ll be no one’s enemy, as far as I have that power.

Right now, you can wall yourself off. It often seems safest to. You have to fight not to. Right now you can get encouraged in your angry opinion by a million people, 10 million, and it feels really important. But 10 million is next to nothing on a planet of seven billion. The social body builds scar tissue around your anger, and you sit there, reinforcing your allies in a small nation with no future, and what you will say will die away. Like any closed system it is destined to failure. True compassion builds bridges between systems of thought, and this is to my mind the greatest gift of Ahimsa: being connected to a wider world, being part of a universal system.

What I have Learned So Far About How to do This

Before I began this online experiment, I studied the history and method of Ahimsa. It begins with the Jains in India, but the ideas have been adapted and reinvented all over the world in many ages. I’ve sought out commentaries from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish practitioners of non-violence. I read about the abolitionist and pacifist Quakers, and the Catholic workers. I read the speeches of MLK Jr., Tolstoy’s books and essays, and the mountains of words around Gandhi’s life. To study the history of non-violence is inadvertently to study the history of violence as well. I’ve confronted stories that I would have shied away from before; but I’ve found it’s easier to read about and understand atrocities after surrendering the violent mind. They are horrible, but they become something you are safe from imagining yourself doing. This is another gift of Ahimsa: in refusing to dehumanize others, you reject dehumanizing yourself.

I’ve come to realize there’s so much to read and learn on this topic I will probably be studying it for as long as I am practicing it. I’m not a perfect practitioner, and it’s often hard to practice face to face. But on the internet it’s easier, and perhaps at this moment of history, more important.

Ahimsa on the net means refusing to use words with the intent to inflict harm.

Contempt, perhaps even more than outright violence, is the opposite of Ahimsa. It’s the concern troll, advising people that they aren’t being themselves correctly. It’s the “I pity you” that contains no pity, no compassion, but seeks to put someone down. Contempt cleverly skips the step of physical engagement and moves straight to seeing the other person as a lesser human, unworthy of love. I think it is even less Ahimsa than straight-out hate speech.

To learn a practice of Ahimsa means focusing on outcomes, and not your internal state. You don’t speak to satisfy yourself, but to communicate, and that this communication is constructed to be a positive thing in the world.

Ahimsa is not surrender, it’s more than not giving into the impulse of violence, it’s not giving into violence at all. Self-defense in Ahimsa is gentle, reaching for facts and clarity and a sense of common humanity. It is accepting with grace when the other person won’t come to common ground, not only without surrender, but without requiring surrender from the other person.

A practice of Ahimsa often means not speaking in anger. It doesn’t mean not ever having a strident, even angry message, but that anger is never directed at another’s humanity. Angry messages are appropriate at times, but they shouldn’t be paired with an angry, out-of-control mind. Not speaking in anger doesn’t mean never being angry, but it means waiting, and thinking carefully before you speak.

My rule is this: never internet angry. If you are angry, internet later.

This is a practice of response-in-compassion. No matter how vile the attack, it means seeing those talking to you as children of the universe, first and foremost. But for me, this doesn’t mean being a humorless monk online. It means I examine my motives. Goofing off makes the world better, sarcasm and irony can let people think about issues that are too hard to think about any other way. There is a cultural aspect to this — Americans have a long tradition of critique and growth through humor and sometimes biting humor. Sometimes, I have to explain this to people outside of America, and in particular non-native English speakers. What might have been a fight or an exchange of insults has been headed off any number of times by realizing that my humor hadn’t made sense to someone without my cultural context, and on a global network, this is a daily occurrence for me. Letting people in on the joke is much more rewarding than getting angry because they didn’t get the joke.

This is not to say I don’t make people uncomfortable. I do, and quite often. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being harmed. In some ways, it’s harder.

To resolve conflict you have to fight, which is easy, to resolve discomfort, you have to change, which is hard.

To speak on important matters is to accept making people uncomfortable. It’s often uncomfortable to be the speaker, as well. I don’t want people to feel discomfort, genuinely. I believe that if they weren’t uncomfortable, they could take in important ideas more easily. But often that discomfort is a sign of a path of growth. If I avoid making people uncomfortable, I might not be able to speak on important matters at all. So there is a balance — I can accept making people uncomfortable, but I wish for them to be comforted, above all, by people who are also seeking the truth of the situation.

Truth, above all, simply is. It is not a violent or angry thing, it is the quietest thing, at rest, reflecting the state of reality. To Gandhi, one of the great political practitioners of Ahimsa, truth was God, and God was truth. The truth doesn’t require anger, or hate, or even complex words, in most cases. The truth is a rock you can rest upon, and something you can learn to seek.

So, keep bringing it on, internet. I know people will say hateful and threatening things to me, as well as flattering, and every once in a while even sincere things to me. And, while all of it scares me, I will do all I can to remember that behind every digital signal is a human being: fleshy, full of thoughts and fires, and endlessly miraculous.

“May we look upon each other with the eyes of a friend”

— The Yajur Veda

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Occasionally science likes to remind us that we don’t know what depression is.

Millions of people get depressed, but we have no idea what is happening to them, to their bodies and minds. Right now, one of them is me.

For the last six weeks I’ve been fighting depression and slowly losing. This is not new for me, though it’s been a while since it happened. I’ve been descending into what would probably be diagnosed, if I could afford a diagnosis, as an episode of clinical depression. In my lifetime I’ve been diagnosed and rediagnosed with emotional disturbance, Major Depression, Bipolar, some ambiguous form of ODD, Learning Handicapped, having an anti-social personality, and PTSD. Most of my diagnoses have been withdrawn at some point. I’m not an easy case. But then, neither is depression. In 150 years of scientific study, it has been so elusive that it would be tempting to not believe in it at all, except that is it also so real.

I am sure I have PTSD, which is easier to nail down, in terms of cause-and-effect. I know I have it because that was the only treatment I really responded to, and because do I ever have intrusive imagery and hyper-vigilance. Maybe the Major Depression comes out of PTSD instead of some genetic source, but who the hell knows? I’ve never experienced mania, but my depression cycles. It lifts. But it seems like perhaps it will always come back. It doesn’t matter what it’s caused by. I’m depressed, and that’s what it is.

I think the three prodrome hints I get are being moody and impatient, everything hurting more physically, and headaches. Right now my arms feel like they have RSI. They tingle and ache. I even began to wonder if I have arthritis recently too, because my fingers and hands have been hurting. I started getting a constant stomach ache, and then crying when I was alone. This is what the descent feels like. My work is suffering, and that’s causing me more anxiety than usual. Despite technically having an anxiety disorder, I am not usually affected by the anxiety part. I feel fear, but it’s never had much hold on me. I let it go, sometimes I have to push it a bit, but it drifts away, even when I’m breaking like this. Fear has never been much of a cage for me. Depression has always been my trap.

What It’s Like

This disease wraps me in gauze. It’s like a layer between me and reality, that makes everything fuzzy and distant. Sometimes I’m sad, but often I just feel like I’m on the verge of throwing up all the time. Sometimes I feel like I’m not real, or dead already.

Right now sensory life is diminished. Nothing tastes right. Sometimes I don’t eat much, but then sometimes I will wildly overeat. I’m not eating my emotions, I don’t really have much beyond gray despair a lot of the time. I’m looking for something that tastes nice, but nothing ever does.

Recently I’ve been reading about the way people describe being colorblind, that the world is flatter, indistinct. That feels deeply true right now — except I can see the colors. They just don’t make it through into me. I’m wrapped in gauze and they don’t matter.

When I’m depressed I cry randomly, and often in public. I don’t have much shame about it anymore, it’s just how my life is sometimes. It’s become a way I learn about cities. In NYC people ignore you or look a bit annoyed. So far in Istanbul people have been incredibly sweet, while still giving me my space. Big ups for Istanbul.

I apologize too much to my loved ones and friends for being a burden. I know they hate it, and it makes me feel even more ashamed and more like they’d be better off without me. We go through a ritual in which they tell me I’m not a burden, but I know how stressful depressed people are, so I know I am. I try to remember how much I hate it when depressed people tell me they’re burdens. Of course they are, and they aren’t. It’s not so simple as my broken brain is trying to make it right now. All sick people are burdens, but we’re humans, and carrying each other is where we find the best of ourselves. I know it’s the shame talking, and there’s truth in the shame. I also know that losing my burdens is literally the worst thing I can imagine. So perhaps I will tell people: you are a burden, but a burden I want to carry. And then I will try to remember that for myself now.

I don’t notice my surroundings. Normally I’m an eagle eye, great with detail, but right now I’m covered in bruises from running into things. I always look a bit battered and skinned when I’m like this, and people ask me how things happened, and I can’t remember. I stumble a lot. I leave bits of myself on street furniture.

I ate some fries today, and then I got a stomach ache. Eating is hard, but I wanted something to be lovely. It doesn’t manage to be, but I think that hoping it will be is something to hold on to.

I have to make myself shower. I don’t feel the point of it, but I usually manage to make myself do it. But on the other hand, cleaning is extraordinarily hard, because little things can disgust me so easily. A dirty sink can bother me at an existential level. Cleaning it can feel like wading into a latrine. It’s strange, because I know I’m normally the one who can do the gross jobs. But right now, a few hairs in the drain can seem untouchably foul. This makes me think sometimes that my amygdala, which is implicated in disgust, is behind some part of it. But then, it doesn’t matter, because I have it and pointing to the bit of my brain I think is malfunctioning won’t change a thing.

People think depression is an emotional disorder wherein you feel sad. But many people, myself included, often don’t feel anything. Sometimes it’s like being a walking void, like all human motivation is gone. Sometimes it’s like being made of sadness, then suddenly like being made of mud. Being sad also fails to explain the physical symptoms I and many others experience, and the fact that depressed people are at severely increased risk of heart attacks. We are dying of broken hearts, and no one knows why.

I think the thing that kills in depression, be it from heart attacks or alcoholism or suicide or whatever, is mostly shame. Shame doesn’t cause the suffering, but it causes the isolation and the stupid choices depressed people make.

In these decades, I have learned that like Dostoyevsky’s Love, Hope in action is painful and grueling compared to Hope in dreams and movies and kitten posters. Hope’s value is not in being something you feel, but something you practice and build in the face of all the things that tear at it. Hope is something you decide on, and then devote your life and actions to.

Choosing What Goes Overboard

I’m living on credit cards right now, hoping this doesn’t last long, and I can make my minimums. There’s plenty of articles out there on how money problems cause depression, but being unable to work is obviously hard on the budget. One of the reasons I left the idea of day jobs behind me is that I never knew when depression was going to intrude, and lose me jobs. That’s less serious as a freelancer — just not taking work for a bit doesn’t destroy your reputation like getting fired for depression can. Going into credit card debt is my American version of temporary disability. It’s a struggle, but it’s also a way of investing in the future, a way of believing I’ll get better without having to burn down my life in the mean time.

All my energy right now goes into my child. I cook for her, look after her, give her summer lessons, and drag her out of our apartment to see Istanbul. I am proud to say this: she is well cared for. I am hanging on tight to that before anything else. We are talking about this so that she understands that this is not her fault, and there’s nothing she can do about it. I explain what it’s like, and that it’s a medical problem, and that it will pass. I think she understands. She’s probably getting more sugary treats than I normally let her have.

My biggest source of persistent anxiety is my work, and money. I can’t really write when I’m like this.

Right now here is what I should have written or be writing for you:

  • Several Instructables, including my incarceration installation from May
  • A piece on being gentle on the internet, which is mostly done, but I can’t put it together
  • Part three on my series on whiteness, on how white people can change for the better
  • A piece on the tendency towards genocide in our species, and thoughts on overcoming it
  • A letter to my father on the 20th anniversary of his death (It has not escaped me that this anniversary could be playing a role in my troubles)
  • Several science explainers with 3D printable files that help explain the principles.
  • One still kind-of secret project which I’m obviously not making progress on.

I can add words to the various pieces, not many, but I can consistently add them. They just don’t come out structured. Trying to get this as structured as it is has felt like slowly moving a wall, stone by stone.

The Noonday Demon

We don’t know what depression is. We know it’s not just being sad. We have these neurotransmitter ideas, but they don’t answer the question about what causes depression or other mental illnesses. We see some correlates, but we don’t even know which way the causality might go, if it’s there at all. We just know that sometimes taking drugs that affect neurotransmitters seems to help some people. Sometimes, drugs with opposite actions are used to treat the same disorders with equal effect. Our theories about mental health are often little better than Phlogiston and Ether for the mind.

I am not on any antidepressant drugs. I have tried dozens, and they either did nothing or had such terrible side effects I had to stop them quickly. I am done going down that road for now, but only after years of effort, and even learning a fair bit of neurophysiology and psychopharmacology. Honestly, I resent it when people won’t take their meds. If you have this problem, and you can get rid of it or even improve it by taking a pill, take the goddamn pill. I would take a pill in a heartbeat, but I can’t. I would dance naked in streets or sacrifice goats or pay witches for spells or stand atop buildings announcing that I AM A CLUB SANDWICH if it would help. I have what alcoholics call “the gift of desperation.” Say what you will, it keeps saving my life.

All that helps this time is admitting that I’m depressed, and waiting.

I forget what I’m doing a lot in the middle of doing it. I mean, there’s a bit of that for everyone, but this is different. Sometimes when I’m just sitting I feel like I’m falling — not emotionally. I am just sitting, but I’ll get dizzy and feel like I’m falling. I forgot to eat dinner today.

I think about the S word, but not in a dangerous way. I was often suicidal when I was younger, but now I know this cycles, and I have learned to bide my time. I have learned to manage this body and brain — as imperfect as they are — I know them and they are mine. Often when a younger person talks about the chronic urge to suicide, I tell them to wait. I tell them that it gets easier, and that they must learn their body and mind. You can always kill yourself later, I tell people. But with a little luck and a little learning, chances are quite good you won’t want to. Hang on, one minute at a time. Just put it off and treat the pain you have now.

Right now I’m not working much. Sometimes I feel like such an asshole for not being more productive, for not getting my work done. I have friends that write whole books and articles on top of that and maintain day jobs and raise children and work on politics and art and so on. Why can’t you just get it done? the little poisonous voice in my head says. You’re falling behind, Quinn. You’re way behind where you should be in life, depressed girl. That voice might not be wrong, maybe I should be accomplishing more. And yet, I live in this brain and body. I don’t get any other. This is the reality of what I get to work with in this life, and what I have is one curse and one gift. The curse is the depression, and the gift is the desperation to do whatever I can, whether I happen to like what I have to work with or not.

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