Tag Archives: Social Justice

A Mother’s Day Tribute to a Sullivan Woman

14 May

Barbara Sullivan 1975

 

I don’t remember when I came to the conclusion that being a dwarf meant I absolutely had to care about all forms of discrimination and social injustice. It seemed to always be there. I remember at age 19 stumbling upon some closed-minded corners of the Internet and promptly firing off mass e-mails reverberating with shock and outrage about the prevalence of homophobia in the dwarf community – a community that I believed, if any, should be particularly sympathetic to the concerns of those persecuted for how they were born. Solidarity among those ostracized for inherent traits they have no choice about should be automatic and unwavering.

But plenty of people who can be categorized as minorities disagree. There is a ream of reports about homophobia among many minority advocates, racism and misogyny in gay communities, transphobia in lesbian communities, and plenty of social justice groups fall short of embracing disability rights and the openness to bodily diversity it requires. It seems we can’t go a few days without some social justice activist revealing ignorance of and/or apathy toward the work other minority groups have been doing for years. In other words, not everyone “born different” feels the same automatic solidarity I do. It’s why the divide-and-conquer strategy so often works.

And perhaps there are other reasons for why friends frequently tease me for being an “issues person.” On Mother’s Day, it would be negligent of me to ignore another influence on my worldview that has been as powerful as my dwarfism. My mother, Susan Sullivan, is a social worker after all – and she decided to become one a good 10 years before my birth brought her and my father into the dwarf community. Her mother, Barbara Sullivan, was a social studies teacher. She would be 100 years old were she still alive today. Her worldview and its legacy deserve more than a cursory mention.

The 1975 article announcing my grandmother’s retirement in the Peru Central School newspaper reads:

Mrs. Sullivan, who teaches Problems of Democracy and Consumer Education, is presently teaching her last semester…

She has taught us many things. Maybe the most important of which is the ability to empathize or put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is the foundation from which we can solve local, national and personal problems. Then she has gone one step further.

Mrs. Sullivan has opened many eyes to racism, sexism, poverty and the injustices present in our court and prison systems. Not only has she opened the eyes of her students, she has also helped her fellow teachers.

A lot of work is done in her classes but also a lot of discussions. The kind of discussions that help end individual prejudices…

You can bet she will be involved in the community projects that time has not allowed for in the past. Because that is the kind of person Mrs. Sullivan is – caring, understanding person who will always be remembered by any student who has ever taken any of her courses.

A little article cannot give appropriate thanks for all she has taught us. The best way we can show our thanks to her is to go out into the world and work toward ending the injustices that trouble her heart so much. Until we can do this, all we can say is… Thanks.

Grandma Barbara also taught the school’s first sex education class – a feat my teenage mother at the time found as impressive as it was embarrassing. But Grandma Barbara preferred interacting with teenagers over younger children, asking me with deep interest about drug use and the AIDS crisis when I entered middle school. When I was younger, the discussions were simpler but nevertheless motivated by sociological pursuit. She examined integration at my school by asking whom I interacted with, and I received my first black doll from her. She had been an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and was deeply concerned about racial injustice long after it was fashionable. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I quietly shed a few tears over the fact that she had not lived to see it. But in my head I could hear her shrieking, “Hallelujah!” with all the abandon for which she was famous among her friends.

How much her own background brought her to such conclusions about the world I cannot say. She grew up in a small town in Western New York where pets were named unprintable racial slurs. An avid reader, perhaps her relentless pursuit of knowledge helped. But her intolerance of injustice was as intellectual as it was visceral. I remember her smacking the side of her head and clenching her fist in fury during a scene in the 1994 film The Jungle Book when Mowgli is shoved about and laughed at by British officers at a gentleman’s club. Through example, she inculcated in us an inability to stand idly by while others are ostracized.

One of the first Mother’s Days in the United States was proclaimed by suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who envisioned something far different from the celebrations embodied by flowers and greeting cards we have come to know today. She called for a day when the mothers of the world would commit to peace. She firmly believed that war would end across the globe once women were given the right to vote because no mother would vote to send her son into battle. Her belief was noble, however naïve or inaccurate.

And Grandma Barbara would have appreciated the sentiment. She was in so many ways a simply loving grandmother, who spoiled my brother and me with sweets and treats, and chased us around her backyard chanting, “Tick tock! Tick tock!” in pretending to be the crocodile from Peter Pan. But her boisterous love of the world was matched by her passionate desire to repair the world. My mother and I cannot deny she passed it on to us. It is a gift for which I will be forever grateful.

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Content Warnings and Microaggressions

20 Sep

Grunge Warning Sign - Do Not Read This Sign

(Image by Nicolas Raymond used under CC license via)

 

There’s a heated debate going over at The Atlantic over trigger warnings and microaggressions. For those less familiar with online minority rights debates, trigger warnings originated as labels for video or texts depicting graphic violence, often sexual, that could be triggering for survivors of assault suffering from PTSD. They have since evolved into “content warnings,” used to label any video or text containing arguments, comments, humor or images that marginalize minorities. I most recently ran into one preceding a beer ad in which two brewers tried to joke about never wanting to have to do anything so humiliating as dressing in drag in the red-light district in order to earn money.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued that content warnings have led to “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a culture of silencing, wherein too many are afraid to initiate dialogue on these issues, lest they offend. They criticize restrictive speech codes and trigger warnings, and suggest universities offer students free training in cognitive behavioral therapy in order to “tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some colleges these days, allowing students’ minds to open more widely to new ideas and new people.”

“Microaggressions” is a term invented in 1970 by Harvard professor Charles M. Pierce to refer to comments or actions that are usually not intended as aggressive or demeaning but nevertheless do contribute to the marginalizing of minorities. Examples would be certain physicians being addressed as “Nurse” at the workplace. Or nurses, secretaries, cashiers, and storage room workers constantly hearing the widespread Western belief that low-skilled jobs deserve a low degree of respect. Or men still being expected to prove their worth through their career and never their emotional fulfillment. Or lesbians being asked if they’ve had “real sex.” Or anyone hearing from magazines, sitcoms or even loved ones that body types like theirs are something to avoid ending up with or hooking up with.

Microaggressions are the essence of insensitivity and they highlight the widespread nature of many prejudices about minorities. I analyze them all the time on this blog, without labeling them as such. Finding blogs that feature them in list-form can be done with little effort.

Citing a sociological study by professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Connor Friedersdorf has argued that calling out microaggressions on social media sites has led to a culture of victimhood, wherein the emotions of the offended always matter more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Victimhood culture is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”

Cue the overemotion. Simba Runyowa rightly rebuts that many of Friedersdorf’s examples of hypersensitivity are cherrypicked, but then goes on to deny that anyone would ever want to be seen as a victim. (Not only do most petitioning groups—whether the majority or the minority—claim to be the victim of the other side’s moral failings and undeserved power, but it appears he has never tried to explain what it’s like to have a rare condition, only to be interrupted by the insistence, “I think I have that, too!”) On the other side, Haidt, Lukianoff and Friedersdorf have attracted plenty of support from those who are only too happy to believe that college campuses and the blogosphere today are ruled by the PC police, rendering such places far worse than Stalinist Russia.

I rarely issue content warnings on videos or quotations or any examples of bigotry I analyze on this blog. My primary reason is that a majority of the content we consume every day is arguably misogynistic or heteronormative or ableist or racist or classist or lookist. This does not at all mean that we should not address those problems, but demanding “warnings” on whatever has marginalized me leaves me open to criticism for not doing the same for all the other injustices I may not see.  As both a Beatles fan and a social justice blogger, I will always prefer to read or hear a comprehensive critique of John Lennon’s ableism than to see warnings on his biographies.

And I don’t label microaggressions as such because I agree with Friedersdorf that the word seems at odds with its definition. Insensitivity can be very hurtful. It can contribute to feelings of alienation by functioning as a reminder of how millions of people might think of you. But it is not aggressive. Highlighting, questioning and debating ubiquitous prejudices, stereotypes and traditions is crucial to human progress. Mistaking ignorance for hostility, however, is an obstacle to it.

Would it be accurate and productive to post something like this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another parent talk about how thrilled they are to have been able to give birth “naturally.”

(Avoiding C-section is never an option for women with achondroplasia like me.)  And would it be accurate and productive to something like post this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another childfree blogger brag about how great it is to have the time and energy to do things I’ll never be able to do like hiking or biking, let alone if I have kids.

Would it be more practical to tweet such complaints rather than pen an extensive article about the intricacies of the problem because few have time to read the particulars of considering parenthood with achondroplasia? Would posting them on a site featuring microaggressions serve as a much-needed wake-up call, convincing the perpetrators to see the issue from my perspective, or would it put them on the defensive? Would it spark dialogue or shut it down? Are the comments that marginalize my experience veritably aggressive? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

But whether we think people on either side of the majority vs. minority debates are too sensitive or insensitive, we should be aiming for dialogue over exclamation points.

 

 

They Don’t Care That We’re Angry

29 Sep

Capslock is NOT persuasiveHere’s a shocker: North Americans don’t like activists, especially feminists and environmentalists. Results from a study featured in The Pacific Standard show that these groups are associated with an abrasive, in-your-face approach to politics, and this repels more people than it attracts. Reporter Tom Jacobs urges these groups to change their tactics if they want to get anything done, while Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing has taken umbrage at any call for women to “hush up.” Jacobs has my attention. As someone who’s constantly clogging her Facebook friends’ Newsfeeds with social justice editorials, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can tell me how to entice more people to join the discussion.

Activism is recognizing injustice and inequality when you see it, and taking the time to ask, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be angry. But several of my friends echo the results of the study, saying they’re turned off by the way so many activists—feminists in particular—walk around like ticking time bombs, ready to explode at anyone who dares disagree with a woman ever. One of these friends cited a feminist who once told her, “The problem is people don’t like my writing because I’m just too controversial for them.”

I can see how that kind of self-righteousness would fail to impress, and I can also see where it comes from. Emotions run high whenever we try to talk about injustice and inequality because these are issues that threaten personal safety and pride. Debaters on both ends of the political spectrum all too often tend toward the obstreperous, topping off their arguments with the age-old threat: “You don’t want to make me angry.”

To which I must say, You’re right. I don’t. Because you can be rather boring when you’re angry. Speaking up requires some degree of bravery, but simply getting angry requires no talent whatsoever. A toddler can get angry. (Calling someone a Nazi requires even less skill.) Hollering until your opponent cowers may feel like you won the debate, but it usually means you’ve humiliated them, which will cause them and their supporters to hate you and your beliefs more than they did prior to the encounter. If you’re concerned with no one’s opinion but your own, then your activism isn’t about seeking justice. It’s about seeking attention. And anyone can play that game.

That said, it is unfair of anti-feminists to use a few belligerent narcissists as an excuse for dismissing an entire movement, for denying inequality and injustice exist, for refusing to listen to anyone who speaks up about it. In reaction to this year’s spate of female celebrities claiming “I’m not a feminist, but—”, the great Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote:

Ladies, it is OK to say that you’re a feminist, full stop. You don’t have to twirl your hair and stamp your toe delicately into the ground and sweet-talk that maybe you guess it’s OK that men and women be treated equally…

You can call yourself or not call yourself whatever you want, but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what “real” women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much…

A woman will usually strike me as rather petty if she trashes the entire feminist movement just for the sake of making sure no one thinks of her as unattractive or unlikable. And a man will usually strike me as rather creepy if he downplays the importance of women’s rights or refuses to see the ways in which feminism benefits men tremendously. Complacency is just as self-righteous as belligerence.

There are many people who opt out of activism for very good reasons. Some have had terrible experiences with prejudice and for them, avoiding political discussions means avoiding deep and harrowing pain. I myself have had days—sometimes years—when I just did not want to think about my dwarfism in any political way. Constantly reminding yourself of all the narrow-mindedness out there is not a lot of fun. To those on the receiving end of bigotry, it’s perfectly fair to want a break from the tough stuff.

It’s also fair to take a more nuanced approach to politics, to believe in an idea but not the execution, or to question the usefulness of labels like “feminist” or “environmentalist.”  But we would look cock-eyed at anyone who said, “I’m not into human rights, but—” And so I react with the same “WTF?” to anyone who goes out of their way to disassociate themselves with feminism, or any other social justice movement. In the words of my husband, “Why would anyone explicitly say they don’t like feminism? That’s like saying you don’t like democracy.”

And to those who still think feminism is inherently humorless and activism is overly serious, I direct them to a story featured in The New York Times in 1990, wherein feminist activists broke into toy stores and switched the computer chips of Talking Barbie and Talking G.I. Joe, which left the blonde roaring, “Vengeance is mine!” and the soldier musing, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”

(And for those of you who like your jokes a little bluer, there’s this and this.)

I very much want to reach those participants in the study, that majority of North Americans who associate activists with repugnant rage. This issue is of particular concern to me because, among my closest friends and family, no one has ever called me soft-spoken.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I got wind of a rumor that I was going to be voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook. As soon as I heard about this, I campaigned for it. “You’re not voting for me? Why the hell don’t you think I’m the most argumentative?!” In jest, of course.

But not without truth. I had published my first angry letter to the editor at 14, followed by a couple more over the years. I spoke at school board meetings and political rallies. When I heard a speech I gave described by a family friend as overflowing with “righteous indignation,” I could not have been more pleased. It felt in part like a revolution against old-fashioned gender roles—because everyone knows a woman who talks too much is castrating, while a guy who can command the room is powerful—but mostly it just felt like me. When I like something, I love it to pieces, and when I don’t, everyone braces themselves for a rant. Assertiveness over insecurity. Honesty over likability. I don’t care what you think, anyway. I am woman. Rar.

Years later, as I began writing for wider audiences, I began wondering if my Medea-like rage had ever changed a single mind. Righteous indignation sounds passionate to those who already agree with you, but what if my I-HAVE-NO-TOLERANCE-FOR-INTOLERANCE approach had actually scared off someone who may have been willing to hear my argument in lowercase letters? I refuse to back down, but I don’t want to threaten anyone, either.

Make no mistake, I still love to argue with righteous indignation at all hours of the day with anyone willing to engage me. (As I explained to my sleepy-eyed partner in the middle of a rant about cultural appropriation one morning before work, “Sorry, honey, but you married a walking manifesto.”)  But whenever it comes to public debate, I try to remember to put on the brakes and ask myself, Do I want to silence my opponents or convince them?

And if the answer is the latter, then Desmond Tutu certainly said it best: “Don’t raise your voice—improve your argument.”

 

 

Who Should Have To Expose Themselves?

5 May

(Via)

 

If you live anywhere in the West, you know this transphobic joke.  Girl and guy go to bed.  Guy wakes up and finds out somehow that his lover was not born a woman.  The moment of realization is sketched out across his face in excruciating slow-motion, and then he runs away in horror/vomits his brains out/gets very, very, very angry.  The message? 

1)      A trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, she’s a freak.

2)      His being attracted to her somehow makes him less of a man.

3)      Most importantly, he’s been duped.

Feeling duped is the bedrock of transphobia.  Those who feel indiscriminately upset at the very idea of transsexual and/or transgender people usually say something along the lines of, “They’re deceiving people!  I’d be pretty pissed if I found out my girlfriend/boyfriend had had a sex change.”  This feeling is usually enshrouded in the myth that transitioning into the opposite sex is done capriciously, just for laughs and the thrill of going undercover.  This mentality never ever acknowledges the fact that many transsexual and transgender people feel as uncomfortable in the body they were born in as cis people would feel in a body they were not born in.  And it fosters the view of cis people as victims of trans villains, ignoring that trans people in the United States have a suicide rate 26 times higher than the nationl average and that worldwide one trans person is murdered every three days.

This all too common belief that trans people are deceptive, and maliciously so, has now reached new heights as two trans men in the U.K. have been charged with and convicted of sexual assault.  Their accusers claimed that the men’s failure to disclose their gender at birth before they slept with them was a form of fraud and thus the consent the women gave to sex was under false pretenses.  I am in no position to make a final judgment about these two specific cases.  Perhaps they involved many other factors revealing coercion and predatory behavior.  I cannot speak for the defendants or the accusers.  But I can and will speak out against the widespread belief that the freaks of the world are obliged to warn everyone they know about their atypical features and histories before they dare try to get close to someone.

My husband thought I must have been in a car accident years ago when we met for the first time at a birthday party.  I was wearing a sleeveless top exposing the lavender scars that traverse my upper arms.  I know I told him soon after, on our first date, about my long medical history, but that was because we were having an intellectual debate about the role of the media and I decided to use my childhood experiences as an example.  I decided to do so because I liked him and trusted him in a very special way.  It was not because I felt that anyone I was interested in romantically “deserved” to know.

What do potential sex partners deserve to know?  Do they deserve to know I had my calf bones removed?  Do they deserve to know I had my tonsils out?  What if I had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant?  What if I used to weigh twice as much, or half as much, as I do now?  What about veterans or cancer patients who have lost body parts normally only seen by sex partners?  Is it fraudulent of a cancer survivor to wear a prosthesis that would suggest she still has both breasts?  

Indeed, the moment I read about the British cases, I was immediately reminded of a poem by Robert Hass about a woman who is abandoned at her doorstep by a young admirer after she tells him she has had a double mastectomy.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I could,” he mumbles before he turns his tail and runs.  I do not know what it is like to be a cancer survivor or transsexual, but surely many of us know what it is like to fear being rejected for something we never had much of a choice about.

In reponse to the British accusations of sexual assault, law professor Alex Sharpe has asked, What if a potential sex partner appears white but is in fact of mixed race – is a failure to map out your entire family tree grounds for prosecution?  Of course not.  He points out that individuals are not legally obliged to reveal to sex partners that they are bisexual, married, divorced, have a past criminal record…  The list is endless, and thus he argues: “Given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Of course, any counselor or psychologist will tell you that trust, openness, and honesty are necessary for a healthy relationship and true intimacy, but the right to privacy and personal dignity are also necessary for any community founded on justice.  And there can be no genuine trust when certain people reveal personal information only because society’s hang-ups about gender, sexuality, or atypical bodies demand they do. 

Everyone is entitled to their sexuality.  No one should ever be pressured into a heterosexual, homosexual or pansexual relationship.  Open and honest dialogue about this is essential.  But the more we blame minorities for upsetting our delusions of normalcy just by being who they are, the more we tell jokes implying that any normal person would be disgusted by their physiology, the more we insist that their identities are a perversion of ours, the more difficult we make it for them to be open and honest with us.

 

 

Wheelchair Problems

24 Feb

Wheelchair  (Image by Joshua Zader used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Whether you are left-handed and in search of scissors, or dark-skinned and looking for “flesh-colored” bandages in the West, almost every minority experiences problems not just of prejudice but of practicality.  Facing the combined forces of social constructs and innate challenges can be exhausting.  Few discussions on difference encapsulate this better than Wheelchair Problems.  Run by a high school senior named Gina, the site primarily features memes, such as:

 

hands

curb

pee

stairs

 

When I discovered the site this past fall, the memories came flooding back.  I used a wheelchair for a total of only two years (ages 11 to 12 and 16 to 17), so while many of these memes perfectly illustrate my experience, others wake me up to situations I’ve never faced or considered.  It’s an excellent catalyst for simultaneously building community and spreading awareness to those outside the community.  Almost every one of the Problems merits volumes of social critique and philosophical debate, but they also demonstrate that you need not sign up for a three-day seminar on diversity to get the message. 

I’ve discussed the inherent problems of micro-blogging before.  But  when the marginalized have the microphone, brevity is often not just the soul of wit but of agency.  In an age when disabled people are still portrayed as either helpless victims, freakish villains, or larger-than-life heroes, we need more sites like Wheelchair Problems.  Kinda now.

 

 

The People You Meet When You Talk About Human Suffering

17 Feb

 plastic crowd

(Image by Boinink used under CC license via)

 

Not all disabled people are innocents.  I would hope this comes as no surprise.  But in the wake of Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, some are going to the other extreme.  In a bizarre article titled “The Disability Pedestal,” Slate writer William Saletan lists various disabled people who have allegedly committed similarly heinous crimes.  He cites anger over their disability as a frequent motive.  Which evokes the stereotype of the evil freak who kills in order to compensate.  That stereotype is at least as old as wicked witches, and as modern as the albino villain of The DaVinci Code.  Do we really need to feed it? 

And if there is truth to the commonly held belief that disability renders people more likely to lash out at others, then shouldn’t we be investing in a solution?  Saletan doesn’t offer any statistics on how many disabled people commit crimes out of self-pity, but if it’s really so endemic, then we should do something about it.

But I don’t think that’s what he meant.  While never going so far as to declare disabled killers a social problem, Saletan does argue that some see their disability as “just another card they can play,” and that both they and we need to realize that it all comes down to individual responsibility:

Equality isn’t about being special.  It’s about being ordinary.  People with disabilities aren’t above sin or crime.  They’re just like the rest of us…  You run your own race.  You make your own decisions.  Most people with prosthetic legs don’t shoot their lovers.  Most guys who survive testicular cancer don’t run doping rings in the Tour de France.  Something about beating cancer or overcoming a birth defect tugs at our hearts. It paralyzes our judgment.  We don’t want to believe that people who have accomplished such things can do evil.  Most don’t.  But some do.

I know plenty of disabled people who are jerks and nothing about the Pistorius case compels me to think of him as anything but one.  The stereotype of the poor, innocent, helpless, asexual, naïve invalid needs to go.  Yet I’m not comfortable with Saletan’s rather Ayn Randian assertion that compassion impairs judgment.  What impairs judgment is an inability to see someone as more than just a disability.  We should all be smart enough, deep enough, big enough to be humbled by the extraordinary difficulties someone has endured and to simultaneously call out their faults—or crimes—for what they are. 

Having a disability does not automatically make you a brave person or a good person or someone who deserves to be liked.  But disabilities almost invariably cause pain, and equality should not aim to rid us of our impulses toward compassion.  Was my judgment “paralyzed” when I met a girl in the hospital whose body was hot-pink with third-degree burns and immediately thought, “Man, I shouldn’t whine so much”?  Lots of my fellow patients at the hospital turned out to be the sort of people I couldn’t stand.  But almost every one of them had had experiences I could only try to imagine.  Refusing to excuse a disabled person should not preclude trying to understand the privileges we enjoy that they do not.    

To be fair to Saletan, I must admit it’s strange to find myself arguing this way because I am often fed up with discussions of disability and psychiatric disorders that devolve into self-pity and melodrama.  (See Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook… )  But firing off judgment can lead to snap judgments, and focusing our political energy on ranting about the whiners can lead to a cynical, soulless view of humanity.    

It just goes to show that we still have a hard time as a society figuring out what exactly to do with human suffering.  In my experience, four personality types exacerbate this problem.  (I’ve assigned gender randomly):

Mr. Comfort Zone – “I’ve Suffered, But You Don’t See Me Complaining!”  That guy who only sees society through his own lens.  He refuses to recognize any privileges he may enjoy, insists that everything balances out in the end and/or that the system is really rigged against people like him thanks to our oppressive PC culture.  He has a point that self-pity is counterproductive, but his refusal to acknowledge that anyone could have it harder than he does is the epitome of selfishness.  His refusal to explore the possibility of institutionalized chauvinism is intellectually lazy.  And his campaign for self-reliance loses all credibility the moment he blames minorities for his hardships. 

Ms. No Time For It – “It’s Sad Others Suffer, But I Don’t Like to Think About It…”  That lady who avoids political or social issues like the plague.  She wants to “stay positive” and “talk about cheerful things,” like the weather and her favorite TV shows and recent purchases.  She has a point that complaining too much about the world’s problems can wear you down, but she often contradicts this by complaining about mundane problems, like those trashy people who live around the corner and that snobby celebrity who had affairs with three different men, all of them friends of her husband, can you imagine how nasty you’d have to be in order to do such a thing?  In refusing to discuss politics, she ignores how much of her world view is determined by politics; i.e., what is considered “beautiful,” what it is considered “normal,” what is “controversial.”  She doesn’t realize that her ability to avoid certain “political” issues is a privilege

Mr. Oppression Olympics – “My People Have Suffered the Most!”  The activist who thinks the only rights worth fighting for are his own.  He may have a point about the unique nature of the discrimination he’s faced, but he ludicrously believes the more you’ve suffered, the more justice you deserve.  He secretly harbors prejudices about other minorities and this might be revealed when he thinks one of them might be taking time, funding, or attention away from “his” group.  He also refuses to acknowledge any privileges he may have.

Ms. Cry Wolf – “Can I Get Attention for My Suffering?”  The whimpering waif who takes the phrase “Talk about your feelings” to the extreme, turning almost every political discussion into a personal therapy session.  She secretly, or perhaps subconsciously, thinks belonging to a minority is enviable because it grants you sympathy and excuses for why you can’t do something.  She has a point that repression can be dangerous, but she goes overboard by crying, “OPPRESSION!” at any call for modesty or good manners.  She lists her problems in order to attain solace and praise, rather than revelation. 

We’re all prone to feel like these people in certain situations.  As a teen, I often slipped into Ms. Cry Wolf around boys I liked, hoping my saying, “I’m having such a hard day I could just cry!” would get them to be exactly as kind to me as I desired.  During my limb-lengthening procedures, when girlfriends would moan about not being thin enough while I was struggling against my painkillers to keep food down, I felt like Mr. Comfort Zone, wanting to tell them to shut up and be grateful.  In college, I felt like Mr. Oppression Olympics when students would raise their fists for feminism and LGBT rights but squirm and change the subject if I brought up disability rights.  And when it comes to certain matters of injustice—like what’s been going on in the Congo for the past five, ten, fifteen years?—I continue to be Ms. No Time For It, clicking past the headlines to the latest news about Stephen Fry or Jack White. 

Most people I know have had these feelings at certain points.  But we should be wary of acting on any of them, especially in the political sphere, because they’re all counter-productive.  There’s no progress in self-pity.  There’s no progress without empathy.  As I blog about disability and disenfranchisement, I agree with Saletan that I should never, ever be comfortable with the idea of myself as a victim.  But I also never want to be so hardened that I can’t be moved by human suffering.  Because that’s not really the point of trying to get along with the rest of the world, is it?

 

 

Note: This post was inspired by Crommunist’s The People You Meet When You Write About Race

 

Props to The Observer for (Finally) Doing the Right Thing

20 Jan

a bit of controversy surrounding the transgender flag: san francisco (2012)A little background: A while ago a British journalist named Suzanne Moore, who specializes in women’s rights, made an offhand transphobic comment in an article about body image:  “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”  There was an ensuing backlash from many in the trans community, especially on Twitter.  Her friend and fellow writer Julie Burchill penned a column in her defense titled, “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” which appeared last week in The Observer.  Without ever saying what exactly the trans activists in question had said to Moore that was so horrific, Burchill just called them names: “A bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing… bed-wetters in bad wigs… trannies…  They’re lucky I’m not calling them ‘shemales.’  Or shims.”

(Oh, really?  They’re lucky you don’t use the most dehumanizing terms you can think of?  Even though you just kind of did…  But I guess every member of every minority really should feel grateful to anyone who refrains from attacking their freak qualities with the worst slurs.  And in that case, thank you, Julie Burchill.  Thank you for not referring to people with dwarfism as midgets or Paralympic athletes as cripples.  I know the temptation is always there to vomit in disgust at people who are physically different and it takes a will of iron to keep the insults from dribbling out.  You are truly strong.  Anyone less magnanimous than you would mouth off.  You have shown yourself to be the paragon of generosity.  I for one am now going to get up every morning and feel grateful there are people like you saintly enough to walk down the street and not spit at those of us who truly belong in the circus.)

The Observer received a barrage of emails and commentary from horrified readers and promptly demonstrated that a small group of thoughtful citizens can indeed change the world when it pulled the column from its website.  The editors have issued this apology (emphasis mine):

This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don’t want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that.

A newspaper shouldn’t reject writing that merely argues against trans rights or any sort of human rights.  As awful as bigotry is, dialogue between opposing sides is the only way to change minds and spur progress.  But any publication looking to host productive debate should always be able to discriminate between substantive reasoning and a pointless list of pejoratives.  I wouldn’t oppose printing Burchill’s piece because her argument was chauvinistic, but because she failed to be civil and because she wasn’t even addressing the trans activists’ stance.  She was simply snarking about their bodies.  And I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: If you can’t make your point without trashing traits your opponent has no choice about—their gender identity, ethnicity, biology, sexuality, or class background—then your argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on.  At worst, it’s abuse, and doesn’t even belong in high school.  (Indeed, that’s what anti-bullying policies are all about.)  At best, it’s meaningless.  (Would anyone try to convince the world to depose Saddam Hussein by ranting about the ugliness of his moustache?)

Upon first discovering Burchill’s piece last week, I assumed the only reason the editors would publish such an uninhibited temper tantrum was because they’re a business and believe feuds sell papers.  It is a relief to see now that they do not want their readers thinking that’s the kind of business they’re running.

Unsurprisingly, The Telegraph and others have bellowed, “CENSORSHIP!” and—you can see it coming a mile away—“PC police!” and have joined up with Burchill in republishing her piece.  They apparently have no qualms about profiting from the attention a semi-famous writer’s bad manners will grab.  Which is why it is so important to commend The Observer.  A week ago, I was deeply depressed by their descent into yellow journalism.  Their current endeavors to wipe off the self-inflicted stains are better late than never.

 

(Via)

 

 

So Who Should The Cliques Make Fun Of Now?

6 Jan

Christina Red Carpet A new study claiming that Overweight and Class 1 Obese people have a lower mortality rate has been bouncing around the world since Thursday.  National Public Radio’s report seems to be the most comprehensive but hints at the two most extreme, polarized viewpoints:

Cosmetic: This is a victory for the overweight—now we can trash skinny people (again)!

Medical: If people hear about this, everyone will stop exercising and eating their vegetables and then everyone’s going to die!

Both views treat the public like infants who can’t possibly think for themselves.

Doctors are right to worry that a sizeable portion of the population will use this news as an excuse for whatever unhealthy habits they love.  This is why it is important to include the many possible factors skewing the results.  But many people will always cherry-pick whatever statistics suit their lifestyle or claim to be the exception to the rule.  I don’t have any political solutions for engaging with contrarians—whether we’re debating eating habits or global warming—but talking down to them and using scare tactics has a pretty high failure rate.

And from the disability rights perspective, there are exceptions to the rule when it comes to health.  Thousands of them.  As said before, a round belly is not always a sign of fat.  A bony body is not always a sign of an eating disorder.  Many forms of exercise can be more hazardous than beneficial to people with certain conditions.  And many life-threatening conditions are invisible.  Medical tests, not appearance, are always the most reliable indicators of health.  This robs us of the easy answers we crave and which facilitate public debate, but there has never been and never will be a one-size-fits-all health program for the 7 billion humans on the planet.

You and your doctor know better than anyone else if you are healthy or not.  If she says you are overweight but your genes and cholesterol levels put you at no risk for heart disease, she’s probably right.  If she says your weight is ideal but your eating habits put you at risk for malnutrition, she’s probably right.  And if her advice seems sound but her delivery makes you feel too ashamed to discuss it, go find someone with better social skills to treat you.  At the individual level, it’s no one else’s business.  Outside of the doctor’s office, it shouldn’t be any more socially acceptable to discuss someone else’s weight or waist size than it is to discuss their iron levels, sperm count, or cancer genes.

But beauty standards and health trends often go hand-in-hand.  And what really needs to go is the lookist idea that we’re all semi-licensed doctors who can diagnose people just by glancing at them and deciding how they measure up according to the latest medical research.  The reason we have a hard time letting this go is because it’s fun to point out others’ supposed weaknesses.  It’s self-elevating and validating to snicker that ours is the better body type because it calms our insecurities.  Beauty standards are cultural and constantly morphing throughout history, but they have always remained narrow.  (This is especially the case for women, though I sincerely apologize for not providing more research on men.)  Whether fawning over big breasts or flat tummies, public praise for certain body types has almost always been at the expense of others:

 

 
After decades of the Kate Moss heroin chic, Christina Hendricks (see above) of Mad Men has garnered lots of attention for her curves and this week’s study is likely to encourage her fans.  “Christina Hendricks is absolutely fabulous…,” says U.K. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.  “We need more of these role models. There is such a sensation when there is a curvy role model.  It shouldn’t be so unusual.”  She is dead right that it shouldn’t be hard for curvy women to find sexy heroines who look like them in film and on television, just as skinny women or disabled women or women of any body type shouldn’t have to give up on ever seeing celebrities with figures like theirs.  But “Real women have curves!” is just as exclusionary as the catty comments about fat that incite eating disorders.  And when Esquire and the BBC celebrate Hendricks as “The Ideal Woman,” they mistake oppression for empowerment.

We can accept the idea that people of all sorts of different hair colors and lengths can be beautiful.  Will mainstream medicine and cosmetics ever be able to handle the idea that all sorts of different bodies can be healthy?  History says no.  But maybe it’s not naïve to hope. 

And what does Christina Hendricks have to say about all of this?  “I was working my butt off on [Mad Men] and then all anyone was talking about was my body.”

Touché.

 

 

The Year In Review

30 Dec

Hidden Object(Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC license via)

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!

 

 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

Celebrating Even What’s Long, Long Overdue

12 May

Equality, Difference(Image by Nikole Handel used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

—Cornel West

Unless you’ve somehow managed to ignore all Western media except my blog this week, you know that Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to voice full support for marriage equality.  As expected, opponents of the cause are united in their outrage, while supporters are split between those who see a social victory and those who see mere political calculation. 

I understand the cynical/frustrated reaction.  When it comes to any issues of equality and civil rights, the idea that At last the president considers you a full human being! can feel like ice cold comfort.  The idea that you have to “wait” for a majority to grow to accept you as you are, that support for your rights is considered politically “risky” or “courageous” is supremely depressing.  The idea that you should be “grateful” to anyone for believing that the way you were born is as valid as the way they were born can be soul-crushing.  I love my parents to pieces, but I don’t like thinking I should thank them for not dumping me in an institution or an orphanage at birth, as so many other parents of dwarfs have done.

But to see the struggle toward justice only in these harsh terms, however true they may be, is to ensure that the entire process will be nothing but painful.  It is the right of any disenfranchised person to do so, but they should always understand that when others celebrate, it’s comes from self-preservation, from the need to transform pent-up fury into explosive joy when an opportunity finally arises.    

When Obama was elected, it would have been entirely valid to view the historic moment only as a cruel reminder of America’s long history of injustice: What kind of a nation takes 230 years to consider someone with a certain skin color electable?!  But very few Obama supporters—black or white—saw it this way.  When the votes came in on November 4th, 2008, when the state that had only 41 years before fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep interracial couples apart ended up swinging left and ensured that night that the next president would be the son of just such a couple, we were shocked.  And the shock felt fantastic.  All the exhausting work that went in to combating those 230 years of injustice had to come out somehow and most felt they had little choice about the tears streaming down their face.

That’s why I’ve found myself beaming at this week’s headlines emblazoned above the president’s likeness.  I did the same in the summer of 2003 when my radio told me that nine judges had just ruled that gay men and women were no longer allowed to be arrested anywhere in the United States for simply being gay.  Sure it was sickening to consider that just two decades before, nine judges had ruled the other way, upholding Georgia’s right to imprison two men who had been happened upon in their own home by a police officer.  But as I stopped my car to take it all in, I reveled in the fact that, no matter the political calculation or nit-picking bureaucracy involved, bigotry had lost that day.

Whatever his personal beliefs, of which we will never be certain, President Obama has just placed himself on the right side of history.  If one interprets this in the most cynical way—i.e., that he only did it to fire up his base and win votes—it’s our democracy in action, indicating that the majority is leaning toward equality.  (And thank god he didn’t use that phrase “I’ve learned not to judge gays and lesbians,” a cop-out that implies there is something morally ambiguous to judge.)  Bigotry is an inexcusable force that has been obstructing equality for far too long, but it’s losing the battle.  And I can’t think of any better reason to stop, if only just for a moment, and celebrate.



 
 

Lessons in Grief

22 Apr

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Humans are afraid of many things, but death probably ranks the highest.  Whether embracing the pragmatic/repressed approach that insists we keep off such upsetting subjects or delving into the artistic/philosophical fascination with all things morbid, almost no one talks about the realness of grief.  It’s too much of a drag.

This week marks both the birthday and the death day of one of my very best friends, Bill Palinski (1984 – 2004).  My life changed forever when he left without warning.  I had lost close relatives and acquaintances before him, but he was supposed to grow old with me.  He was supposed to accompany me through life, doing what he had always done: enthrall me with his superstar adventures, teach me lessons through his wisdom and his flaws, celebrate with me, listen to me complain and cry, and make fun of me the entire time.  Bad things can happen, but you never truly believe it at the most visceral level until one of your closest loved ones is ripped away from you.  He would be supremely annoyed were I to use his death as a source of self-pity, but he would be pleased to know it has helped me understand grief and those it consumes. 

When you’re in bereavement, you constantly feel on edge.  You want to punch strangers on the subway for going on with their lives and not realizing what an amazing person is missing from the world.  You feel constant guilt whenever you try to do something that doesn’t involve mourning your loved one.  Almost everyone, including your closest friends, says something that strikes you as deeply insensitive.  (Sometimes it is insensitive, other times your anger picks targets at random.)  For the first several months, you avoid parties or any social situations where people will ask you “What’s new?” because you’re constantly on the brink of tears and anyone’s problem unrelated to loss seems incredibly petty to you.  Many people like to talk about death in the abstract—the prospect of dying, the politics of war and violence, famous murder cases, existentialism, Halloween, the songs they want played at their funeral—but almost no one enjoys talking about someone you know who died.  And everyone is ready for you to “move on” and “get over it” way, way before you are.  Getting over it is out of the question.  Growing from it is the only alternative to being paralyzed by your newfound proof that bad things can and do happen, and may very well happen again.  The only way to keep ourselves from letting this fact drive us mad is to engage in what bereavement counselors call “healthy denial.” 

And for all the summarizing I just did, grief varies profoundly with different circumstances.  Losing your best friend and losing your mother and losing a child and losing someone to a long illness and losing someone in an accident and losing someone to murder are all very, very different experiences.  People in grief are usually desperate to hear from other survivors, but they never want the different circumstances shaping their grief to be dismissed for the sake of relativizing sorrow.  The phrase “I know what you’re going through” should be used with caution.   

I didn’t know any of this before I lost him.  I always wanted to help others in bereavement, but I was that awkward person who was scared whenever I didn’t know what to say and believed any sort of grieving beyond a few months was probably unhealthy.  Staying away from social gatherings certainly sounded like a bad idea.  I’m sure I said many careless things that were hurtful.  I probably still do when reacting to someone else’s loss.  But I now find it heartwarming, not sad, if they want to tell stories about the person who’s gone.  And I know to let them call the shots.  If they want to talk about it, listen actively.  If they do not, don’t prod.  Only offer advice or philosophy when they ask for it.  Otherwise listen, listen, listen.  As a friend said after a loss, death highlights how often we forget the importance of listening in all aspects of life; how much we prioritize having an opinion ready for any sort of subject we encounter. 

The grieving process takes up to two years, and of course, the pain never goes away.  There’s not a day that goes by without my missing Bill, but I no longer feel guilty when I push tears aside to pursue something I truly believe in.  Time has brought me to this more productive state of mind, but so has his inspiration. 

At his funeral, his sister said, “We’re all going to have to be a bit better than we had planned on being now that he’s gone.  We have to take on some of the good works he was going to do.”  I’ve carried him with me on every adventure I know he would have loved and never got to have: finding true love, taking in the Tokyo skyline, meeting David Sedaris, learning naughty words in Swedish, belting out “Wig in a Box” a hundred feet away from where the Berlin Wall stood, appreciating the beauty in all the wonderful friends I’ve made since his passing who will only ever know him as photographs and stories.  But I have also let him remind me that I rarely have an excuse for not supporting a cause I believe in. 

Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and no one embodied this as well as Bill.  By the time of his death at age 20, he had been an exchange student to Ireland, a volunteer for exchange students to the U.S., done volunteer home renovation for a poor black community in South Carolina, donated and signed petitions for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and worked for almost 10 years with the Quakers for peace, non-violence and human rights.  (In trying to summarize all this in a letter of recommendation, a guidance counselor wrote that he did volunteer work to aid poor Quakers.)  He made friends left and right—in every sense—while simultaneously being known far and wide as the coolest of the cool.  To him, being hip was all about a scathing wit (“Oh, Emily, your little dwarf arms just can’t reach!”) and a refined sense of the absurd (a few times he insisted we pretend to fight at parties just to see everyone else’s awkward reaction).  But it was never about being too cynical to care or work for justice.

Okay, he hated the rainbow flag—“Where was I when they voted on that?!”—preferring the sober tones of the Human Rights Campaign logo.  The medium is the message, of course.  But whenever I slump into cynicism, daunted and wanting to do nothing but complain about humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the ubiquity of ignorance and the overwhelming number of flaws in the system, he is always quick to answer: “So?  You’re alive.  You can do something about it.”