23 January 2014

Identity, privacy, disclosure.

There seems to have been two internet explosions surrounding disclosure related stories on identity over the last couple weeks. I have some thoughts.

First. I used to write this blog, such as it is, under a pseudonym. I don't know why exactly. My employers haven't cared what my politics are to check up on me, and my (anti/non) religious and political views are fairly well known to anyone who knows me already. I would often share the blogging bits and pieces via feeding it into my facebook page. The blog retains the title, I still often use the nom de puome as a nom de guerre in online games, but I shed the anonymity around the time G+ went live I believe. To some extent, this has meant some other people occasionally glanced at some words I produced. It has not really altered my life in any measurable way that I can see. Maybe this voicing of opinions reduces future employment options, or maybe it doesn't. I haven't looked at it that closely as a consideration given my sometimes radical politics and my certainly unpopular atheism that it could be harmful. But as noted, those were pretty well known to most anyone who talks to me for more than one or two conversations on religion or politics.

And that's most anyone who has talked more than once or twice with me since I'm fine with hammering away at those things people aren't supposed to talk about.

But I recognize I have a fair amount of freedom to say things willy-nilly and suffer the consequences when people start talking about what I have to say (sometimes inaccurately). I have long since come to a certain arrangement when arguing points of contention with some people that I attempt not to be personal about it (sometimes they are not so forgiving of course), and while some people this is still evolving or a new arrangement of sorts, it works reasonably well for the average conversation to remain mostly civil. Occasionally I find it necessary to block people on social media for using argument styles that are designed solely to provoke by diving straight onto insulting ad hominem or bravado style "I'm right, and I have such and such credentials, so I don't have to answer your question" attitudes. These are frustratingly common, but I curiously find it easier to manage on the "Internets" than the "real lifes". Real life doesn't have a block button or a ban hammer.

It would, by dint of my tendency to annoy people and that fact I am no longer anonymous, be possible for someone inclined to assemble information and make more threatening gestures in person. This is unlikely though. I usually aggravate people in argument but not to the point where I've encountered death threats or insinuations of physical violence deemed necessary against me. At some point I just get ignored or they go away for some other reason, or they start slinging insults and they go away because I ignore them.

I am not however a woman, complete with all the thoughts about women and men that supposedly entails, much less working in a field and a profession typically dominated by men. And I am not transgendered. 

I have somewhat less to say on the Dr Isis flap than the Dr V one, at least right now. But I'll get to it in a couple pages...

To put it plainly, atheism is a pretty raw deal in America for the level of disgust and hatred available for it from the average person encountered and their casual understanding and dismissal of the worldviews of atheists anywhere. But at the end of the day, it's also one of those identities that you can shovel up into a closet and nobody notices unless you want them to. Unless I were to look Arabic, which I do not, at least not without dressing very differently to follow American stereotypes of Arabs, nobody is going to follow me around to see where I go to church/mosque/temple. Or even if I go anywhere at all. People might ask and I could easily lie to get by if I thought it necessary, or I could say, as I often do, I'm an atheist and don't go anywhere because I don't see a need. Most people don't ask.

It is not a pleasant class of society to be in. It is not a privileged class in the sense that it isn't Christianity, or even some other people of the book, so to speak. It's not the same to be a WASP to be a "WASA" (much less some other combination of race and atheism). But it's very easy for most WASPs to assume you are one and not ever have to, if one doesn't want to, correct that impression. It can be much easier to dial it back publicly if one moves or changes careers and thinks it might be an obstacle. Or even when one thinks it might be an obstacle in promoting causes such as secularism, or science, or skepticism; causes that aren't necessarily tied to one's religious disinterest and which deserve may deserve strong support and public airing on their own rights.

It is not the same variety of bias and prejudice even as the dark side of the force remains strong in it.

Elsewhere on the intolerance scale. It's a little bit easier for others to discover that someone is homosexual, there's usually a second party to give it away. Bigotry against homosexuals has diminished greatly over the last few decades and is somewhat lessened than that of atheism as a politely acceptable intolerance to express. But it still has plenty of cultural enclaves where it retains an extra degree of viciousness. It is not unusual for a family to fracture over, for people to be beaten or assaulted. It was not that long ago that police forces would use any excuse they could for beatings of this type as official practice, not merely as an unofficial extra kick of injustice. We still do not have team sports with an openly gay athlete playing professionally somewhere. There are open atheists playing. This is reversed with members of elected legislatures, there aren't any open atheists serving in offices at the national level. There are uncloseted homosexuals and have been for some time. But nevertheless, the prospect of being an out of the closet homosexual is not a fun and smooth life relatively free of bigotry or invective or familial distress, or even physical danger. Many people would prefer this aspect of their lives remain private or hidden as a portion of their identity in the same way that an atheist might conceal this feature.

To run through the problems further. Race or ethnicity has typically a visual cue that "this person is different", and that cannot be readily concealed by most, and we still have plenty of social animus associated with this. Gender is usually pretty obvious as well at the glance and we've got lots of cultural and social cues if it wasn't for some reason. And transgendering has a history to it that if somebody wanted to dig into it, they could find out about. Pretty easily it seems. It would from there be simple enough to cast it in a depiction that is less than favorable to the questions of identity involved and not even out of some individual bias or discomfort. That's still the social customs that must evolve as they must still evolve on other implicit racism or misogynistic problems. We should not leap into these unknowns or less-well-knowns with the level of discomfort that we often have.

I have to admit I have not thought as much about transgender issues as homosexuality. I am not made deeply uncomfortable or unsympathetic by either issue. This just isn't on my radar as something I've known about from someone else or talked about that someone has. I've known other atheists most of my life and am one myself. I've known women my entire life and as an adult have formed some of my closest relationships with women, not all of them with the side purpose of exchanging sexual pleasures. I suspect this provides some insights there as well in either case if one is willing to pay attention and listen. I've known people from other countries, people of other racial backgrounds, people in mixed racial relationships, and so on. Many of these cases would be long-time friends or family members to me, and I have witnessed both wonderful things about them and the sometimes awful things about how other people are treating them on the basis of this singular characteristic. I've known people who are homosexual, as well as people who have experimented with their sexuality and sexual orientation or desired to do so, and so on. These are things firmly on my radar as life experiences that I can quickly relate to. These aren't that complex for me to understand even if I am sometimes a little dense at first. They are not my experiences, so I will miss things and have biases. But I will listen and learn.

But. I'm not entirely sure how one writes about transgender as a subject even. I have read some on the subject to know that this is "a thing", that this is certainly a serious problem for how our society treats such people, and interacts with the topic broadly. I have seen the abuse that people, children and adults, take and it seems among our very worst examples of humanity. The Chelsea Manning case alone strikes some rather deep chords that the military was deeply unsympathetic to the idea of a transgendered soldier, and was possibly more brutal in its treatment while in captivity awaiting trial still identified as Bradley Manning as a result. There are dozens more stories and experiences I am familiar with with the piles of abuse from parents and other school children. It's not something I've had direct experience though. Reading about the problems involved is still an abstraction versus a friend who wanted or felt compelled to change gender. I can only go so far with my understanding that way.

I'd like to think I would think deeply, sympathetically, and carefully, if I were writing about someone else's experiences. But I'm a human being subject to biases and (some) respect to social conformity and conventions. I can easily see how a story about a golf inventor that suddenly got more complicated as the inventor misreprsented basic features of their inventive-related skills and credentials would look funny and demand deeper investigation. It is not uncommon for people to assume identities for business purposes that don't actually line up with reality (people lie on resumes, have fake degrees, etc) and for journalists to find that worth reporting on and people worth knowing about. Somewhere along the line, it would be trivial as a matter of investigation to discover that that inventor had changed gender identity. The question then becomes, "what good is that information to the story?"

I'm not sure how that makes it a deeper story myself. What exactly does that mean? How did it impact the invention, the business, the relationship with investors. Or did it have nothing to do with those things, or at worst very little. Perhaps this is something that journalists are trained on that I have missed out on, to sensationalize a story by finding the lurid details that can sex it up and attract attention. Or perhaps there are journalistic ethics and standards that govern such behavior and discourage it in favor of other questions. In any case, these details came out in a story, after the inventor's prior identity was disclosed to an investor, and after the inventor commits suicide. And that was a terrible faux pas and was badly handled. But. I do not blame the writer necessarily for the story as reported (there are other ethical questions beyond the reporting and writing). I don't really blame ESPN for publishing it. I don't know how to cover that story either. I'm not sure if the novelty of the situation would have overpowered other more sensible questions. Again, I'd like to think I'd be less distracted by trivialities and still capable of cutting into the bullshit. Or maybe just recognize there isn't any bullshit worth reporting and move on. I do think I'd be more curious than confused and unless I'm given more evidence of destructive and malicious motives, I'd like to ascribe that curiosity to the reporter as it would likely be something I myself would experience. Transgender just isn't a topic that people bring up very often in the public sphere, that we know who this is in our society, and might ask why with an earnest interest in the answer versus an accusatory angle.

Some people don't want or need our curiosity though. And they've got a lifetime of experience showing them why not to let it in. It would be understandable that this would be an intensely private feature for someone, just as someone's homosexuality could be or their atheism. These are not challenging questions of identity that I find it all that important to "out" people who don't want to be, especially if this fact is not of significance to their occupation, or their intentions in relationships business, public, and private. This is a salacious detail and an inconvenience to our story telling at that point rather than a necessary component of the narrative.

What I do think is that we have a society that views this all as somehow very "weird", not normal, strange, and ultimately worthy of fear or hatred or scorn in heaps and buckets, as it does with any other prejudice set. No matter how enlightened people are or think they are, in an environment where a particular group of people are viewed suspiciously, it's not difficult for some biases to creep in. African descended males who are unknown to us personally are feared by pretty much everybody, including other African males, more than other adults and teenagers. Why? I'm not really sure (there are lots of possible explanations, most of which are bullshit reasons when closely examined) except that that's what everybody seems to believe subconsciously so that's what everybody behaves like consciously on some level. I think when people approach the question of how to deal with transgender issues, they don't really pause and reflect on this but that it seems "sneaky" to them intuitively for some reason. Maybe men are uncomfortable with the idea. Maybe women are too. I don't find this convincing but we do have some severe stick-up-ass thinking on sex and sexuality in this country, so it's possible. If when reporting on someone who seemed otherwise sketchy, maybe that seemed important at the time.

Which brings me to the actual moral crime and ethical conundrum here: the outing to an investor during the reporting process. I'm not sure what possible basis that served. Reporting on it, post suicide, maybe not the most tasteful project, but I'm not sure it has a huge moral sin to it either that it needs to become infamous. If anything, it raised the level of discussion to the attention of people like me where it could easily have remained an abstract topic. Outing somebody's private identity and self while they are alive, and without their permission and without really establishing some clear basis for doing so, with the insinuation that it is part and parcel of some broader deceptive trends put forward by this person? This certainly seems quite malicious. I'm not sure that it was. I think it is more likely that it didn't even occur to anyone to ask that it could be. In one sense, that's a progress too. The debate is to be had about the revelations of identity, people decide publicly this is not a good idea, and the debate moves onto other things.

Which brings me back around to the Isis-Gee fight.

The advantage of concealing one's identity or our most private features of that identity is that it prevents personal reprisals and attacks while talking about controversial subjects, ideally those impacting many people. Some of our finest political and moral philosophers wrote treatises under these false and constructed names for consumption by the public to prevent political and legal consequences against their persons and families. Various whistleblowers or informants to criminal actions have attempted to adopt this as protection against retribution by employers and associates. The action of taking on a concealed identity is not without its nobility for being able to tackle challenging subjects, such as gender biases and prejudices within a particular field or industry.

The problem with having a pseudonym, or a projection online of one's persona, and a popular platform to air and voice opinions and musings is that people invariably demand some level of "accountability". They want to validate the agreement or disunion they experience with these writings and musings with a clear face and persona on which to argue. But this often ignores why people have taken on these concealments in the first place, to raise the level of discussion to a particular issue rather than to the person advancing it. Some have, not always implausibly, argued this also makes it easier to make or advance personal attacks upon others, and many have used this cloak to stab away at their rivals and detractors. This does have an effect of reducing the quality of the debate, for which the anonymity was useful.

Nevertheless, we are talking about a rather serious or endemic issue, where many people are at best blind to the possibility of such a bias, or more dangerously, openly hostile to the concept and conversations surrounding such biases. Scientists are not without their personalities and eccentricities, but collectively, if those personalities are pushing out other voices, even unintentionally through a culture of repression rather than skepticism, that's a problem. Not merely for society. For science.

A large portion of why the Dr V story blew up on Grantland and ESPN is that they lacked the voice of someone to ask a very simple question: "Why does this actually matter? We know it's strange and perhaps confusing to you personally, but is it actually material to the reporting we are doing?" Putting women into science and other male-dominated fields isn't important because women are awesomer than men or some such, it's important because more marginalised people are more likely to encounter particular strands of thought via our culture and cultural biases and this can lead for people, in this case women, to ask certain prodding questions when approaching a subject for study. Not addressing those questions can be poisonous to our process of discovery as it might overlook important variables. Not having access at all to the existence of those questions is even worse because we'd probably never bother addressing them in the first place. So it's kind of important. The legend of Aristotle's flatly asserted notion that men had more teeth than women should be instructive here to the quality of our investigations and inquiries into the nature of the world, and in particular the nature of our societies and institutions.

So why does that matter in the context of Isis-Gee? Because the whole point of Gee's disclosure of identity was to try to marginalize someone making this argument. This was done mostly because Gee seems to have found Isis' online persona, if not her personal persona, to be irritating or hostile. Certainly we might be entitled to take some umbrage at the methods or means other people might use to raise the profile of an issue. Even people who agree with the cause of that issue might find certain approaches less comfortable and wish it were done otherwise. It is a fairly common misperception given to atheists, feminists, environmentalists, and so on that they are composed groups of ideas encompassing very radical notions practiced by and espoused by only very radical and thereby very annoying persons, who are by dint of this character defect, worthy of dismissing the entire project of ideas. This despite that many, many people might agree with some or all of those ideas. So presentation matters and people can point out the problems with presentation.

Taking that umbrage to a personal level however, with the idea that we will use it to attack the other person rather than the issues they are trying to address, seems rather antithetical to good science and healthy debate in a society. It is not necessary even to respond if someone makes personal attacks and what we might deem slanderous remarks without the presentation of being openly identified, by attacking them, or demanding and belittling their identity, and so forth. These are not effective methods of improving our own standing and do not make the issues raised go away. We could instead politely return the conversation to its essential features rather than our personal appearance or insinuations of our personal biases and prejudices and if someone else wants to persist in making the conversation about ourselves, we can ignore that person until such time as they wish to have a calm and reasoned argument. This does not mean that all such criticisms are invalid and should be ignored. But constructive approaches should be favored.

Grantland/ESPN seems to have come away from some deservedly withering criticism more knowledgeable. Their error is at least framed as one of ignorance more than maliciousness, and I am inclined, for the most part, to agree that this is a large part of the story. If reasonably thoughtful people like me have not thought much about a particular subject, I do not automatically expect others to have done so or to have much personal experience reflecting on the issues involved and so on. This is hopefully constructive and means that we should expect to see reporting and writing about transgender issues (at least as they relate to sports) in a more positive and participatory way moving forward. That's a laudable result even if it was embarrassing and perhaps unethical in the procession to that progression. We should at least expect that ESPN's coverage would not include intentional outings of identity in the future without the assistance and participation of the person being outed (ala the Jason Collins story last year).

By contrast, Gee seems to have responded by taking to a twitter flame war, eventually burning his account to the ground and fleeing the scene with the promise of vengeance upon his enemies. Or at least that's the way it is being cast. This is likely not a constructive advance for the debate of these issues of gender inequality and advancement in the sciences. The reason for the difference of result is likely that the personalities involved are still alive to defend themselves, and that the personalities involved became a forefront of the debate. That was only possible because one of those personalities made it a point to disclose the existence, the real life existence, of the identity of his interlocutor.

We should learn from this series of events that identity is a powerful, if not overwhelming, force in any topic. While it undoubtedly matters a great deal on some subjects as a worthy side course to our discussions and digressions, it isn't likely to be materially important in many and will often as not distract us from more important questions that could be of far greater benefit to others observing our discourses than our personal feuds and animus.
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