Monthly Archives: August 2008

The best present I’ve ever received.

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Parents, take note: This is something you might consider doing for your children.

People in general, take note: If your parents are alive, and you’re able to ask them for things like this, it might be a good thing to ask for.

Today’s my birthday, and my parents sent me the best present I’ve ever gotten. (I’m saying this here in case, as is likely, I’m not able to on the telephone call because of my current setup.)

They sent two binders. One for each of them. Inside is the beginning of the story of each of their lives, as well as descriptions of where they lived and what it was like growing up, including how it differed from where and when I grew up, as well as historical events that happened at the time. They put in childhood photos, and also photos and maps of the places, people, and things they interacted with. They wrote them separately from each other, then showed each other when they were done. And they said they’d send more pages later for me to put into the binders.

Most people don’t know a lot about what their parents were like as children, and how it differed from their own lives. For me it’s a bit more extreme than usual, because my parents were older than usual when they had me. (People often thought, when I was growing up, that my father was my grandfather — he’s old enough to be, and he had a grey beard. They thought my brother was my father, too, since he’s fourteen years older than me and (like the rest of the family) a good deal taller.)

One of the first events my father describes is the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which occurred when he was a baby. My mom talks about how when she was a kid, her left-handedness was considered pathological, and considered not only related to which hand was dominant, but also to her habit of incessant question-asking and any other unusual traits she had. (She said when her father injured his right hand, she very seriously warned him that he would begin to ask questions about everything.)

I’m not going to go into public detail about everything they said unless they give permission, because I’m sure some of it is personal. But I have to say both of them had very interesting, and sometimes hilarious, lives. And it was interesting to see how they thought of things when they were three years old, too.

Anyway, I think this is one of the best things you can give your children when you’re a parent. It gives a sense of perspective that I never had because I never knew much about their childhoods. And I think everyone ought to be able to find out what it was like when their parents were kids. I’m looking forward to their later installments. (And I’d suggest to my parents, if you haven’t already, you might want to send these to my brothers too, they’d probably be interested as well.)

About this “can’t defend themselves” stuff.

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I’ve seen some other people, such as Dave Hingsburger, begin to get really irritated with responses to a certain situation. Basically a movie that says ‘retard’ a lot and stereotypes people with developmental disabilities. Many people have been responding saying that it’s awful because disabled people are defenseless, incapable of defending ourselves.

I commented in one spot about that, and nobody responded to me. But Dave Hingsburger commented on it, and lots of people responded to him. They said that they had very young children, and that no child can defend themselves, and therefore it’s okay.

But can’t anyone see that doing this on the (strongly implied) basis that we’re all children is the problem?

If a movie were putting out horrible stereotypes of women, enough that women felt the need to protest, and of course those who cared about women also felt that need, would anyone say, “Poor things, they can’t defend themselves”?

Well yes, some people might. It’d be recognized as a damaging and inaccurate stereotype though.

And I don’t think anyone would dream of saying, “But… but… I have a little girl. She’s only four months old. No four-month-olds can defend themselves against this stuff. So it makes total sense that people say women in general can’t defend themselves.”

It’s no different if you say it about babies or young children with developmental disabilities. This is stuff that affects us all — everyone it’s applied to. Most of us are adults. To defend a stereotype of us based on the fact that it’s true of children, is just one more added stereotype.

I hope this makes sense, I’m having trouble getting the words for it. But I am finding myself more irritated at the assumption that it’s okay to talk about an entire group of people as if we all have the same defenselessness as a young baby (and that a young baby in a certain category being defenseless, means it’s okay to call everyone in that category defenseless — hey, I guess everyone can’t defend themselves then, yes?), than I am at the original thing people are objecting to.

“Internet eugenics.”

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The Trolls Among Us is an article about Internet trolls. Whose actions descend into the unethical and illegal more often than you might realize if you’ve never been the target of the more serious stuff these people engage in.

Weev, the troll who thought hacking the epilepsy site was immoral, is legendary among trolls. He is said to have jammed the cellphones of daughters of C.E.O.’s and demanded ransom from their fathers; he is also said to have trashed his enemies’ credit ratings. Better documented are his repeated assaults on LiveJournal, an online diary site where he himself maintains a personal blog. Working with a group of fellow hackers and trolls, he once obtained access to thousands of user accounts.

I first met Weev in an online chat room that I visited while staying at Fortuny’s house. “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!”

What interests me about that quote is not that he spews forth the usual hate speech that trolls are famous for. It’s the extent he’s gone to harm other people for his own gain and amusement, far more than most people realize when dealing with the assorted insult-fests online:

Over a candlelit dinner of tuna sashimi, Weev asked if I would attribute his comments to Memphis Two, the handle he used to troll Kathy Sierra, a blogger. Inspired by her touchy response to online commenters, Weev said he “dropped docs” on Sierra, posting a fabricated narrative of her career alongside her real Social Security number and address. This was part of a larger trolling campaign against Sierra, one that culminated in death threats. Weev says he has access to hundreds of thousands of Social Security numbers. About a month later, he sent me mine.

Trolls have also done things like go onto epilepsy forums and post rapidly-flashing images. Which Weev claimed to be uncertain about the morality of. (But supporting genocide, disability hate speech, libel, hacking, extortion, and who knows what else? No problem.)

Some other interesting quotes from the article:

Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.”
[....] The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

For what it’s worth, I do believe that rules are compatible with free speech. In my country, even the people who built freedom of speech into our highest set of laws believed that. I’m never too comfortable (in fact, I’m highly uncomfortable) with an absolutely rigid set of rules, because ethics can change drastically based on the situation and the rules can never be written in as detailed a way as to account for all situations. So maybe I’d say that limits are compatible with free speech, and I have no ethical problem at all with limiting what people can post here.

Such limits aren’t censorship (I don’t even control their ability to post anywhere else). In fact, I don’t think that there would be a whole lot of free speech on here if I allowed in every sociopath who tries to come on here and mess with people’s minds enough to scare them off. There’s an implicit threat in that kind of behavior, and that threat prevents people from speaking their minds. I also moderate posting to protect innocent posters from such people — people who post overly personal details about themselves or other people, such as telephone numbers and other such information, I’ll edit out, or else (if the thing seems to be written to me like a personal email to me) reply in email and delete the whole thing. Usually I note that I’ve edited it. One time a long-time poster tried to unknowingly point a stalker to information about their victim that I knew would be misused, and I sent him a long apologetic email in private and deleted his comment.

Basically, it goes back to what my school principal told the class during an assembly one day: “Often when children are sent to my office they say, ‘Well it’s a free country.’ And I say ‘Yeah it’s a free country, but that doesn’t mean you’re free to punch him in the face.’” Except that, apparently unlike my principal, I have no illusions about the USA being a free country (or the entirety of the Internet — it amazes me how many people talk about the “first Amendment rights” of Internet users in general, without apparently realizing that not all of the Internet is in the USA). Most people who’ve been on the wrong end of oppression in this country know that, and it’s even penetrating into the minds of the mostly-privileged lately. But that’s a whole different tangent.

I also don’t (anymore) allow people to come here and post the overused arguments designed to shut down attempts by disabled people to advocate for our rights. I’ve given a summary by Jim Sinclair of those arguments in my about page, and I’ll put it here as well. It’s from xyr History of ANI. After xe describes an attempt by some members of the Autism Society of America to spread false rumors about xyr not being autistic (even though some people on the ASA board had seen Jim’s records and testified under oath that xe was autistic), and even to attempt to interfere in xyr friendships with other autistic people, and notes that Donna Williams was getting the same kind of slander campaigns and harassment after her book was published, xe writes:

Only several years later, while researching the history of self-advocacy by disabled people (Sinclair, 1996), did I learn of the long history of similar opposition to attempts at self-advocacy and self-determination by people with a variety of disabilities (Kugelmass, 1951; Putnam, 1979; Williams & Shoultz, 1982; Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989; Lane, 1992; Shapiro, 1993; Christiansen & Barnartt, 1995; Dybwad & Bersani, 1996; Kennedy, 1996). Any attempt by a group of disempowered people to challenge the status quo–to dispute the presumption of their incompetence, to redefine themselves as equals of the empowered class, to assert independence and self-determination–has been met by remarkably similar efforts to discredit them. The discrediting tactics used most frequently are:

1) If at all possible, to deny that the persons mounting the challenge are really members of the group to which they claim membership. This tactic has been used against disability activists with learning disabilities and psychiatric disabilities as well as against autistic people. As people with these disabilities often look “normal” and the disabilities are all defined in terms of behavior rather than empirically measurable physical differences, many of us have been told that the very fact that we are able to express ourselves, object to the ways our freedom has been restricted or our rights violated, and demand change proves that we cannot truly be autistic, or learning disabled, or psychiatrically impaired.

2) If there is incontrovertible evidence that the activists are members of the affected group, to aver that they are rare exceptions who are so unlike typical members of the affected group that what they have to say is irrelevant to the group as a whole. Michael Kennedy, who obviously and indisputably has cerebral palsy, explains the destructive impact of this tactic:

When people tell me that I am “higher functioning” than the people they are talking about, I feel like they are telling me that I don’t have anything in common with other people with disabilities. It’s like they are putting me in a whole different category and saying that I don’t have any right to speak. It upsets me because I take it that they don’t want to give anyone else the opportunities I have been given, and that what I say can be ignored because they see me as more capable. It is a way of dividing us and putting down those who have more severe disabilities or who haven’t had the opportunities to experience different situations in life. (Kennedy, 1996)

3) If it is not possible to deny that the activists are authentic representatives of the affected group, to appeal to the very prejudices and stereotypes the activists are seeking to overturn, and use those prejudices and stereotypes to claim that the activists are incapable of fully understanding their situations and knowing what is best for them. Often this approach incorporates the belief that disabled people need to have their freedom restricted for their own good, to protect them from coming to harm through their inability to act in their own best interests.

These strategies to undermine credibility are not new, nor are they limited to situations involving disability. Frederick Douglass was a nineteenth-century African American who escaped from slavery in 1838 and became a well-known abolitionist writer and speaker. In his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, he recalled that at the beginning of his career speaking to white audiences about the evils of slavery, he was presented as something of a curiosity. Most anti-slavery lecturers where white; lecturers who were themselves fugitive slaves were a rarity. As the novelty wore off, people began to doubt that he had ever been a slave. He was suspected of being an impostor because he was too educated and too well-spoken to fit prevailing stereotypes about the ignorance of slaves. He also expressed frustration with white abolitionists’ demand that he confine his speeches to simply recounting his personal experiences of slavery, and allow white people to elaborate on what they meant: “Give us the facts, we will take care of the philosophy.” Eventually Douglass stopped working for white abolitionists and started his own anti-slavery publication.

So I won’t allow those tactics on here, provided that I notice them. And I offer no guarantees of perfection in noticing them. (Someone once noted in comments that some of my earlier posts and comments to them violated my current policy, and that’s correct. I don’t always go back and modify things, and even when I do, I can’t catch everything. I’m also human and therefore not remotely immune to the problem of sometimes being unable to live up to my own standards, and unable to notice this about myself.)

I also (although this is trickier because things can be subtle) have an anti-gossip policy and try to take that pretty seriously. As Laura Tisoncik noted, “Gossip is the enemy of all communities.” Same caveats apply though from the previous paragraph.

Even though that’s all quite an extensive list of things I don’t tend to allow, there are more things I do allow than things I don’t. I don’t post things from people who are trolling or engaging in other predatory activities online, but those tend to come in clumps and most of the time there’s almost nothing to delete. Then for a week there’ll be a ton of it, then nothing. I have only had to use the anti-gossip policy and the thing about disallowing tactics that shut down self-advocacy discussions, on a handful of occasions. The vast majority of the things I delete are when people unintentionally post private information such as phone numbers and street addresses. That’s unless you count spam.

I do allow disagreement, and not just calm disagreement but most angry disagreements too. I don’t see anything wrong with disagreement within certain limits. (I’m obviously not going to post something where someone’s saying that nobody here is autistic enough to involve ourselves in autistic self-advocacy.) I don’t see anything wrong with people being pissed off at me. Sometimes if people don’t yell at me I don’t know I’m doing anything wrong. I can sometimes get defensive and irritated in response (some of my friends might say that’s an understatement at times), but that’s my problem, not theirs. Frankly I get much less nervous around people who are willing to call me on stuff, than people who act like I can do no wrong. With the second group of people I always wonder what’s going to happen when the pedestal drops, and what would happen to my ego if I acted like these people were accurate in their assessment of me.

And if your post doesn’t show up — most of the time that means it’s fallen into my spamtrap, which gets overzealous. My spamtrap also likes some people more than others for some reason, as Andrea Shettle knows way too well by now. I try to search through it for people’s stuff, but it gets eaten a lot. One time there was some minor drama because someone who was pissed off at me already (see previous paragraph) thought I’d deleted his posts because of that, but it turned out they were in my spamtrap all along.

Anyway, basically… there are predators online ranging from people who engage in mild bullying to people who try to systematically destroy people either mentally or physically, and I’m not going to decide in the name of free speech to give them a space to comment here. I think such people do more to stifle free speech than to promote it, and I no more allow them on my blog than I would allow them in my front door.

Which might explain why they instead periodically hack into our server.

Back to the article:

Fortuny calls himself “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet,” and the scene at dinner later on the first day we spent together was exceedingly normal, with Fortuny, his roommate Charles and his longtime friend Zach trading stories at a sushi restaurant nearby over sake and happy-hour gyoza.

I wouldn’t call the things he does insane. I would call them cruel. Cruelty is in many ways normal, and often tolerated or even encouraged. And people who get labeled insane are no more likely to be cruel than anyone else, but are far more likely to be the victims of cruelty. But the wonders of ableism make ‘insanity’ a synonym for cruelty, and ‘retard’ the ultimate in dehumanization and the ultimate excuse for talk about eugenics and genocide.

Plus, even most sociopaths (who I don’t consider ‘insane’, but I do consider very very cruel) are said to look normal, even charming. Not all do, but many do. I’m not saying all trolls are sociopaths, but their behavior can be identical, even if they’re just ‘normal’ people spurred on by some unholy union between the dehumanization of the Internet, the dynamics of groupthink, and societies that more or less encourage cruel people to flourish. (And unlike a lot of people, I don’t consider ‘sociopath’ a medical category, just a convenient and recognizable word for people who are consistently and alarmingly unfettered by conscience.)

I’ve seen the websites (ones not even mentioned in the article) of organized trolls before, and they read just like a horrible playground conversation. These people create sites that openly state their intent is to mock people and to laugh about it. And as evidenced by the conversations in the newspaper article, they don’t care what damage they do to their victims. Some of them rationalize it, others are just happily and unashamedly nasty.

But not all trolls are open about it. Many attempt to appear earnest, even creating entire false personas to drag people in emotionally, either to obtain private information for harassment or blackmail purposes, or to convince naive people to defend them in arguments. Others don’t find that worth the hassle and create sockpuppets instead.

What’s alarming are the things they use (if anything) to justify their behavior:

As Fortuny picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, God, please forgive me!’ so someone can feel better,” Fortuny said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. “Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff, too.”

[...]

[someone said that trolling the epilepsy forum with flashing lights was crossing a line]

Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”

“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.

“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.” A few days later, he wrote and posted a guide to safe Web surfing for epileptics.

[...]

The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

These are the same excuses used by people who fail to do anything about bullying in schools, and the same excuses used by many child abusers towards their victims: It’ll toughen them up enough to be prepared for life’s cruelties.

But they’re BS excuses. Just because the world is a cruel place doesn’t mean you have to be. The answer to cruelty isn’t more cruelty. I’ve been to hell and back, and I’ve learned from those who are or were cruel to me, but I’ve learned even more from those who taught me how to deal with cruel situations than those who caused the cruel situations in the first place. (Of course, nobody is black and white, and in a couple cases people who were cruel to me at one point are still people I’m on good terms with. But they’re also not cruel anymore.)

I wrote a song several years ago to people stuck in that mentality. I’ve posted it before but it bears repeating.

They say life on a battlefield
Is sink or swim
And only the strong survive

And those of us who survived
We survived
And we say to the next
As they’re standing in line
“We’ve done our time,
now it’s your turn”

We learned our lesson too well
We’ve taken our hell and passed it on
“It will make you strong,”
We say as we turn away

How easy is it to forget
The ones who walked with us, talked with us
The ones we fought alongside
They didn’t survive, they fell

They were as strong as we
But we can’t see this to be so
For it would show how little power
We had in the hour that they died

And we honor our fallen comrades
With a rousing inspirational speech
“You are our successors,” we say
“And there’s no room to be weak
Because life on a battlefield
Is sink or swim
And only the strong survive”

And those of us who survived
We survived
And we say to the next
As they’re standing in line
“We’ve done our time
Now it’s your turn”

We’ve learned our lesson too well
We’ve taken our hell
And passed it on
“It will make you strong,”
We say as we turn away

And how easy it is to forget
The ones who walked with us, talked with us
The ones we fought alongside
They didn’t survive, they fell
Consumed by the hell
We recreate
In the name of memory

Or in other words:

The problem with sink-or-swim approaches is that some people sink. And it would completely dishonor the memories of people who have died as a result of cruelty, to perpetuate the very same cruelty that killed them. To claim it makes people strong makes it sound as if these people didn’t exist, or were weaker than people who survived, even if it’s only luck that determined some people’s survival over others. And I refuse to participate in, or glorify, practices that can and do ultimately kill people and then degrade even their memories. Like so-called “Internet eugenics”.

And like they said earlier in the article — it’s the opposite of a properly-functioning society. They want the leeway to do anything they want, but give others no leeway at all. No matter how much they dress it up, there’s no ethical justification for that, and I suspect they know it.

Edited to add: I just remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

When I was nineteen I had a different autism site. I was also at that age very vulnerable, and very bad at hiding my vulnerability. (Which is one among several reasons I eventually took it down, another being that I wasn’t at the time satisfied that half the stuff I was posting was really stuff I thought, or just more attempts to conform to a pattern I thought I ought to conform to.) The stuff from it I continued to think might be useful (whether I continued to fully agree with it or not), I moved to the autistics.org library.

Anyway, I started getting these weird emails. One of them gave me detailed instructions for killing myself, and said that if I didn’t do it they’d finish the job for me. My family was alarmed and contacted the FBI. But back then there wasn’t even a pretence of caring about cyberharassment, and my parents were just told that if it was online it wasn’t a problem. (Unfortunately, by now the world has learned differently from experience.)

Eventually the problem was found out, can’t remember if it was by me or by someone else — my website address had been posted to a trolling site. The section about changeling mythology, Otherkin (a community of people who either believe themselves to be non-human or roleplay themselves to be non-human, depending), and my own longstanding connection to and interest in those topics (especially the idea of being an elf), had been pointed out in particular.

There was a lot of undisguised mockery in the ensuing discussion, to be sure. But my main reason for editing this post to add this to it, is one of the comments that was given on that site, the one I to this day find the most indefensible and the most descriptive of the fact that many trolls know exactly what they are doing. It read something like the following:

“She looks vulnerable. Let’s go mess with her mind.”