03 Sep 2013, 16:02

Hey, Listen

So today on twitter, a dear friend brought up the subject of how empathy differs from sympathy and the importance of learning it. It’s not a skill that is really valued or emphasized in our culture, which is arguably one of the reasons we tend to have so much difficulty having a real discussion about difficult subjects.

At the end of a series of tweets, she said “Alright class over go home”. I joked “will this be on the test”, and got back “no but I want to hear next week about your experiences putting this into practice in everyday life”. I figure that’s probably a good exercise, and I’ve been meaning to write some more anyway; why not talk a little about my journey toward empathy?

I came late to empathy, really. For a long time I was a real asshole, both on the internet and often in person. I spent several years as what we now tend to call an Internet Atheist, very self-satisfied with my own Logic and Reason, and quick to disdain Irrationality and Feelings. I’m not really sure when I started to realize things had gone wrong there, but I think it was probably around the time the incident known as “elevatorgate” blew up.

To give a quick summary for those not familiar, Rebecca Watson had participted in a panel discussion in which she’d talked about sexism in the atheist community, and how she was made uncomfortable by the way women are often treated there. Afterward a man followed her into an elevator and hit on her. She then mentioned it in a video, described how being a single woman being hit on in a hotel elevator in a foreign country at 4am by a stranger made her uncomfortable. She then committed an unforgivable sin by saying “guys, don’t do that.” For this, she has been made a pariah and villain by vast swaths of the atheist/skeptic community, mocked by Richard Dawkins, and been constantly hounded with threats of rape and death even to this day.

The thing that stands out to me today in recalling the reactions to her story is not so much the blatant misogyny (though there’s plenty of that), but the number of people who insisted on telling her that she was wrong to feel that way, that her personal experience was incorrect. There was a lot of commentary that boiled down to I can imagine a situation in which this man’s actions were completely inoffensive to me, so you were wrong to have the feelings you did. I’m really not sure if that storm was the start of my journey toward empathy, but it certainly helped push me.

Another catalyst was, in an odd turn, following some joke-making twitter accounts, especially Amber aka @rare_basement. She’s a very funny person, but also just talked about her life; from money problems to escaping heroin addiction to outright falling in love across twitter. She would also talk about being sexualized/objectified by certain twitter followers, and the awful things they would tweet to her. I noticed a pattern among people who said funny things on twitter; that there was a class of follower that would get upset, even irate, at the jokeperson having the temerity to talk about real life instead of the constant comedy tweets that the followers apparently thought they had paid for.

I’m an extremely shy person (fun fact: as I was writing that sentence, I first typed “extremely shit person”, good work Freud), and tend to shrink away from replying to twitter people that I don’t already know. The thing about that is that even if my initial reaction was to disagree, I didn’t automatically get into an argument. I started to just listen to what people had to say; to realize that their feelings were valid outside of my own experience. To try to understand their feelings without reflexive judgement; to really try to see their perspective instead of looking for an opening to reaffirm mine.

I’d long considered myself a feminist, or feminist ally, but while I had been upset at the misogyny I saw, I realized that my concept of feminism was about exactly that; my feelings about misogyny. This isn’t to say that my own feelings are without merit, but part of being an actual ally is to recognize when you are putting your own status above those of the group you supposedly support. Reexamining my assumptions and really listening to people–especially people whose opinions differ from mine–has vastly improved my understanding of feminism and the often-complicated issues involved.

What’s really difficult though, is learning to empathize with those you disagree with, even vehemently. Empathizing doesn’t mean that you come around to their point of view, mind; but that you try to understand how they got there without automatically discounting it. Honestly engaging with someone else’s perspective is an extraordinarily powerful tool for learning.

Now, please don’t think that I’m trying to brag about how great I am at this, because I’m not. I’m learning, and it’s often a real struggle. I still have knee-jerk reactions about other people that are often extremely unfair. But I try to stop and interrogate those reactions now; to ask why I’m having them, and what that other person might think from their perspective, and just maybe I’m actually a little full of shit.

A warning: discovering empathy will likely make you sad and angry and frustrated about a lot of things. This is unpleasant, but important. Understanding other peoples’ pain makes you more aware of what causes that pain, and will hopefully also drive you to help fight those causes.

I’ve come to find that one of the most important realizations I can have is “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

08 Jul 2013, 15:04

Thank You, Ryan

So the only time I met Ryan Davis in person, he gave me Giant Bomb stickers and told me to put them on cop cars. — Andy Keener (@reibeatall)

If you follow video game news, you probably already know it, but Ryan Davis of GiantBomb has died.

I never met the man personally, but many of the people who knew him have been writing amazing tributes that confirm my impressions of the man. You should read those because they’ll say it better than I can, but he was funny, loving, brilliant, and joyous.

When the news broke today, my twitter feed basically became an avalanche of grief and sorrow and disbelief and love. Ryan touched nearly everyone in the games industry one way or another, and not a single person seems to have disliked him.

Anyone who says technology pulls us further apart should check out Twitter today. What a sweet and strangely fitting mourning. — Ryan Letourneau (@NorthernlionLP)

I thought immediately of the thing that really made me respect and pay attention to the man. During a live stream a while back, he got frustrated and thoughtlessly used a slur; one that is all too common in games. The stream ended, and he immediately posted a full, frank, and heartfelt apology for it. He made a mistake and, rather than try to weasel his way out, he owned both it and his remorse.

Should I get this emotional about the death of someone I listened to in a podcast? — orenronen (@orenronen)

I spent a good chunk of this morning watching the outpouring on twitter, tears intermittently flowing. It feels pretty strange that the death of someone I’ve never met would have hit me so hard. But as I’ve reflected on this, I’ve realized it’s because I saw myself in Ryan. Or rather, I saw what I wanted to be. I mean, it’s natural that I’d identify with the fat bearded guy who writes about video games, given that I’m a fat bearded guy who used to want to do just that.

But more importantly, it was his personality. He had boundless enthusiasm and joy for… well, almost everything, it seems. And while his humor was often acerbic, it was always clearly done with genuine love and friendship. Moreover, he was always willing to turn it toward himself, having hundreds of bright pink “FUCK RYAN DAVIS” shirts made for GB fans.

When he picked on you it made you feel like the center of the universe, right? You know? Yeah. — Jenn Frank (@jennatar)

That’s something I try to be, but I often fail at. My sense of humor is often sarcastic and cutting, and I am rarely intentionally cruel… but far too often I am accidentally cruel. Worse, I can be cruel carelessly, without realizing I do it until the damage is done.

I started to write a tweet about how I wanted to be Ryan Davis when I grew up, and at that moment it struck me that he was 34. We’re the same age. I somehow always thought he was older than me; maybe because he was just more successful, but perhaps because he came across as a loving older brother, or a jovial uncle. I was struck by that realization, and the multitude of things I regretted doing, and so many that I regretted not doing. If I died today, I wouldn’t be happy with what I left behind.

The more I’m digging into the various Ryan Davis paraphernalia all over the internet, I’m finding it harder to be sad. He was pure joy. — Eric Pope (@MrPope)

I really do want to be Ryan Davis when I grow up. Not writing and broadcasting about video games, but I want to be the kind of person he was. That love, and joy, and confidence, and enthusiasm. My life hasn’t been about those things lately; it’s been mostly about regrets and self-recriminations and dwelling on the mysteries of what I could have done better. My life hasn’t been about those good things for a long time, really, and that’s got to change.

This is the lesson I’m trying to take from Ryan’s death. To accept and own my mistakes, but not let them consume me, instead focusing on joy. To stride confidently into life, rather than retreating from it. To share love for what is, instead of regret for what could have been. To capture even a fraction of his enthusiasm and energy.

I never met you, Ryan, but you were one of the best people I ever knew.


19 Jun 2013, 11:28

Picking Up

originally posted on tumblr

(warning that this will get triggery)

Okay, there’s this pickup-manual kickstarter that’s about to fund, and it’s super fucking disgusting, and KS is likely to not do anything about it. This isn’t actually about that specific thing, but thinking about it made me want to throw out some thoughts about the whole PUA thing in general and maybe do some therapy on myself at the same time. This is just me writing as I think it here, so sorry in advance if it’s disjointed.

The thing that gets me about the PUA stuff is that I can see the appeal of it. I’m 34 years old and I haven’t dated anyone since high school. I’ve got a lot of body and self-esteem issues (not least related to having been about 400 pounds until recently) and I tend to feel like I’m not deserving of affection or love at all, to say nothing of a romantic or sexual relationship. So I absolutely understand why some people would find a ‘system’ for that kind of thing appealing. I’m also a computer programmer by trade and hobby, and the idea of ordered systems that can be manipulated for a desired result is a thing I’m used to and comfortable with.

But one thing I’ve tried to do is to actually listen to people and understand them as people, and I’ve learned a couple of things from that. To start with, people aren’t machines. They are living, breathing, feeling, thinking people and you do not have the right to try to coldly manipulate them to get to use their body. That woman is not a puzzlebox that gets your dick wet if you push the right buttons and say the secret code phrase.

Further, take some time and listen to what women have to say about the way men treat them both physically and emotionally. I’d suggest starting with the Everyday Sexism Project and their twitter feed and see what women have to deal with from men like these. Try to understand the degradation and humiliation that they feel because some asshole imposed on them sexually when they didn’t want it. Really try. Don’t dismiss it with “well, she should have taken it as a compliment!” or “just ignore that kind of thing, I do.” Do not deny peoples’ feelings, because they can’t.

Now look at the kind of shit that PUAs do and realize how much of it is the sort of thing that is hurting women, just because those women had the misfortune to get into the sights of a man who was trying to get laid. The PUA shit reduces women to nothing but a sexual conquest, and denies their agency and self-worth in the most disgusting ways.

As I’m writing this, someone just posted a link to a Kotaku story about women being assaulted and harassed at E3. Read that too. Here’s an excerpt:

You might want to think that these women should have said or done something to defend themselves. Don’t. Because there’s a common theme here: immobility. When you’re approached or attacked like this, you can find yourself paralyzed. Confused. Unsure of how to respond.

These men are doing real damage to women, and PUA ‘techniques’ are part of their arsenal. The PUA manual guy whose kickstarter inspired this post says things like

Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.

See how that kind of shit is harmful yet?

Well, that kickstarter just hit its deadline, and no word from Kickstarter itself that they’ll take any action against it. Seeing that kind of made me lose steam on this.


17 Oct 2011, 23:40

Fun with zsh themes

I’ve been having lots of fun for the last couple of weeks mucking about with different version control systems; choosing whether to focus personally on Git or Mercurial (Git won, though only just), and getting comfortable with it.

As part of the process, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff people have written about both systems, and poke around many tools for making life with them more pleasant. Steve Losh’s extravagant zsh prompt is one of those.

I’ve tweaked it a little; restored the normal zsh % or # indicator to tell if I’m root (I know the username is right there, but I’m used to looking for the symbol). I also don’t use his battery indicator, as I mostly work on AC power, and when I’m not, the menu bar indicator is enough.
I’ve also modified the version control part of the prompt to use vcprompt. Losh’s version is set up to do it using a custom Mercurial extension he wrote if you’re in an Hg repo, and an entirely different method for Git; it seemed clunky, and vcprompt works universally. vcprompt seems to be a bit slower than Losh’s hg-prompt in Hg repos, but feels faster overall, and I’m mostly dealing with Git, so it’s an acceptable tradeoff.

By the way, Losh’s other articles are also excellent. He’s got me back using MacVim as my primary editor, now that I’ve taken the time to really learn to customize it.

My modified version; you’ll need to use oh-my-zsh and change the extension to .zsh-theme if you want to use it.

function virtualenv_info {
    [ $VIRTUAL_ENV ] && echo '('`basename $VIRTUAL_ENV`') '

function vcprompt_info {
    vcprompt --format-git "on ± %{$fg[magenta]%}%b%{$reset_color%}%{$fg[green]%}%u%m%a%{$reset_color%}" \
             --format-hg  "on ☿ %{$fg[magenta]%}%b%{$reset_color%}%{$fg[green]%}%u%m%{$reset_color%}" \
             --format    "on %s %{$fg[magenta]%}%b%{$reset_color%}%{$fg[green]%}%u%m%{$reset_color%}"

function box_name {
    [ -f ~/.box-name ] && cat ~/.box-name || hostname -s

PROMPT='%{$fg[magenta]%}%n%{$reset_color%} at %{$fg[yellow]%}$(box_name)%{$reset_color%} in %{$fg_bold[green]%}${PWD/#$HOME/~}%{$reset_color%} $(vcprompt_info)
$(virtualenv_info)%(?,,%{${fg_bold[white]}%}[%?]%{$reset_color%} )%# '

local return_status="%{$fg[red]%}%(?..✘)%{$reset_color%}"

27 Dec 2010, 10:29

Music of 2010

My annual (note: not actually annual) non-definitive list of albums I liked from the last year.

  • Amanda Palmer, Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukelele. This shouldn’t work as anything but a stunt, but it actually does.
  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. The album I’d hoped Neon Bible would be.
  • The Books, The Way Out. This group may be the canonical example of how I love things that almost nobody else I know would like, but those people are missing out.
  • Caravan Palace, Dragons. French electro-jazz that sounds like Benoît Charest crossed with Daft Punk.
  • Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer. “Fuck You” got all the attention, but the rest of the album is just as good. Gnarls Barkley is great, but I really prefer his solo work (see also …Is the Soul Machine).
  • Childish Gambino, I am Just a Rapper, I am Just a Rapper 2, Culdesac. The rap alias of actor Donald Glover, and legitimately great work.
  • Das Racist, Sit Down, Man. It’s a shame that most people will only ever know them for the novelty/parody “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell”. Those people are missing out on some of the cleverest rap around. Not recommended for people who take music too seriously, or those who insist that music not be taken seriously.
  • Girl Talk, All Day. He’s getting better; this album sounds more like a composition than his previous effort’s (brilliant) stunt.
  • Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid. Like a lot of people, I found out about her thanks to her brilliant Letterman performance. James Brown meets Sun Ra meets Prince meets Philip Dick.
  • Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More. Describing this as folk-rock feels like it would give the wrong impression. Go listen to “The Cave”.
  • Run On Sentence, You The Darkness & Me. An old friend of mine from college; I had no idea he would turn out to be an amazingly talented musician. There are too many bands that deserve so much more success and recognition than they’ve had, and this is one of them.
  • Sage Francis, Li(f)e. The whole album is solid, but please please please take a listen to the stunning Yann-Tiersen-backed “The Best of Times”.
  • Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz. Well, that got weird quick, didn’t it? Needs an editor badly, but mostly quite good.
  • The Weakerthans, Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre. Possibly my favorite band, in their hometown, doing a perfect set.