Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.

Choosing Our Battles: A Chick-Fil-A Rant

This is an expanded version of a rant that I spontaneously posted on this blog’s Facebook page yesterday.

[Also, snark warning. Haven't used one of those in a while!]

I’m going to talk about Chick-Fil-A again because I just can’t stop.

I keep hearing arguments that go something like this: “Yes, they donate money to icky crap. Yes, LGBT people and allies are entitled to boycott them. But then why aren’t they boycotting every other company that does unethical crap? Like Apple? Like Nike? Like McDonalds? Like Walmart? HUH?! Hypocrites!”

First of all. I’m sorry, but I can’t boycott every company in the world. Not even the best activist can do that. I can boycott some, though, and that’s exactly what I do. One reason I boycott CFA is because it is easier for CFA to just stop sending millions of dollars to bullshit organizations than it is for Apple and Nike to restructure their entire labor practices. Do they need to do this? Yes, absolutely. But it would take years or decades of public campaigns and government regulations.

Now, I’m not a labor activist or a corporate watchdog by profession. I’m a 21-year-old student who works part-time, writes a little blog part-time, and hopes to become a therapist someday. I need to choose my fucking battles.

And yes, I’m only speaking for myself here. But I think many of us who are speaking out against CFA are in a similar position. I wish we could all be full-time activists. But we can’t. So we choose our battles.

Second, let me be clear. If Apple came out and said, “Guilty as charged!” when asked about their use of child labor, I can guarantee you that the amount of protest would skyrocket. Because the problem with Dan Cathy and CFA isn’t just what they do–it’s how disgustingly, unapologetically shameless they are about it.

Sure, you could argue that opposing gay rights isn’t “as bad” as using child labor (however you managed to determine which units to measure badness in). My response would be that, while time and money are finite resources, care and concern are not. We writers and activists are perfectly capable of caring both about gay rights and child labor, trust me.

Third, there is something fundamentally different between what CFA does and what Apple, Nike, and Walmart do. The difference is this: corporations cut costs. If possible, they cut costs using unethical, shady, and borderline-illegal methods. Sure, there are a few that don’t, but many do.

The fact that this is something we can naturally expect doesn’t make it acceptable, of course. This is why we need that dreaded government regulation everyone keeps waving their hands about. So until governments crack down on the crap that Apple, Nike, and Walmart do, we can reasonably expect it to continue, because that’s the economic system that we’ve designed for ourselves.

But CFA isn’t trying to cut costs. In fact, it’s giving away huge sums of its own money. This is not a business move. This is not an attempt to keep the shareholders happy, because CFA (unlike Apple, Nike, and Walmart) is a privately-owned company with no shareholders.

No. CFA’s donations are motivated solely by its owners’ desire to impose their religious views upon this country. Full stop. That is why we protest.

One last detour to cover another related argument: “But we’ve known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years! Why now? HMM?” First of all, people who make this argument: I applaud you for your attention to current events, politics, and charitable donations of companies whose products you consume. I, too, have known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years, which is why I haven’t set foot in there for years. But not everyone can be so well-informed. I read the goddamn news as a hobby.

Second, better late than never. If you’re seriously trying to suggest that people shouldn’t protest against CFA because they should’ve done it earlier, your argument is the biggest failure I have ever seen. People are protesting now because of Dan Cathy’s public statements. People are protesting now because the story went viral and blew up in every media outlet imaginable. People are protesting now because it’s election season. People are protesting now because gay marriage has been in the news these days like never before.

People are protesting now as opposed to years ago for all sorts of social and cultural reasons, and those reasons do not necessarily include that the protesters are Big Hypocrites.

Both of these arguments–“But what about the other companies” and “But why now”–are intellectually dishonest, and they’re attempts to derail the conversation. If you’re trying to argue that we’re not doing enough for our cause, you might want to ask yourself what you are doing for it.

So I’m not going to mince words here. If the best argument you can muster against boycotting/denouncing CFA is YEAH WELL WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER TERRIBAD COMPANIES, then guess what, your argument fails. Because I don’t see you doing anything about any of them at all.

And it really doesn’t surprise me that nobody I have seen making this argument–online or in person–has been someone who particularly cares about gay rights. Don’t care? Fine. I can’t make you. But please, get out of my way.

Oh, and trust me. Someday when I have the time and money, I am absolutely going after as many of those companies as I can. Are you going to help me?

I guess we’ll find out.

P.S. inb4 BUT FREE SPEEEEECH

“Don’t Feed the Trolls”: Reexamining a Tired Maxim

Allow me to get meta here for a moment.

I’ve noticed that a very common response to nasty internet comments is to repeat the mantra, “Don’t feel the trolls.” It’s become “common knowledge” that you should ignore mean-spirited (as opposed to simply critical) comments on the internet, especially if you’re the one they’re addressed to, because people who leave such comments are only looking for a reaction from you.

Unfortunately, one side effect of this is that when someone complains about a nasty comment left on their blog or whatever, they often get a response like, “Oh, that’s not even worth thinking about. They’re just a troll. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

This response is certainly well-intentioned, and people who make it are generally trying to reassure the targeted person that the nasty comment doesn’t mean anything. However, there are several problems with it, and with the whole “Don’t feed the trolls” concept in general.

First of all, if someone’s upset about getting a nasty comment, don’t delegitimize their emotions. Feeling crappy when someone says something mean to you is a completely “normal” human thing, trust me. When someone does this in a public place (i.e. the internet) and in response to something you’ve worked hard on (a blog post, a YouTube video), it’s even more understandable that you’d feel crappy about it.

“Delegitimization” in this case refers to making people feel like their emotions aren’t legitimate–that they shouldn’t have them, or that they should just “get over” them rather than letting them run their course. That’s rarely what anyone means to do when they say things like “That’s not a big deal” and “That’s not even worth being upset over,” but that’s the effect such statements tend to have.

Furthermore, I’m no longer sure that “Don’t feed the trolls” is always the best response. True, you’re probably not going to change the person’s mind if you respond to their nasty comment. But something I’ve heard from many fellow activists is that when you write–and especially when you argue in a public forum–you’re not necessarily trying to change the mind of someone who holds the opposite position as you. Rather, you’re hoping to grab the attention of the onlooker who hasn’t really made up their mind yet, and who can definitely be swayed by a well-articulated argument.

And that’s assuming that people never change their minds once they’ve made them up, which, sometimes, they do. I’ve changed plenty of minds, and I’m really just starting to find my groove as an activist/writer.

I’ve also heard the argument that responding to nasty comments (or allowing them out of moderation, period) somehow “legitimizes” what they’re saying. First of all, I disagree that the mere act of responding to a comment makes that comment more “legitimate” regardless of the nature of your response. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek, so for me, responding to an attack is what comes naturally.

This attitude also presupposes that trolling comments are completely arbitrary, and that there’s nothing behind them other than a single person’s desire to be an asshole. That’s rarely the case. For instance, take the trolliest comment of all: “tits or gtfo,” which is often directed by men at women posting on the internet. If you dig a big deeper, you can use that meme to understand the culture that pervades certain male-dominated spaces on the internet. In these spaces–Reddit and 4chan are two noteworthy examples–men often view women as good for only one thing.

In these cases, deleting nasty comments rather than leaving them up and responding can be counterproductive. For instance, take this example, which some of my friends and I actually watched unfold yesterday. A female volunteer for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) offered her help to one of the organization’s affiliates and was met with vile sexism. Publicizing this helps explain how sexism continues to be a problem in the secular community and leads us into a discussion of what can be done about it. (Sidenote: see the comments thread of that blog post for a great conversation about how to deal with nasty comments.)

And the upside in this situation is that people jumped into the original thread and challenged the guy who was being an asshole, and he ultimately apologized. That never would’ve happened if the people who challenged him had just shrugged and thought, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

All that said, there are certainly right and wrong ways to respond to nasty comments on the internet. Responding with anger (or, worse, hurt feelings) is exactly the kind of “feeding” that trolls actually do thrive on. The best responses are confident, snappy, and/or humorous, and show that the troll can’t get to you. One of the best comebacks I’ve ever seen was made by Alex Gabriel of the Heresy Club; someone commented, “i was searching google for circle jerk and ended up here,” and Alex responded, “Oh dear, that’s unfortunate. I can link you to some excellent porn if you’d prefer.”

Or, as my friend Kate, another badass writer and activist, says, “No, I will not feed the trolls. I will fucking trounce them and make them look like public idiots.”

None of this is to say that you should respond to nasty comments. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this sort of thing, and methodically demolishing mean-spirited arguments takes patience and energy that not everyone has all of the time. I’m merely suggesting that we should reexamine the cliche that one should never respond to trolls, not that everyone should do so all of the time.

Blogging (and other creative internet pursuits) can be exhausting and thankless. Do what feels right to you. And try not to end up like this infamous guy from xkcd:

In Defense of Cynicism

I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.

According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).

While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.

Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.

I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.

But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.

So who’s the real cynic?

Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.

But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.

Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.

Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.