Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Difference is Better Than Yours

The drive to conform and enforce conformity pervades every human culture. Such behaviors strengthen in-group bonds and foster cooperation. They were vital to the survival of our ancestors and still play a role in keeping our societies functional. However, impersonal social forces can harm as well as help. Excessive norm enforcement stifles creativity and inhibits communication/cooperation with out-groups.

"Why not try to see things from a different angle?"
For various reasons, I spent much of my childhood unable to conform in several key areas. No amount of effort ever succeeded in making me 'normal' to my peers. I learned that attempting to conform in certain areas was pointless. More importantly, I learned that conforming was optional.

Even though some of my barriers to conformity were subsequently removed by relocation and medicine, I never felt 'normal'. The sense of 'otherness' had become a part of my identity. I felt no desire to fit in or stand out. Ridicule had little effect on my behavior because I was long used to enduring it for traits I could not change.

I gravitate toward open-minded and tolerant friends, usually of the 'geeky' set. That is not to say that all geeks are open-minded and tolerant, or that non-geeks cannot possess those qualities. However, I do think that geeks are more likely to share my experiences with conformity, and to regard its enforcement with some degree of skepticism.

Ironically, geekdom has become its own in-group, with its own set of norms to enforce.

Some years ago, a meme called 'The Geek Hierarchy' enjoyed some popularity. It was organized like a flowchart, and showed the order in which groups of geeks (e.g. video gamers or science fiction fans) considered themselves less geeky than other groups (e.g. roleplaying gamers or Trekkies). I instantly and violently disagreed with it. I have since realized that I failed comprehend the humor of that chart because I considered 'geeky' a positive trait. The chart was satirizing an attitude alien to my mind: "I'm normal, but those guys are weird!"

In the intervening years, 'geek' (and associated words) has been fully reclaimed to mean something positive. This has not stopped people from trying to stratify geekdom by what they consider 'cool', however. You are a geek if you like this field/fandom/activity, but a dork if you like that field/fandom/activity. Trekkies are cool, Furries are not, and Science forbid you should say a good word about the Star Wars prequels! In my mind, this means buying into the conformity game that made us outcasts to begin with, and that we banded together to escape.

Perhaps it makes me quixotic or contrary, but I fight this trend wherever I see it. If norm enforcement is inevitable, then why not enforce the virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance? One of the great strengths of geek culture has always been difference, and marginalizing our subcultures for their difference diminishes us all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Left-Handed Compliment

I am one-third of the way through my year-long project in handedness. For the last four months, I have consciously used my non-dominant left hand to perform dominant-handed tasks wherever possible. This experience has given me a bit more patience, a new appreciation for how our hands work together, and--unexpectedly--a certain joy in writing things by hand.

The tasks we typically perform with the non-dominant hand are often just as complex as dominant-handed ones. As I struggle to manipulate objects with my left hand, my right hand must learn to position the objects being manipulated. It sounds simple, but this project has proven equally challenging for both hands. Even something as simple as knotting shoelaces takes some concentration as my oh-so-dextrous right hand fumbles with holding the correct loop in the correct location for the left hand to thread.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?!"
Often, when I tell someone I am left-handed for the year, their first question is, "Even when writing?!" I actually found that a relatively easy transition. It still takes me almost twice as long to write with my left hand than with my right. This might be a bigger problem if I handwrote more than a dozen characters in the course of the average day.

Last week, a customer asked me to label a number of items for her, and I did so with my new-found deliberation. She was, as it turned out, in a hurry to get somewhere, but said nothing as I went to work with a Sharpie. When I had finished, she burst out in effusive praise of my penmanship, calling it 'spectacular', among other things.

Having learned to read and write English during a summer-long crash-course as a teenager, I do not have what most people would consider 'spectacular' handwriting. I favor unremarkable block print, ideal for filling out forms that give you too much space for date of birth and too little for address. To this day, I only know enough cursive to sign my own name.

I might have asked her what she found so spectacular about my blocky letters, but she was in a hurry to get somewhere and left me mystified. Was she a pharmacist, inured to abysmal standards of legibility? Perhaps she noticed that I had paid a great deal of attention to writing and thought it deserved reward? Did she just like praising people? Where was she when my high school English teacher called my handwriting a 'disgrace' in front of the class, threatening to fail me unless turned in my next assignment in cursive?

Up until then, I had only ever been complimented on my penmanship while studying Japanese at university. Sensei was delighted with my handwriting, especially when we got to kanji. Kanji are logograms borrowed from Chinese, which is my native language. Penmanship had always been my weakest subject in Taiwan, but it did not take much proficiency to outshine the American students, who had to learn an entirely novel script.

In any case, the lady's praise for my left-handed writing--however unexpected--awakened in me a kind of wonder at the intricacies of vision, thought, and movement involved in writing anything by hand. Meditative writing is, for me, no longer confined to the realm of brush calligraphy (which I practice sometimes, however poorly). Every time I take up a pen now, I remember that the whole phenomenon of writing is...well, pretty spectacular.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Love is Love (Unless I Find it Gross)

Most people express a powerful, reflexive disgust at the idea of incest, even if all other aspects of the relationship in question are ethically acceptable. This belief in the 'wrongness' of incest is strongly conditioned and rarely questioned. Being the skeptical sort, I just cannot leave it alone.

The offspring of close blood relations have an elevated risk for inheriting genetic disorders, since consanguinous parent have a higher-than-average chance carrying the same autosomal recessive traits. However, incest taboos/laws in most places predate the science of genetics as we understand it today. As well, modern Western society condones relationships between fertile, unrelated persons who carry genetic disorders while condemning even non-reproductive incestuous relationships. Given the above, I think it is fair to assume that--on the societal level, at least--incest taboos cannot be attributed solely to concern for the health of offspring.

One psychological explanation for the near-ubiquity of the incest taboo is the Westermark effect, which holds that children develop sexual aversion to people with whom they cohabitate--regardless of consanguinity--from birth to about age six. Demographic studies support this hypothesis, but the phenomenon is not all that well understood. Nevertheless, most humans are strongly repelled by the idea of sexual contact with first-degree relatives.

It seems strange to extend a personal aversion (no matter how common, no matter what the cause) to other people. However, there is adequate precedence for the development of sexual taboos based on the preferences of the majority rather than any systematic ethical consideration. Homosexuality is one such example.

Sociologists argue that the homosexuality taboo has its roots in the reliance of primitive human groups on reproductive viability. In a modern context, however, homophobia seems largely motivated by personal disgust. Straight homophobes find the idea of coupling with someone of the same sex unappealing, and conclude that anyone who enjoys it must be a pervert (quoth my brother, "Why would anyone want to do 'that'?!"). Gay or bisexual homophobes internalize pressures generated by social/religious/legal prohibitions as well as homophobic peers, and develop a reaction formation to avoid confronting what they see as an undesirable trait in themselves.

As a society, we have begun to accept that 'I find it gross' is not an ethically sound argument for the persecution of those different from ourselves. When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), some commentators feared that the ruling would lead to the legitimization other sexual relations hateful to their eyes. Attempts to overturn polygamy and incest laws have subsequently failed--in the latter case, on the basis of potential harm to unborn offspring. I find that argument startling in a culture so gun-shy about anything resembling eugenics.

Non-reproductive incest between consenting adults is a victimless crime, but it can put someone in jail for up to 20 years in parts of United States. Even inbreeding, while unwise and unfortunate, is effectively little different from non-incestuous reproduction by persons carrying genetic disorders. Image the furor that would result from the passage of a law forbidding marriage or sex between carriers of cystic fibrosis!

Justice means justice for everyone, regardless of how much we revile them or their actions. That is why we permit the Westboro Baptist Church to spew hatred in front of mourners, as little as we may like their message. A free and just society should allow sex between consenting adults, including homosexuality, non-monogamy, prostitution and yes, incest. The price of admission is dealing with other people's personal choices--even if we cannot imagine why anyone would want to do 'that', even if we think it is unwise, and even if we find it gross.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Game Masters All

My favorite tabletop RPG (Mage: the Ascension) gives players the power to alter the game setting in fundamental ways. Although the game master--or 'storyteller', to use White Wolf's lingo--still has the final say, players wield a stupendous amount of power compared to 'traditional' RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

Eight of Wands
Mage does give the GM tools to keep overly ambitious players in check. Seriously, there is a mechanic called 'Hubris'. However, I have the fortune of GMing for a group of very cooperative players in that game. Their eagerness to portray PCs in a balanced and immersive fashion gives me a lot of freedom to world-build with them rather than around them.

I allow the players to contribute, both knowingly and unknowingly, in and out of character, to the shared reality of the game. I incorporate elements of the PCs' machinations and the players' wild speculations into the story--sometimes directly, sometimes retroactively, and sometimes in barely recognizable form. In effect, this inflicts a limited version of the Bard's Tongue flaw on every single character.

As I do this more and more, I realize that I will eventually hit a wall, which is the fundamental structure of a game like Mage--and most other tabletop RPGs--that separates GMs from players. Every now and then I halfheartedly investigate game systems that either distribute GM responsibilities (e.g. Prime Time Adventures) or have no GM at all (e.g. Narrative Cage Match), but so far I have not found exactly what I want.

What exactly do I want? I want a fully collaborative storytelling game system where each participant is both a game master and a player. The Narrative Cage Match system for the game Patheon is fairly close in concept, being a kind of themed Exquisite Corpse with dice and counters. Its mechanics, however, are centered on competition and scoring, and gameplay seems heavily reliant on the scenarios (essentially modules) presented in the rulebook. I am looking for something a bit more free-form than that, but not so free-from that it devolves into the Oldest Game.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Help Me Take This Mask Off

I visited my grandmother the day I turned eighteen. It was the first time I had been back to Taiwan after five years in the States. The trip was a gift from my parents for getting a full scholarship to university, or so they said. I had wanted to go much earlier, but there was no point arguing with them.

It was a sweltering summer afternoon in Taipei, and my cousin Erica took me on the MRT to a corner of the city I rarely visited in my childhood. The hospice center was clean and dim, its main room occupied by elderly patients in wheelchairs watching some television drama. A middle-aged caretaker guided us through a maze of partitions to where my grandmother lay strapped to a bed.

"Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes."
He explained that she could no longer move, see, or speak, and her hearing had deteriorated. We had come at a good time, however, as she was often awake in the afternoon. He put a hand on her shoulder and shook her gently, saying her grandchildren had come to see her, then left us.

Erica had to nudge me forward. Finally, I took my grandmother's rigid, claw-like hand, leaned close to her ear, and said I was back. I told her I had graduated high school, and would be going to college soon. I told her she raised me well, and did not need to worry about me. I told her I was sorry I did not get to see her earlier.

Her eyes did not focus on me, but as I spoke she started to cry. Erica told me that it happened sometimes, that it meant she knew I was there. She had no other means of communicating.

We stayed with her for a while, and she wept until she drifted off to sleep. I followed Erica back out into the sun-baked street. I felt like I was underwater, as if everything came to me from a great distance. Even the heat and humidity of a Taipei summer could not banish the sense of disconnect. It was the first time I felt the vast numbness that passes for my grief, but it would not be the last.

Because the progression of Parkingson's Disease had been frightfully quick for my grandmother, I do not think that either she or her doctors thought she would hang on for so long, forlorn and cut off from the world. I will never know if she wished for death in her final years of darkness. If we could have known then what she wanted, we would have done it; but she could only cry.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Twilight Sparkle is only obliquely connected to this post.
"I don't like being labeled."

What do we really mean when we say that? I can think of three major motivations for expressing that sentiment, or some variation of it: concern about possible misclassification, conflation of group membership with self-identity, or general wariness of labels.

Whatever our stance on classifying people, just about everyone dislikes being misidentified. Of course, strangers or casual acquaintances often have no way of knowing certain things about us. For example, people often assume I am gay because I have a male partner when I am, in fact, bisexual (the phenomenon of bisexual erasure may also affect this in some instances, but I am referring to people with no access to any information about my sexuality other than my present relationship).

Conflating group membership and self-identity is similar, but more subtle. Group membership often matches self-identity, and many people consider them one and the same. If there is a discrepency between them, we might feel as though we have been misclassified, even if that is not the case. For example, I am a citizen and resident of the United States, which makes me a member of a group called 'Americans'. However, I did not grow up in the USA, and do not identify strongly with the culture thereof. I do not really think of myself as an 'American', even though I am one by most relevant definitions.

Some people just do not like labels in general, even accurate ones that harmonize their their senses of self. I suspect there are many psychological reasons for this. People who grow up enduring social torment as outsiders--'weirdos', 'nerds', etc.--might reject any kind of label. Some argue that labeling is a kind of objectification, a way to reduce people to stereotypes. I do not really think we need an example here, but for the sake of symmetry, I match all of the common criteria for the label 'brony'.

The nature of the human cognitive process inclines us to classify everything, including people. That does not make it good or bad in itself, just nearly inevitable--at least given our present level of technological sophistication. We almost certainly all do it, whether we realize it or not. The biggest (and perhaps only) problem with a sentiment like "I don't like being labeled" is that it sets standards for other people that we ourselves probably cannot meet.

I think of labeling not as reducing someone to stereotypes, but linking someone to concepts that are helpful in thinking or communicating about them. These include physical descriptors, location (both in cyberspace and meatspace), interests, cultural/subcultural identification, connection to other acquaintances, and so on. Maybe I only see it that way because I rarely feel uncomfortable with being labeled myself (with the exception of misclassification, which I am working on).

Or maybe I am overthinking this, just a little.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Queendom Come

Flowers in the Mirror (鏡花緣), written in the early 1800s, is now broadly considered a classic of satire--a kind of Chinese Gulliver's Travels. It critiqued bureaucracy, racism, and patriarchy, among other things, all while telling a charming Odyssey-esque tale of adventure in unknown lands. As a proto-geek growing up with little access to modern sci-fi and fantasy (except through Japanese animation), I adored that book.

Women playing go. Surely the patriarchy is doomed!
The protagonists' journey to the 'Country of Women' left an especially deep impression on my young mind. The Country of Women was much like dynastic China, but with all the gender roles reversed. Women wore masculine clothing, owned property, conducted business, and waged war. Men wore feminine clothing, did housework, had few rights, and generally submitted to their women.

Inevitably, the female King takes a liking to one of the male protagonists, and insists on marrying him. Held captive in the royal palace, he is forcibly prepared for his wedding. Servants scrub him clean, pumice away his callouses, pierce his ears, bind his feet, and so on. Eventually, one of his companions secures his release by performing a task for the King, but not before the man-bride-to-be is thoroughly humbled.

Even as a child, I found the message fairly self-evident: it is unjust to treat an entire sector of society as lesser beings. By then, Chinese society had long since abolished practices like foot-binding, and no longer treated women as chattel. Common wisdom, however, still regarded women as the weaker sex. Parents hoped for sons and lamented daughters, and my grandmother was seen as uncommonly courageous--but probably foolish--for leaving her husband.

My own life was full of strong, independent, and educated women. My grandmother was a voracious reader, and would have gone to university if not for the Chinese civil war. My aunt was a teacher--the most respected profession in Chinese tradition. My mother went to the ROC Military Academy, ran marathons, and regularly jumped out of 'perfectly good airplanes' (as my father liked to say).

So it seemed obvious to me from a very young age that viewing women as 'lesser' than men was patently ridiculous. Yet whenever I pointed this out--even to the strong women in my life--I was dismissed. It seemed as though adults regarded the whole idea of equality between the sexes as a non-issue either because it was unattainable, or already attained. In other words, they accepted the status quo, sexism and all.

I thought that things would be different when I came to the States, the land of promise that so many in Taiwan believed it to be. Americans talk a big game about gender equality and love to politicize it, but there is just as much sexism in the US as in Taiwan, if not more. Feminism is a far bigger phenomenon in the West, but as a movement it seems walled in by group politics.

The Nightsisters of Dathomir will kill your family in style.
Fictitious matriarchies have continued to fascinate me, not because I think it would be a good or bad idea in real life, but because they remind us to reexamine social constructs that we take for granted. Most of these matriarchies--the Amazons of Greek legend, the Drow of Dungeons and Dragons, Angel One in Star Trek, Dathomir and Hapes in Star Wars, et al.--are dystopian to some degree. Some serve to point out the injustice of sexist patriarchies, and others are in themselves sexist commentaries  on the dangers of giving women power.

Because I cannot keep up with the sociological theories or jargon of women's studies, I hesitate to call myself a feminist. Nevertheless, I hold the same conviction now that I did when I first read about the Country of Women: that no society can be truly just until it sees its members as people first. Everything else--tall, short, male, female, yellow, white--merely serves as description.