September 8, 2020

The internet is not forever

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 8:00 pm by chavisory

“A few of the younger Symphony members…remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” -Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

A few years ago now, I was up very late, sipping bourbon, listening to the Cubs’ World Series-winning game, and trying to resurrect autistic community history from the dim corners of the internet.

And it was a frustrating and grueling experience. It was Autistic History Month, so founded by Maxfield Sparrow in 2013, and I think people had been realizing for a while that our community collective memory only went back about five years and that it was starting to be a serious vulnerability. (Honestly it still is.)

On one hand, it was certainly a good thing that so many people were being newly diagnosed as young adults, and sometimes as older ones, and deciding to be openly autistic online. On the other, there was no obvious way to direct this huge influx of people starving for community to the resources and information that did already exist, and so there was a whole lot of reinvention of the wheel going on. Neurodiversity.com, which had served that function for many of us who entered the community in the very early 2000’s, was already an inactive archive by that point, and while the references it contained were progressive for the time in which it was founded, many were out of date even just a decade later.

Twice I queried social media for people’s favorite “older” autistic blog or writing, defining “older” as being from before 2010.

Both times, nobody could name a source that wasn’t Neurodiversity.com, Ballastexistenz, or something by Jim Sinclair. And not to denigrate the importance of those voices, but there was so much more than that.

A friend posted a list of a dozen important autistic writers and activists from the early days after the neurodiversity movement moved online in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and asked how many of them other people recognized. I knew who six were.

Multiple, currently prominent activists knew of none of them.

I’m using the autistic community as an example a lot in this post, but this isn’t exclusively about autism or the autistic community; that’s just where I’ve been consistently involved enough to notice and be affected by long-term dynamics. I suspect similar issues may be at play in other internet-centric communities.

*

One thing I feel has happened—and this may well be the subject of a whole other post—is that many people, especially if they’re relatively new to the community, are under the impression that autistic Twitter is effectively the online autistic community. And it’s not. Not only is it not, even now, but before Twitter was anywhere near as big a platform, before it was a thing at all, the character of the online autistic community was entirely different.

It’s different for both better and worse. The easily discoverable hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics make it incredibly easy for newbies to find other autistic people on Twitter and where to ask questions. It used to be harder, or you had to be extraordinarily lucky, to stumble upon the blogs that served as cornerstones of the community. Even while there are a lot of things I don’t like about it as much, the character and quality of conversations on Twitter are probably more accessible for some people. (And less so for others.)

The point, though, is that it’s fundamentally different.

*

I’m an Oregon Trail generation kid. Almost anyone my age or younger has almost certainly been lectured ad infinitum about how “The internet is forever” in well-intended warnings about being cautious in what we say and do online.

But the older I get, the more I find the internet is actually surprisingly vulnerable to human frailty.

There is so much writing that is just gone. So much community, so many of the best, most constructive and compassionate conversations happened in the comments sections of blogs that have been taken down or locked by their owners. Not just the content of those blogs, but the entire culture of the way people formed relationships around them, is gone or radically altered.

Servers are gone. People stopped being able to pay for web hosting. Or got tied up in life, illness, parenting, or more offline activism or scholarship and don’t have time to maintain archives and keep links updated. Neurodiversity.com is still there as an archive, but about half its links are broken. (I’m not saying this to blame Kathleen. Life happens.)

People died. Friendships imploded. People got burned out and simply disappeared off the internet, and unless there was an active effort to preserve and archive it, their work often followed a few years after, if only because they stopped paying for their web domain.

Some of that world made it into the Wayback Machine if you know exactly how to look for it, but a lot of it didn’t.

*

For a couple of years before I started this blog, I was a frequent commenter at Salon.com. I was doing a lot of temp work at the time and it was a way to pass the 9-hour days stuck at a reception desk. Debates in which every single comment was a worthwhile essay unto itself, frequently superior to the original article, would wind on for days. I easily spent hundreds of thousands of words there and God alone knows how many hours of my life. And I don’t regret it; I learned a lot about the kind of blogging I wanted to do there. But I had pretty significantly curtailed the time I spent there by midway through 2010, partly because I had just grown not to enjoy what the culture there had become, partly because I was deliberately spending my time here instead, having realized that with the amount of effortful writing I did there, I could have something of my own to show for it. But at some point Salon revamped their account and comment section structures. I didn’t sign up for a new account or I might’ve tried but found it onerous and before long I was locked out of my old one. And I lost access to all of it.

Then WordPress itself a few years ago either suffered a glitch or changed a setting—I never succeeded in getting an answer—and users lost all of the data about how many times posts had been shared on other platforms like Facebook.

One post of mine had been shared over 20,000 times. The counters were eventually reset, and that post logged another 8,000 shares or so before the counter disappeared again and stayed gone this time.

I have no idea whether WordPress lost the data, or still has it but decided to stop providing it to users without premium accounts.

More recently, Tumblr attempted to purge its platform of adult content [Content note: Linked story contains discussion of sexually explicit material, including child pornography] in an event popularly known as the “Tiddy Ban.” Many erotica-focused blogs were removed entirely, others were allowed to remain but were made unsearchable and dashboard-accessible only. And countless other users had individual offending posts removed from our blog archives utterly without recourse. Over the ensuing months, many of the confiscated posts were restored upon appeal, having been judged to have been wrongfully snared by deeply faulted screening algorithms.

But one of my posts, to which I have never been able to regain access (despite several other much sexier posts having been returned), was a long and multi-layered discussion of executive dysfunction and diagnostic disparities among autistic women and the politics of self-diagnosis.

Whether because the author of the article I linked to works as a stripper and said so in her bio, or because the preview image for the article depicts the bare knee of a young woman sitting on a bed, I’ll probably never know. I’ve protested multiple times to Tumblr staff, but at this point don’t hold out much hope of getting it back. It had over 1,000 notes in multiple reblog threads.

People who’ve lost work in previous fandom purges have similar and far, far worse stories.

*

I’ve been rewatching the X-Files over the past couple of years. And it’s a different experience than it was during the original run. At least partly because, watching with subtitles turned on, I catch at least 50% more information from dialogue than I did then. But also because watching episodes in close time proximity instead of spaced out week by week, or multiple weeks during holidays and production breaks, or months during the summer, or years, like between the end of the original series and the second movie and the revival, brings out whole different sets of resonances and parallels and sneakily revealed information than what was obvious the first time through.

And I have so many questions about whether anyone else has noticed them, or wants more back story about the same things I do, and while there are XF communities on Tumblr and Twitter now, they’re hugely dominated by younger, newer viewers and overwhelmingly MSR-obsessed (which is not a sin, obviously, and I’m also starting to find exceptions to this) and gifset-driven. There’s not a ton of in-depth discussion of other issues. I was a dedicated lurker of the AOL message boards circa 1994-1998, and what I’d really like is to go back to some of the boards I didn’t follow then and see if these were in fact things that people were talking about at the time even if they weren’t the things I was seeking out discussion about then. Those boards are lost to history, though, or at least to anyone without deep access to AOL’s servers and archives.

To some extent you can tell from the fanfic of the time what other fans were preoccupied by—Gossamer and a couple other archives of long-form fic are still there. But as far as speculation about any subject that didn’t make it into a lot of fanfic, those discussions, if any, have been made completely inaccessible to any average present-day fan.

I can’t tell you the number of posts or comments important to me that I thought were safe in my bookmarks, only to try to go back and find a blog taken down or locked or a domain abandoned.

In a couple of cases, authors have been kind enough to send me files to keep for myself of work they decided to take offline. But I’ve started just downloading or printing out hard copies of anything particularly important to me before it disappears in the first place.

Growing up when the internet was a brand new and barely understood resource to most families, we were told “The internet is forever” in caution against revealing personal information online by elders who mostly didn’t understand it very well or how it would change over time, and now we’re the ones telling parents, and especially parents of disabled kids, the same thing when it comes to putting photos or information about their children online.

And I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of the risk of just how unpredictable and wide-ranging the impact of personal information or depictions of children in private and vulnerable moments released on the internet can be. I deeply believe that parents should think twice about this.

But the irony is that in too earnestly believing certain warnings about the internet, we’ve grown to trust it too much. In some ways, the internet, far from being forever, has actually proven a remarkably poor medium for preserving cultural memory.

It turns out that the cultural resources and internet communities we value and want preserved don’t just last without attention and work and love.

June 16, 2020

Reminders of joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:02 pm by chavisory

I know I haven’t talked much about this in a while, but just as a reminder, I also run a small side blog, Reckoning of Joy, which I started shortly after the 2016 election and pledged to keep running for the duration of the Trump presidency (and maybe longer, who knows), the purpose of which is to keep track of the progressive and civil rights victories achieved in spite of the current administration. For keeping our collective spirits up, but also for educating each other about how and why these things are and can be achieved, even now. And we’ve seen victories happen thanks to activism and advocacy on every scale from local school board resolutions Supreme Court decisions.

Particularly as the repercussions of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery continue to snowball, I would love to hear about it if your cities or states have instituted reforms that maybe haven’t made national news yet. The blog itself has a submit button, or you can e-mail me at the address for this blog in the About section.

I hope everyone is keeping as safe and well as possible!

May 15, 2020

Television culture and temporal connectedness in social isolation

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:11 pm by chavisory

There’s something I’ve noticed, and didn’t expect at all, since the start of the pandemic and my city’s quarantine/social isolation orders, and I’m curious as to whether other people are sensing it, too.

But it feels like there has been a subtle but meaningful return to a media culture around needing to be in a particular place to either be online or turn on the television at a particular time for a show or event, compared to the last several years in which more and more of our media consumption has moved to on-demand streaming formats that allow us to watch programs whenever is convenient for us and not only at their scheduled air time.

I first realized it when I was out walking in the park late one evening, and looking at my phone realized I had about 20 minutes to get home to get home, get food, use the bathroom, and get situated so I didn’t miss the start of an event I was looking forward to after a couple of weeks of limited social contact, that it felt like the old days of faithfully planning to be home by 8:00 on Friday nights to watch the X-Files.

Between musicians doing live performances from their living rooms, online worship services, Zoom meetups, and also just chat dates with friends, it seems like there are more online events that we have to plan to be available for because they won’t be archived or readily available to catch up on later than I’ve been used to, and it’s a substantial shift back in time in how I interact with media.

And I realize these things did exist before this, and I rarely partook of them since I was working at live events most evenings; I do also wonder whether I’m just noticing it more now that these things comprise the entirety of everyone’s social life. There are no work conflicts, no going out to see a show and knowing you can catch up later on whatever you missed. It’s happening when it’s happening. And the fact that those things happen when they happen, and won’t just always be there, being a recurring fact that helps structure the time of a day or a week.

Before March of this year, I actually do not know for sure when the last time was that I had planned to be home, or in a particular location, in order to watch a scheduled program on television at a particular time. I think it might have been for a Game of Thrones season premiere in the summer of 2017, with the rest of the production staff of the summer theater festival where I was working at the time.

Before that, the last game of the 2015 World Series?

And before that, I have no idea. I actually haven’t owned a television since I graduated from college. Virtually everything that I watch now, I access through Netflix or other on-demand streaming services where I can access whatever I need days or weeks or years after its release.

Even during the final season of Game of Thrones, when I was tuning in to the latest episode on Sunday nights so I could discuss it with coworkers Monday morning, there was no pressure to do so at 9:00 PM EST on the dot or else I was going to miss the beginning of the episode; I could take my time making dinner and sit down to watch whenever I felt like it without being in danger of missing any vital information.

Whereas, when I was a teenager, before DVR (which we never had at home), before on-demand streaming, before I learned how to program a VCR to avoid that kind of stress after several high-anxiety close calls, if you missed an episode of something during its air time, at best you got to watch it several months later during summer reruns.

And as much as I will not miss so much about this period of time, I kind of like it? Even as I hate the audiovisual mess that marks so much group interaction on Zoom and can’t wait to get to go to church for real again, I like the sense that a media event is meaningful because it is happening right in this moment, and won’t be there later, and a bunch of people have shown up on time to experience it together. There’s a sense of temporal connectedness about it that I haven’t felt in pop culture in a long time and hadn’t realized I was feeling the loss of. I suspect it’s one of the things making me feel a little bit more grounded in time than I have been, and certainly more than I expected to feel while I’ve had no work schedule for an extended period of time.

I wouldn’t mind if we kept a little bit more of it after all of this.

April 28, 2020

The beautiful and tragic world of “Tales from the Loop”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by chavisory

When I was in creative writing class in high school, whenever we were stumped for a writing prompt or idea, we would be sent to Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book composed of haunting and richly detailed, but disconnected, pencil drawings.

Even before I knew that the new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop, was actually based on a different series of paintings (those of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, with whom I was not familiar before), it reminded me of what it would feel like if somebody had created something like a coherent narrative encompassing all of the images of Van Allsburg’s book.

Tales from the Loop tells the interwoven stories of several families who live in a town, never named, above an underground experimental facility working with advanced, quasi-metaphysical technology, and the repercussions on all of their lives of their interaction with the cast-off detritus of the research station. Episodes can be understood as standalone stories, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made to shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits (which many of the more negative reviews have accused it of being a rip-off of), but what it feels more like to me is if Ray Bradbury and Stephen King teamed up to write Lake Woebegone Days, with the emotional tenor of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Others have called it a “gentler” take on sci-fi, and while that’s not quite right, either, it does do something I haven’t quite seen before, which is to plunge us into a world of strange and advanced technology, and then not engage with or explicate the theoretical science of it almost at all, in favor of dedicating the storytelling almost entirely to the emotional fallout of characters’ decision-making about it. The result is often anything but gentle, though it is relentlessly humanistic and emotionally immediate.

One aspect of the storytelling I particularly appreciated is that there is no sense whatsoever, at any point, that anything has to work out right in the end.

Because the thing is, that is not actually a rule in the real world. Things can be fucked up and stay fucked up, beyond the end of an episode, or a season, or forever. Things can go wrong that can never truly be made right.

Even much grimmer and darker shows like the Walking Dead maintain a sense, which ebbs and flows like a tide, that eventually, inevitably, something has to go right for these characters. But this show just has none of that, a lack which allows it to maintain an outrageous degree of suspense for a show so emotionally- and character-driven, and occasionally makes it one of the most terrifying and devastating things I’ve ever seen on television. But the terror comes not from threats posed by disruptive technology or supernatural, external evil or civilization-ending catastrophe, but just from the small and selfish ways in which humans fail each other.

And that’s not to say that nothing good or beautiful ever happens in this story; it does. But every time it does, it’s the consequence of a character proactively, and sometimes painfully, choosing right. Nothing ever feels inevitable about it, and for that, it’s all the more wondrous.

Most of the characters find themselves in trouble not only when they fumble around with mysterious technology they don’t understand (although definitely that, too), but when they attempt to use that technology as a shortcut or escape hatch from being honest with each other or themselves. The thesis of the show isn’t anti-technology, but things go badly when characters try to use technology to evade the fundamental problems of being human. When they manage to make things better for each other is when they face their own deepest hearts and vulnerabilities.

March 26, 2020

On the surreal experience of reading an out-of-date Smithsonian magazine in November of 2019

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by chavisory

Every year for Christmas, for years and years, my grandmother gave me a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine rather than a more conventional present, and being a nerd with very little storage space, I appreciated this.

Being a nerd who also doesn’t have a lot of spare time, this gift also accumulated into quite the backlog of unread issues.

The last several months I’ve been attempting to commit to taking more mental downtime for myself, and also working on getting through my stack of unread Smithsonians, and so often while I’m cooking or waiting for water to boil, I’ll just choose one at random.

And that is how I came to be reading one night, standing in my kitchen, about NASA’s Journey to Mars project, whose first test flight would launch an unmanned capsule called the Orion beyond the moon and back, in the year 2018.

And for a second, it felt very seriously as if I had fallen through a wormhole or slipped into some kind of alternate timeline, or fallen asleep for too long and woken up in an unfamiliar future.

Because I remembered nothing, no media coverage or publicity whatsoever, about a test flight of an impending mission to Mars having been flown in the year 2018.

I checked the date on the cover: May of 2016.

So as late as the spring of 2016, we were roughly on track to be executing an eventually manned mission to Mars, in the foreseeable future.

It felt kind of like reading a sci-fi novel written decades ago, about all the stuff that was supposed to have been invented or accomplished by the year in which you’re currently reading the novel and laughing because that’s not what happened, only more unnerving and much less funny.

I wondered if it had still happened. Or whether NASA had had its budgets for things like this slashed, positions eliminated, development of the necessary science set back by decades?

Surely, if it had happened, it would have been bigger news? We’d all be talking about this, right?

Then again, maybe not. Given the situation.

Or maybe it was delayed not by budget cuts or political meddling, but just by normal engineering problems, and in the face of everything else, that was just never going to make the news and the whole thing slipped quietly out of collective consciousness, waiting for a better time.

The last couple of years virtually everyone I know has been walking around with this sense that time is broken. Too much is happening too fast to keep up with. We’re dealing with assimilating a volume of information basically unprecedented in human history, ecological events of inhuman proportion occurring on human timescales. We don’t know what day it is. We don’t know what happened this morning as opposed to last week. It feels like time is fractured, like something has gone very badly wrong on a fundamental level, but we could never prove it, only keep telling each other, “No, it didn’t used to be like this.”

Holding that magazine felt like holding hard evidence. Like having found a newspaper clipping from in alternate future.

Like a light left on, shining under the door back to the right one.

I wonder if that future is still there somehow.

If we could still get back.

*

(I did actually look up what’s going on right now with the Journey to Mars project, and while it’s not quite on schedule as laid out in the 2016 article, it is still progressing! In the summer of 2019, a second successful test of the Orion capsule’s Launch Abort system was completed, with the next milestone being to return astronauts to the moon!

“In effect, NASA successfully demonstrated that the Orion spacecraft’s LAS can outrun a rocket and pull its astronaut crew to safety in case something goes wrong during launch. As Kirasich indicated, the test is another milestone in the agency’s preparation for returning to the Moon and making the ‘Journey to Mars.'”)

September 6, 2018

Religious defiance and historical denial

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 3:51 pm by chavisory

religious meme[Image is a peaceful scene of stones forming a path across a waterway, flanked by bamboo and hanging lanterns. Text reads “A religious person will do what he is told…no matter what is right…whereas a spiritual person will do what is right…no matter what he is told…”]

Y’all know by now I basically live to rip facile nonsense like this to shreds, right?

This post is derived from a debate I had a little bit ago with a Facebook friend on the subject of this meme. I have, ad nauseam, pointed out the categorical falsehoods being committed by witticisms like this and the basic bigotries that they represent. It’s virtually a reflex. There are things I would so much rather be doing with my time, but I have a really hard time letting misrepresentations like this stand without comment.

Believe it or not, I am actually starting to feel like me doing that has, possibly, reached the limit of its utility.

But something else strikes me about this meme, which is its erasure of the role that religious communities have historically played in supporting and participating in civil disobedience, most memorably as far as American history goes in the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the abolitionist movement and in the Resistance to the Nazis in WWII in Europe. MLK, Jr. was a pastor. A Lutheran pastor in Germany led an assassination attempt on Hitler. A whole plethora of religiously-based organizations have been active in the fight for marriage equality, including pastors defying the rules of their own churches to perform marriages they could be defrocked for.

And, it being the case that we are currently reckoning with a situation in which Russian troll farms turn out to have massively infiltrated and manipulated internet leftist/social justice/activist networks with some devilishly clever misinformation campaigns…I do not take it for granted that that erasure is either coincidental or accidental.

When a basically source-less piece of internet jetsam seems to serve the purpose of alienating progressive communities from each other, even to the point of denying each other’s existence and of decades/centuries of calculated disobedience on the part of religious people…I would really question where it’s coming from, and who wants you to believe it and why.

Something we learned in biology classes, over and over again, was “form follows function.”

What’s the possible function of something like this? To reassure a certain number of people of their pre-existing convictions and prejudices, sure, but also to obscure the undeniable existence of religious disobedience to people who might not have knowledge of that history, for whatever reason.

A few months ago, there was, briefly, an occupation of an ICE facility here in Manhattan. And I wasn’t close to the planning or the groups leading the action, but I followed along on Twitter from the moment I heard of the occupation–about three days after it had apparently started–and went down to drop off snacks at one point and found a scant two dozen people there. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the building was closed for the weekend so it wasn’t a time of high likelihood of clashes with ICE personnel, police, or vehicles. Attendance looked to be higher at other times, judging from social media, but never even remotely reached the proportions of the Portland occupation, though NYC is a far larger city with no lack of activist-minded populace who turned out en masse for the airport protests in the wake of the first attempted travel ban and revelations that separated immigrant kids were being flown into LGA in the dead of night.

And I was confused to find there seemed to have been virtually no involvement of local progressive religious groups, which was incredibly odd in light of the fact that immigration justice is among the signature issues of several of them.

Why wouldn’t they have reached out to local religious communities who prominently work on this issue for signal boosting and support? Did they simply not know that those groups are involved in that work? Or that they even exist? Are they operating too much in an ideological cul-de-sac in other regards so that the possibility was rejected or never came up at all?

I don’t know; I’m speculating somewhat. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a mistake the Resistance can afford to keep making. It is possibly more crucial now than it has ever been in some of our remembered lifetimes that we use all of the moral solidarity and strength in numbers that we have available.

Here’s another example: A Tumblr blog, now known to have been an IRA-linked propaganda blog, commented on a tweet about three female medical students from India, Japan, and Syria, who completed their training as doctors in Philadelphia in 1885, to the effect that because they were women of color, we know nothing about them.

But we do. To the extent that these ladies were the subjects of the doctoral dissertation of someone who I actually know. The knowledge of their lives and accomplishments was actually being hidden from us by a purported leftist activist blog.

And I think there’s a real danger, too, in assuming that anyone who is simply wrong on the internet, or with whom we disagree about strategy, is a Russian bot. I don’t assume that this particular meme was the product of a Russian troll farm rather than just a regular internet denizen rebranding their own self-satisfied ignorance as enlightenment. Quite possibly the author of this little piece of misinformation meant nothing but to take a swipe at what they perceive as the purposeless dutifulness of religious folk. But when the primary function of a piece of rhetoric seems to be fracturing or inhibiting the formation of coalitions of progressive communities…

To deny the very existence of acts of defiance by religious people and the presence of religious people in movements of civil disobedience…

To deny the provenance of some of the most effective tactics of civil disobedience ever known…

To deny younger idealistic people the knowledge of who many of those who took part in those actions were, where to find them, and how to talk to them…

To specifically deny the agency of religious communities of color in moral decision-making in resisting oppression…

Then I also no longer assume innocent wrongheadedness over its being designed to do so.

[Updated to add: This is a great article about how personal faith informs even secular social justice organizing that I ran across after originally publishing this post.]

October 5, 2017

Invisible history

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 2:00 pm by chavisory

I started watching Westworld last week. In a scene in the first episode, one of the android characters, a “host” in the immersive Wild West-themed amusement park, has found a photograph in his field, discarded by a guest, depicting a woman in modern clothing standing in Times Square at night. Disturbed and confused, he shows it to his daughter, Dolores, but she’s not similarly affected (at least, not yet).

Lacking any possible context or way to make sense of what she sees, she can only say over and over again, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

She can’t process the possible existence of a whole reality that she has no framework at all in which to understand.

 

With the premieres recently of both Atypical and The Good Doctor, I was having a conversation about fictional representation of autistic characters–what we wish we saw more of, what we find intolerable.

And one of the things I have managed to put my finger on that unsettles me consistently, that leaves me unable to connect with a lot of the portrayals I see, is the tendency for autistic adults or near-adults to be portrayed as baffled, bumbling, almost complete naïfs about the non-autistic social world and its expectations and the realities of how things work.

As if, at the age of 18 or even older, they walked out their front door and encountered an overwhelming and often hostile world for the first time yesterday.

When, in reality, and unless we have been terribly, inappropriately isolated or sheltered (though often even then, often especially then), we’re actually well-acquainted with the fact of a world that doesn’t work terribly well for us, and we’ve been navigating it for a long time.

We aren’t dropped into our world for the first time in the opening teaser of a television episode.

A lot of writers and actors seem to be able to get their heads around what autism basically is, in terms of language, sensory, and social communication difficulties. But then it’s as if they don’t know, or can’t extrapolate to, the full range of experiences that autistic people actually live. That things have happened to us, and things have happened in certain ways for us all our lives, and those things have had consequences for who we become and who we are.

So, for instance, by the time we’re adults, we have made a lot of social mistakes and had to deal with the fallout.

We’ve often had to be responsible for ourselves in ways that other people our age haven’t, because adults haven’t been reliable sources of support. We’ve had to teach ourselves things that everyone else seems to just know.

We’ve had to be careful in ways that other people don’t and problem-solve for ourselves in ways most people haven’t.

We have to know things that most people don’t about navigating the non-autistic world. And we know more about what we don’t know than most people even realize there is to know.

We have to anticipate being mistreated or misunderstood almost constantly.

We have dealt with a lot of abuse, ostracism, isolation, loneliness, being disbelieved about our experiences and perceptions, and violation of our autonomy.

We’ve had to work harder to not just fall through the cracks of the world. We’ve also experienced uniquely intense beauty and joy, as well as many of the common experiences and challenges of growing up that most adolescents and young adults experience.

All of those things have impacts, besides that people learn and grow and are affected by their histories as they age. People become competent at dealing with the circumstances of their own lives.

 

And without that grounding in personal history, you’re left trying to construct a character’s personality around a diagnostic checklist, and you wind up with characters who are basically walking autism in some kind of imaginary pure state—without patterns of experience, without memory, resilience, or emotional connective tissue—who therefore have the social navigation skills of 6-year-olds no matter how long they’ve supposedly actually lived on this earth.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I started to suspect that this is actually what people are talking about when they say things like “But you don’t seem autistic.”

It’s not just that we don’t behave like children or that we don’t have the same “kind” of autism as a character they’re familiar with or don’t seem to occupy the same place on the spectrum as their own or someone else’s child.

It’s that the autistic characters they are used to seeing have no depth of experience.

They are people without history.

A growing number of people know children diagnosed with autism. But autistic adults are still overwhelmingly likely to be undiagnosed, or closeted, or both—if they’re not isolated from their communities in group homes or institutions or segregated workplaces, and many still are. So many people don’t really know autistic adults, or at least don’t know that they do. Their knowledge base of autistic people is still being drawn from children, or from fictional representations based on clinical knowledge of children.

And that leaves the reality of our life experiences, both positive and negative, and their impact kind of invisible. So if autistic people change or grow as people, or pick up skills we weren’t expected to, it must be because we overcame or outgrew autism, or “must be very high-functioning” in the first place…and not because we are capable of learning from our own experiences and the demands of our environment.

I speculated once (apparently in a comment now lost to the depths of the internet, sorry) that the myth of autism as developmental stagnation or eternal childhood, and a lot of “not like my child” rhetoric directed at autistic adults, stems largely from this inscrutability of what the passage from childhood to adulthood looks like for autistic people.

“They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them,” writes Rabbi Ruti Regan.

Most people just don’t have a framework of knowledge about the substance of our lived experience.

So it doesn’t look like anything.

 

A lot of the time, when autistic people complain that autistic characters are unrealistic, it’s presumed to be an issue of a character not representing the traits or experiences of a certain faction of the autistic community, and we get responses like “But one character can never represent all autistic people.”

But that isn’t the problem. It’s not that they’re not exactly like ourselves; it’s that they have no depth or complexity because they have no lived experience, because their creators didn’t know how to give them one.

Well-meaning non-autistic people frequently protest that “You aren’t only autism!” but it usually isn’t we who seem to think that we are only autism and not an intricate amalgam of our innate character traits, our strengths and weaknesses, our personal histories, our thoughts and desires and fears and embodied experiences of the world.

And yes, autism pervades all of that. But it doesn’t comprise our personalities in a vacuum.

Just because we’re new to many non-autistic people’s conception of the world, doesn’t mean we’re actually new to the world. We have histories, and we are affected, like all people, by those histories.

July 17, 2017

Allies and alienation

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , at 3:29 pm by chavisory

The last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time baffled and confused about many of the ways that activist communities talk to and about allies.

Until I realized that what “ally” means now…isn’t really what it meant, or what I took it to mean, when I was younger.

Around 10-15 years ago, in the contexts in which I was involved, “ally” had more of a connotation—or at least, I thought it did—of people or communities who were similarly marginalized making common cause, out of recognition that the prejudices against us worked similarly and had similar effects and implications, and that no one was truly free while anyone was not.

When I started having more contact with communities of activists again a few years ago, I was very shocked, for a while, to hear allies consistently spoken of with such disdain because that wasn’t my experience of the concept at all. I don’t know when things changed and “ally” came to mean something rather different.

Finally I started to suspect that this difference in experience as to the concept of allies may underlie a lot of miscommunication and strife, at least in part…

I see things like this, and I think…we may be talking about different things.

allies

Because when one group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t show any anger or resentment that might be difficult or unpalatable to clueless privileged people. Don’t be abrasive. Don’t raise your voice. Be unfailingly non-confrontational at all times. Never tell me I’m wrong.

And people who claim the identity of “ally,” but behave like that, exist. They do.

But when another group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t perpetrate the same forms of mistreatment, psychological abuse, and bigotry against other vulnerable people as both of you have already been injured by. Don’t recycle those very same dynamics into your own communities and belief structures. You can only hurt and alienate people that way who are already hurt and alienated.

 

I am not an ally*, but yes, I am alienated.

I mean, of course, you shouldn’t be able to alienate allies from their beliefs or support for your cause by not being nice enough because deeply-held beliefs about human rights shouldn’t be based on whether or not an arbitrary group of people is nice enough to you. It should be a matter of right and wrong. If a position on the human rights of a group of people is that easily shaken, it’s not a conviction, it’s just expedient.

So no, you should be able to alienate allies from their positions by not being “nice enough.”

But you can absolutely alienate people from wanting anything to do with you by being addicted to cruelty, by celebrating hatred, by re-enacting highly recognizable patterns of emotional abuse and coercion, by pursuing an agenda of upsetting people for the sheer sake of it, and by an alarming dedication to ends-justify-the-means reasoning.

These are the things that have alienated me from communities that I, at least in theory, belong to. I’ve been alienated by being told that other people know better than me what I think and what I feel and that I need to simply accept that. I’ve been alienated by demands not to use my own critical thinking or judgment or conscience, or to lie about my own life because that would make it more convenient to someone else’s politics. I’ve been alienated by gossip and smear campaigns and hypocrisy. I’ve been alienated by unwillingness to distinguish between missteps and malice and by embrace of the social control tactics of evangelical fundamentalism and outright abuser logic (“the fact that you’re defensive means you’re wrong so just admit it and apologize”).

I’ve been alienated by rules for allies that I can neither follow, nor expect anyone else to, not as an ally but as a human.

If I see women saying they hate men or that men are trash (and garnering social media accolades for it), that doesn’t make me any less dedicated to the equal rights of women. It just makes me profoundly sad. Because I thought we were supposed to be the people who didn’t devalue people for their gender or their bodies. I thought we were the people who didn’t celebrate hatred.

So when I hear you say those things, it doesn’t make me less committed to justice, it just makes me think your values are crap.

These are not issues of niceness to me, but of ethics and integrity and core values.

I don’t actually think I’m a particularly nice person and “niceness” doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. But civility does. Kindness does. Intellectual honesty does. Ethical consistency does. Freedom of conscience and of self-reflection does.

My values are not shaken. But yes, I am alienated.

So I can only imagine how people on the outside, looking at how we treat people and wondering whether they dare wade into engaging seriously with activism or issues of social justice, may feel.

I’m not “worried” about alienating “allies.” I know that the way we treat people has consequences.

I do not believe that the fact of fighting back against oppression, of being angry, of calling injustice what it is, makes us “just as bad” as our oppressors, but I am worried about how we undermine our own supposed values, when our communities turn out to be very, very willing to engage in the exact same modes of abuse and anti-individualism and authoritarian thinking as our oppressors. I think that what we are and are not willing to do matters.

I don’t believe that our rightful anger is hatred, but I see actual hatred being valorized and yes, I worry.

I am not worried about people who only want to be “allies” if it gets them enough brownie points; I am worried about vulnerable people seeking a social justice-oriented community and being told that the price of admission to being a decent person is to accept being treated appallingly.

I worry about who we become when we accept that.

That’s what worries me.

That’s why I’m alienated.

*Yes, of course I believe in working to understand intersectionality and standing against injustice and battling oppression in all its forms, but the designation has acquired too many terms and conditions that I can’t consent to, so I will not use it for myself.

March 28, 2017

Restoration

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 12:51 am by chavisory

Got to see something incredibly cool this past week.  I’ve been working on a staged reading of a new musical that did a presentation up in Binghamton/Johnson City, NY, at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage.  Next door is the Goodwill Theatre, which will eventually, when restored, be part of a four-venue performing arts complex.  Our technical director was kind enough to take us on a guided tour.

It was a vaudeville house before it became a movie theater, one of the first in the country to show X-rated films before abandonment in the 1970’s or early ’80’s.

IMG_2216View of the stage from back of the house.  The un-amplified sound from the stage is almost unbelievable.

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Domed ceiling.

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Fly space.

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Old note from the stage manager!

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View from stage.

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Second floor passageway to balcony seating and restrooms.

I feel incredibly privileged to get to do the job I do a lot of the time, but especially when I get to have experiences like this.

December 26, 2016

Tidings of comfort and joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:23 pm by chavisory

I hope everyone is having holidays as peaceful and restoring as possible.

When I don’t know what to do or where to start, I make lists.

I was moved to start a list a few days after election day, when everything felt very fearful and uncertain…when it seemed like nothing was impossible in the worst possible way.

As I started reading a lot about how to oppose a political regime the likes of which we’ve never really experienced before, and also Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, about the necessity of hope and joy in activism, I felt like we needed a way not only to voice our opposition, but to account for what we are tangibly accomplishing in response.

Not to maintain that everything is really okay, not to worry, that it’s not as bad as it seems, or just to make ourselves feel better (although it has made me feel better).  But to concretely track our successes at holding injustice and authoritarianism at bay, to remember not only that progressive and human rights victories can, do, and are still happening, but how they happen.  Even now.

ETA:  At least twelve pretty good things have happened in the world since election day.  In particular, there have been important developments for the rights of trans and intersex people and disabled workers.

(A lesson that’s already really jumping out at me just from the list so far is that your city councils are important.)

The introductory post to Reckoning of Joy is here.  I’ve also been including some resources and guides for taking action, inspiration, and musical encouragement.

Let’s get to work in the new year?

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