I recently ran across the fascinating ‘Gatekeeping’ subreddit . Gatekeepers are individuals (in this case, ones usually creating image macros or commenting on the internet) who are wedded to the notion that -if you fail to meet such and such criteria- you can not claim an identity, a problem, hardship, or so on. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’re familiar with the trope. Here’s some telling examples:

Real men can change their own car tires.

If you were actually a Prince fan, you could name songs beyond Purple Rain.

Real americans oppose Obamacare.

You don’t know what tired truly is until you have children.

Some choice words that typify this behavior is ‘real’ ‘actual’ ‘can’t claim’ or ‘don’t know.’

Once pointed out, I can only assume that this is an incredibly basic human behavior (at least in our culture but it feels more universal than that) because now I’ve started seeing it everywhere. I relate this phenomenon back to some of my thoughts about ‘identity maintenance’ – at best, it seems like a lot of this is based on people wanting to ensure the parts of their identity ‘mean’ something and will be recognized (and possibly rewarded) as having worth derived from a price paid or other special qualities. At worst, this sort of behavior is yet another way humans are cruel to one another; a way we resist recognizing someone else’s humanity.

The first problem is in setting standards is that for most things there is a complicated, contradictory tangle of ‘standards’ for any aspect of our identity that will -inevitably- change drastically over time (both in a personal and social level). But there are other issues.

People in closed groups are welcome to establish terms that denote something with specific standards attached. For instance, if a martial arts school wants to set a standard that ‘to be a black belt means you can break a brick with a punch’ then they are welcome to set that standard and enforce it (ie, it would be a lie to claim to be black belt in that school if you hadn’t reached that benchmark). Likewise, if your church conceives of marriage as a ceremonial rite between a man and a woman, you’re welcome to claim that the marriages of those outside your congregation aren’t recognized by your church. But most of us do not spend much time in closed groups like these; we’re mostly part of big, fluid, evolving groups (many of which we never opted into but were lumped into as an accident of the particularities of our birth). These groups (our city, our state, our country, our families, all the designations we’re given, etc.) can and should work to make themselves more inclusive and accommodating. The hassle comes in where closed groups don’t realize that they are idiosyncratic, when they try to claim semantic privileges that are bigger than them; like a group of weight lifters deciding what it means to be a ‘real man’ based on how much you bench or a small group of video game players deciding what being a ‘true gamer’ or a clade of geeks setting a standard of what being a ‘true fan’ means and so on. This is both due to the fact that people confuse their ingroup with society as well as the fact that they often don’t see the outgroup as truly ‘real’… not truly people.

If we start a club we get to set standards for what club membership means and craft endless subdivisions of identity therefrom with all manner of ranks, titles, and forfeits. For issues like our gender, our government, our society writ large; for these terms and claims multiple individuals and groups can and do claim; none of us wholly ‘own’ the concepts and identities herein and the instinct to lay claim to such terms – to play ‘gatekeeper’ always leads to ill ends. Definitions of words matter, but definitions always stretch, always change, and -ultimately- I think so much posturing, so much frustration and argument comes from people not understanding a definition or concept nearly as much as they think they do and papering over this gulf of understanding with bluster.

On a personal level, I think I deal with issues of gatekeeping most strenuously around the concept of manhood. I so despise the concept of ‘real man.’ It’s hard; sometimes people I care about try to compliment me on my strength, or my facial hair, or my fathering by talking about how I’m a real man and I need to do a better job refuting that. On a societal level, the best working definition I have, is to be a man simply means that you see yourself as a man. On a personal level, I have a set of standards, expectations, and responsibilities I set for myself related to considering myself a man; though this is a personal definition which I don’t expect or even want others to abide by… hell, I’m not even sure I could or would want to communicate these, as most of the personal conceits I have around manhood were inherited notions fraught with problematic threads that I’m working to disentangle so I can keep what’s worthy and discard everything that doesn’t serve me.

To understand that identity is not this pristine, platonic form descending down from on high but rather something that you can, that you must co-create (or suffer from someone using the framing of identity to serve their ends rather than yours) is disorienting, difficult, but oh so worth pursuing.

For myself, when I feel that gatekeeper instinct rising in my gut I try to temper it with the knowledge that for most things, I’m not the arbiter, I’m not the decider. If people claim to feel something, I believe them. When people claim an identity, I accept that. And -when in doubt or all things being equal- I’ll try to work a little harder to enlarge my groups, invite more people to participate/play inside my walled garden rather than use my faculty with language to express why they don’t, can’t possibly belong.

Writing is Absurd

As counterpoint to yesterday’s post, I wanted to write about the absurdity of writing.

People claim to write due to a whole litany of reasons that all sound good on paper: truth, art, beauty, to persuade, to improve society, to communicate truth or to transcend this particular moment/make something that lasts. The fact is however, most writing will not be read in a meaningful way, and of that tiny fraction that is read or popular, only a tiny fraction has a chance of being read ten years from now… let alone a hundred. For any of the above stated goals, for any sort of work that is generally considered ‘meaningful,’ a would-be aspiring writer would most likely be better off investing their time they would spend writing into making money, and then using that money to influence society in ways that are meaningful to them/support better artists.

While we dress it up in fancy words (as we dress up *everything* in fancy words) the truth is, most writers write simply because they have the itch to write. At best it is a simple itch, a single story that wants to get out. At worst it is a constant pressure, similar to that or a dairy cow that wants for milking. Writers excrete stacks of words because they need to, and then elevate, glamorize this process, pinning some higher motive beyond absurd cognitive relief after the fact.

These word stacks are never the experience they harken to, and as such are paltry and withered in comparison. Even worse, the word stacks can get in the way of seeing, understanding, taking part of the experience; the sign and symbol replacing the reality and encouraging people to live in a threadbare map rather than the territory.

The vast majority of writing -and hence the writing most writers can reasonably expect to create- is (at best) masturbatory; that is to say, a fun way to spend some time that is not really of interest to most others. And at worst, most writing is solipsistic, trapping writers and cognition in a simplified world of their own without touching or making a mark to the world at large (or drawing attention from it).

Many years ago, I was given the advice that if you can quit writing, you should do so. For better or for worse, I can’ quit; and hence will do my best to own my absurdities, my inadequacies as a writer striving to be the best I can be (while still keeping in mind that this is an often absurd exercise).

The Skills I Intend to Give My Daughter

The only thing I know about the future is that it will be different than today. This presents an interesting dilemma when it comes to deciding how to raise my daughter: what world will she spend her life inhabiting? What can I impart that can last, can remain useful? Many, most of my ideas will –inevitably- be dismissed as the laughable prejudices and stupidities of the past, so many of my skills will be rendered outdated within my lifetime (let alone hers); so much of what seems absolutely vital today will be dragged out with the tide into the sea of obsolescence; my ‘best guesses’ are fragile sand-castles destined to be crumble in the face of the lapping waves of time.

What can I impart that will be worthy enough for her to carry forward, into those years I myself cannot go?

Ultimately I don’t… I can’t know. But to look at my own life, I think I can spot a few concepts, qualities, skills (and meta-skills) that I have utilized (or sorely missed the use of) throughout my whole life:

  1. Attention Management It is a truism that in this particular moment, we live in an age of information hyper-abundance. Funnily enough, men and women complaining about the glut of information and the discussing the problems of the endless mewling of distractions has been a common refrain since we’ve had the written word to record it. Moreover, even a human being alone in the most Spartan, barren environment imaginable is receiving more information than they can possibly hope to keep complete within their awareness: the sounds of their own heartbeat, the feel of sunlight playing across their skin, the way the breeze tickles the small hairs across their nape and on and on. There is more information held within a grain of sand than can fit within the human head (even if most of this data is beyond the scope of our senses). Regardless, I bring this up only to point to the fact that being able to manage one’s attention –most especially in the arms race of experts and algorithms who get ever better at convincing us to direct our attention where it is most useful/profitable for them- is something I believe was vital yesterday, I know is pivotal today, and am very confident will be critical tomorrow.
  2. Mood Management For me, this is so strongly related to attention management that I’m almost against listing it separately as –other than pharmacology- nothing shapes our emotional landscape so much as choosing where\how to shift our attention. But, there’s other tools by which we manage mood (or how it is managed for us): conscious use of exercise, socialization, eating… every aspect of our physical\mental input\output gives us a lever by which to move our emotions (always leverage though, never tyrannical control). It is the primary social superpower to be able to stoke a particular set of emotions in others and then suggest how people should *use* those emotions. To be able to decide for oneself how you wish to feel, to nudge oneself in that direction but most importantly to decide what actions one will take in response to feelings is a massively important set of metaskills. Advertising, the media empires, the ‘news,’ the public face of political communication, charities, girl scouts selling cookies are all about inducing millions of people to feel a certain way so they’ll act a certain way; to be equally as adroit, as calculating in the emotional management of oneself can feel almost inhuman but is is perhaps the only to thrive in a media environment that would see you sobbing useless in response to tragedies about which you can do naught, supporting policies that only lead to the needless suffering of yourself and your fellows.
  3. The Full Compliment of Relationship Skills Relationships are not skills, but there are dozens of skills that you can develop that allow you to develop better, richer, more satisfying relationships. As long as there’s humans, as long as one wishes to remain human in the fullest sense of the term; relationships will be there. These are the skills I think about here are being able to signal that someone is important to you, separating your feelings and issues from those of your dance partner, parsing out which issues are manageable/acceptable and which can not be abided, setting boundaries, wielding accountability, practicing honesty and vulnerability and on and on.
  4. Goal Setting There are ultimately two paths, though we tend to jump back and forth between them in an endless drunken stumble: an individual can have their aspirations determined by the suggestions or arguments of others, or one can set their own (or, this might be impossible, but it is a worthy ideal to chase). I think a lot about the William Blake quote, ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s …’ I hope I can teach my daughter to set her own goals, to orient herself to and for her own ends, and give her the tools to create a framework wherein she can evaluate herself in the pursuit of her ideals.

But what else? What am I missing? If you have kids – what skills (rather than values) are you trying to teach? Whether or whether not you’re reproducing, what skills do you have that are valuable now, and that you’re convinced will be valuable in the future?

On Nuking Social Media & Identity Maintenance Costs

Image via How to Start a Blog Online used via creative commons attribution license.

Last week, I nuked my social media.

What does ‘nuking’ mean? In the case of twitter, I deleted all previous tweets and likes. In the case of facebook, I deleted all posts, deleted my pages, left all groups except those few related to organizing with individuals in my immediate physical environment. I have setup both to auto-repost links to my work and articles published elsewhere (I fully expect most of my friends to not actually see these as exterior links are heavily suppressed by facebook sorting algorithms). I have set an intention to not post or comment on either platform for 30 days (other than the aforementioned automated reposting) and we’ll see what happens.

This act is part of a long term strategy of social media divestment while Continue reading

Fatherhood 22 Months In

When it comes to parenthood, first and foremost let me say my daughter thrives and nothing makes me happier.

I recently reread my earlier essays Fatherhood: 7 Months In and A Letter to my Unborn Daughter and –much like looking at earlier pictures of her- they plugged me back into who she was, who *I* was those months ago which had somewhat though not quite been overwritten by who she is, who I am. I am beginning to experience that unique lifelong schizophrenia of the various versions of her playing almost parallel in my mind, running together and overlapping one another. The ‘What you can’t have a date for prom, you were just learning to walk.’ The struggle to stay present, to fully plug into *now* faces unique challenges in rearing a child.

So here’s what’s now; Elliott is walking-climbing-running-tantrumming-cuddling-crying-laughing-joking-exploring-fighting-sharing-thanking-loving-living-breathing-being. She has smashed past every expected developmental milestone we’ve cared to track, early and eagerly. That, plus her height, leads most Continue reading