Greetings from Omelas

The Wikipedia entry on Ursula Le Guin's provocative short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" includes a comment from the author on where she got the inspiration for writing it: "from forgetting Dostoevsky and reading road signs backwards."

Somewhere I read a variation on this comment in which Le Guin was
quoted as saying "from misremembering Dostoevsky …" Or perhaps I just
misremembered that. In any case, with the current trend of plundering Jane Austen proving
so fruitful, I think misremembering Dostoevsky could also prove
productive.

Let's try one: What if the old pawnbroker, startled by Raskolnikov's sudden
appearance in her apartment, begins to choke on a tea cake? Forgetting
himself, Raskolnikov drops the ax and performs the Heimlich maneuver,
saving the old woman's life and beginning an awkward friendship. …

Hmm. Probably not a novel so much as a Woody Allen film. I see Mark
Ruffalo as Raskolnikov, Dianne Wiest as the old lady and, oh, let's say
Chaz Palmintieri as the detective Petrovich (although come to think of it Petrovich might not have much to do in this version of the story).

Anyway, please do follow the link and read the whole short story if you haven't already done so. Or buy Le Guin's book — The Wind's Twelve Quarters. (I'm in the newspaper business, so I'm big on encouraging others to pay for stuff they could just as easily read for free online.)

I say this not just because several commenters in the previous thread posted without reading the story, railing against the "straw-men" they were certain it contained without bothering to see that it didn't. But I also recommend this because it's a really good story. It's quite short and never dull and it's a lovely piece of writing despite the barb it has in store for everyone who picks it up.

Above all, it's a story — a parable, perhaps, but not the sort of didactic little fable that can be tidily summarized with and replaced by an aphoristic moral. (People are always trying to do that with parables and stories, poems and plays. But it can't really be done. If that summarizing aphorism were all the writer had meant, well then the writer would have written only that and saved everyone involved a great deal of time and effort. The only way to summarize a story or a poem accurately is to retell it in full.)

The bit from Fyodor Dostoevsky that Le Guin acknowledges half-forgetting is from The Brothers Karamazov, a passage in which Ivan is wrestling with theodicy:

Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Le Guin says she read Brothers K as a young woman, but that she'd never been able to bring herself to return to it (no wonder, considering the English translations then in print), and thus credits the germ of the idea more to William James. In The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life James wrote:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

Le Guin refers to the idea there in Dostoevsky and James as a "psychomyth" of "the scapegoat."

And that, I think, is wrong. I don't think that quite fits. The utopias described by Ivan Karamazov and William James and Ursula Le Guin are all based on an infernal bargain, but they all take as a given that this bargain is effective.

And that separates them from scapegoats. Because the most notable distinguishing feature of scapegoats is that they do not work. Scapegoating is always ineffective.

Well, scapegoating is effective as a rhetorical device for demagogues firing up the fearful and the foolish. But what I mean is that the punishment or persecution or sacrifice of the scapegoat never produces the promised results.

As the Black Death swept across Europe, swiftly killing a third or more of the population, the people were bewildered and desperate. They had no understanding of the transmission of disease, no sense of how the plague was carried, and therefore no useful approach to the urgent problem of how to stop it. They tried perfumes and foul odors, they tried penitent prayer and magic and many other attempted defenses and they all utterly failed.

Throughout Europe, one of the most common responses to the plague was a course of action that does not seem medically promising from a modern scientific viewpoint, but which was perceived by many in the 14th Century as a prudent and requisite measure. Cities throughout Europe attempted to stop the plague by killing Jews.

At the risk of being accused again of indulging in the sort of arrogant judgmentalism by which we modern liberals pretend that we're better than our ancestors, I will venture to say that this killing of Jews was a Bad Thing.* I'll even go so far, as an arrogant modern liberal, as to suggest that pogroms are wrong.

But in addition to the astonishing evil of this fear-driven slaughter, there's also this rather important point: It didn't work. Slaughtering Jews proved to be an utterly ineffective prophylactic and remedy for the plague. Scapegoating is wrong for many more important reasons, but this is always also true: Scapegoating doesn't work.

By contrast, the suffering inflicted in Le Guin's story is effectual. It works. The infernal magic or mechanism by which it works is not explained, it is just a given — as it is in the scenarios presented by Dostoevsky and James. In the story, the city's health and prosperity is in fact linked to the child's perpetual misery.

That's the nasty touch of arsenic that gives the story more bite, in my opinion, than something like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The people of Omelas are not, like Jackson's villagers, mindlessly re-enacting some brutal convention that serves no tangible purpose. Their brutal convention really does produce tangible benefits and there really is a reason for it. Their unrelenting torment of a god-forsaken child is an informed choice and they do it because it works. They are fully aware of the cost of the bargain, but they have performed a thorough cost-benefit analysis and determined that, on balance, it's the best thing to do.

They do not torture the child because they are wicked, they torture the child because they are trying to do what's best.

"The Lottery," as devilishly wonderful as it is, can still be set aside as satire — as a darkly comic criticism of someone else. But "Omelas" won't allow for that. It's barb is as unavoidable for the reader as it was for the writer.

So please do read it, but handle with care.

As a rule, I'll latch onto any excuse to reprint big chunks of text from David Dark, and this discussion of Le Guin's story provides one here. The following is from his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, in which he references this story during a discussion of the Lord's Prayer:

Le Guin's story enriches the notion of a called-out people, whether we recall the Abrahamic call out of the land of Ur, Siddhartha Gautama's exodus from the pleasure palaces, Muhammad's retreat from Mecca to Medina, or the Greek term ekklesia, "the called out," which the English New Testament translates as "church." I hope to be affiliated with those who walk away or disengage from death-dealing economies. But I don't want to claim affiliation in a manner that would blind me to my own complicity in that which destroys life. Even as we walk away from our Omelas, we wear the city's fine clothes and comfortable shoes.

Le Guin reminds me that the regime change I pray for when I pray the Lord's Prayer is an economy, a kingdom, that could never be private. It never excludes and never stops redeeming. Or as the ancients put it, the king
dom is the creative work of a God whose
center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The boundaries we erect and the prison walls we defensively construct won't hold.

Againt the Omelasian economies of our own day — in which we refuse to recognize the sight of our own blood in the lives of those we call "collateral damage," the masses on the strangled end of "global trade," and the people who die because they were born in the wrong place — the Lord's Prayer posits an evangelical economics that is good news, first of all, for the least of these. This prayer Jesus teaches us to pray and the kingdom it extols have conjured — and continue to conjure — heretofore unimagined civilizing possibilities among people and the ways they order themselves, expanding the sphere of peace in the direction of justice, of a hospitality without frontiers.

The Lord's Prayer also teaches us to ask God to "deliver us from evil."

We're not told that we need to be more specific
in that request. I think this is probably because we wouldn't know how
to be. The evils from which we most need to be delivered may be the ones which would be be least likely to recognize or to mention by name.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* It's a devious little rhetorical trap, this accusation that any condemnation of past wrongs amounts to a claim of smug superiority. But it's also just silly. If we accept that silly premise, then we mustn't ever condemn any deed or course of action unless it is one that has never actually occurred.

Recognizing and acknowledging the sins of the past isn't arrogance. It's a requisite step toward acquiring a necessary humility regarding the present.

Richard Clarke (we still used the 'e' in the early 17th Century) was a slave owner. To me, the last of his descendants born in the same New Jersey county where he lived, that appears to be a ghastly crime, an obvious and grievous sin. But it apparently didn't seem that way to my great-great-etc. old Richard at the time. If he had any misgivings or any sense that the practice might even be perceived as controversial, we have no record of it.

I suppose one could fall into a trap of using that as the basis for a smug and arrogant self-satisfaction, but one can only do so by somehow avoiding the unavoidable next obvious questions: If there are still any Clarks around 350 years from now, what will they see when they look back at me? What are the unthinkable and glaringly grievous sins in which I am obliviously complicit?

That's clearly a "liberal" question, and a "progressive" one as well, but I just don't see how it can be honestly perceived or portrayed as arrogant.

What strikes me as arrogant is the notion that such grievous sins somehow cease to be wrong or cease to matter if we would only mind our own business and refrain from mentioning them. That arrogates to ourselves an authority we do not possess. Slavery — like the carpet-bombing of cities — is not wrong because we say so. They are wrong because they are wrong.

We gain nothing from refusing to acknowledge that except the illusory comfort that ignorance and innocence are the same thing. That excuse doesn't hold for old Richard and it won't hold for us either.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Thanks, mmy, that’s a reassuring story!
    As far as drugs go, I’ve really got no plans beyond ‘See how it goes.’ I don’t want to take them if I don’t need them, and I hope that I wouldn’t, but I’m certainly not going to rule them out. (And again, I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where it’s unlikely they’ll be forced on me.) I think drugs can be one of the areas where you get a kind of female machismo: you’re seen as more womanly or tough or something if you don’t take them. Stuff that, I say; everyone should their own decisions.

  • http://lyorn.livejournal.com/ inge

    MadG: *saves Brussels sprouts recipe for the winter*

  • Morgan

    Kit: good luck with the birth!
    Melle:

    It seems to be related to the idea that, because one can’t read body language/facial expressions/tone of voice online, it is by definition impossible to really connect with people over the internet.

    I’ve seen a theory – somewhere – that communication online partly mirrors autism. That is, the reduced bandwidth and absence of cues we might not consciously realize we use has a similar effect to some of the problems in picking up on body language and so on that are associated with autistic-spectrum conditions. It’s not quite “you can’t connect with people over the internet” or “people on the internet aren’t really real”, but it leads to saying things you wouldn’t say in person because you aren’t getting the feedback that would normally tell you when you’re crossing a line or having an effect you don’t intend, and you’re not aware of the problem so that you can consciously compensate for it.
    Tonio:

    My suspicious side wonders if T-V’s origins were not about social distance or familiarity but about class structure – I can imagine the common people having to use the formal when addressing nobility, but the nobility being entitled to use the familiar with everyone.

    Not sure it’s “class” rather than just hierarchy. Reminds me of Japanese (warning: my understanding here may be incomplete or mangled: salt to taste). Small children are “-chan”, older boys graduate to “-kun” while girls keep “-chan”, then adult men may still refer to their “juniors” or friends as “-kun” or omit the honorific while seniors get full courtesies. And of course, adult women can more readily be called “-chan” without it seeming rude than males can “-kun”. The link between status and gender in language always strikes me as very stark in Japanese.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    I’ve seen a theory – somewhere – that communication online partly mirrors autism. That is, the reduced bandwidth and absence of cues we might not consciously realize we use has a similar effect to some of the problems in picking up on body language and so on that are associated with autistic-spectrum conditions

    Given how I’ve heard some high-functioning people with Asperger’s can get inordinately frustrated and visibly angry when they can’t seem to communicate well, this suddenly strikes me as a very good reason why debates that get fuelled by cross emotions so quickly spiral out of control.
    It definitely is worth re-stressing the need to keep a level head online.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Given how I’ve heard some high-functioning people with Asperger’s can get inordinately frustrated and visibly angry when they can’t seem to communicate well, this suddenly strikes me as a very good reason why debates that get fuelled by cross emotions so quickly spiral out of control.
    I’m going to argue the opposite line.
    The people I’ve encountered with autism, at least, don’t get just emotional because they find it hard to communicate but also because of the whole theory-of-mind thing: it’s just more difficult for them to see beyond their own feelings. Maybe the difficulty in perceiving other people’s social cues has contributed to that, but – well, I won’t go into details, but I know someone who has had some serious meltdowns, some of which are in response to misinterpreted remarks in person, but at least one of which was in response to something they read online. The format really didn’t make much difference. They were just somebody prone to meltdowns.
    Similarly, I’ve seen neurotypical people fly off the handle on small provocation in real life, plenty of times. Online and off, a bad temper is a bad temper: some people double-check before they get mad and some don’t, and it has a lot to do with outlook, personality, psychological health and emotional habits. Neurotypical people find social cues easier to read when they can be bothered, but a fair amount of the time they don’t bother because they’re more reacting to what they expect than to what’s actually happening. Being able to see someone doesn’t necessarily affect that.
    Besides that, there are plenty of cues given in language. When I get irritated with someone online, it’s not necessarily because I’ve found their tone hard to read. At least some of the time, I think I’m irritated because I’m reading their tone correctly, and picking up that it’s aggressive, controlling or patronising. Word choice is the online equivalent of body language, and it’s very readable.
    Similarly, when someone gets annoyed with me online, I don’t think it’s because they can’t see my body language. I suspect they wouldn’t like me any better in person. Generally the person either doesn’t like something I’ve said, or because they’re projecting issues on to me – but that happens in real life as well. Like I said in the whole flame war thing, men feeling I have some kind of hypnotic power (either for good or evil) happens to me both online and in person.
    I’d attribute it to the safety of anonymity and the fact that a person who wouldn’t dare aggress in person gets to vent it all online – but to a couple of other things. First, in an online environment you’re encountering a larger number of personalities at once than real life usually allows for: if all the Slacktivites met in a room and talked at the same time at the rate we do online, nobody could hear anything. When you’re looking at higher numbers, you’re looking at a higher statistical likelihood that you’ll hear something that pisses you off.
    Second, online conversations like this one tend to focus on high-emotion issues. Small talk is less intense, and commoner in real life.
    Third, online conversations have much of a convention of debate. In a debate, it’s much more acceptable to tell someone you don’t like what they’re saying.
    Fourth, we all know that writing someone a cross letter, so to speak, is less intimidating than shouting in their face. Someone who wouldn’t yell in real life might ‘yell’ online precisely because they have a line of threatening behaviour they won’t step over, and they’re aware that the line is different in person and online.
    Rather than being autistic, the last two, at least, are actually socially adaptive: they’re adjusting your behaviour in response to a different social context, in a way that may well involve reading the ‘cues’, or at least, the differences, appropriately.
    And, finally, from what I’ve seen of people who talk online and who I also know in person, their debate styles in both are pretty similar. They don’t suddenly get less sensitive and/or level-headed when they go online. They might move up and down within their social bandwidth, but not as drastically as that theory suggests.
    Short version: nah. I reckon a jerk is a jerk and a sensible person is a sensible person, online or off. Online conversations are likely to get heated partly just because it’s harder to keep the jerks out/apart. You put a lot of people together with no entry requirement, and you’re always going to get some conflict.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy

    @Morgan: I’ve seen a theory – somewhere – that communication online partly mirrors autism. That is, the reduced bandwidth and absence of cues we might not consciously realize we use has a similar effect to some of the problems in picking up on body language and so on that are associated with autistic-spectrum conditions
    At least when you are online you don’t have the illusion that your are getting reliable information from all those sensory inputs. I found it endlessly frustrating when I first moved to the US that students
    a) couldn’t figure out (refused to acknowledge) that my sense of humour which in person is very, very dry and very Canadian
    b) couldn’t see the point of learning, before venturing out into other cultures, about gestures/comments that wouldn’t be accepted cheerfully in other countries.
    Re a) students tended to tell me that there wasn’t any difference between Canadian and American culture except the fact that we had universal health care, voted out incumbents and gave all sorts of rights to people like gays. When I pointed out that those things indicated that we were, indeed, a different culture, they told me I was wrong. And then would go on to tell me something else weird that happened when they crossed into Canada in order to get drunk. My favourite, the privileged frat boys who complained about the Canadian casino guard who beat them after they acted up (read vomited) in the casino. They kept on saying “Canadians are supposed to be peaceful and nice.”
    Re b) other people were, I was told, just wrong to use different gestures than Americans and should just get over it. I think that was the day I started giving students the finger in class and responded to their upset by saying that they should just get over it.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    My favourite, the privileged frat boys who complained about the Canadian casino guard who beat them after they acted up (read vomited) in the casino. They kept on saying “Canadians are supposed to be peaceful and nice.”
    Possibly because they know that if they make asses of themselves in a public place, they’ll get a hiding?

  • http://isabelcooper.wordpress.com Izzy

    Best of luck, Kit!
    I tend to agree about the differentiating factors between online and offline arguments. I think there’s also something to do with the permanence of words and the likelihood that blog posts happen when people have a lot of free time. If I get into an argument offline, I’m less likely to remember the exact things that the other person said, and it’s more likely that a friend will call or one of us will need to go have dinner or whatever.
    For myself, while I’m not quite as harsh and profane offline–partly because I don’t hang out with people with whom I have the same disagreements I encounter online, partly because we have learned not to discuss certain things–most of the time, I’m certainly willing to be in appropriate situations. And I was much, much more so when I was younger.

  • Morgan

    I wish I could remember where I came across that theory, because I’m not sure if I’m misreporting it or faithfully reproducing its flaws. I believe I got the impression at the time that it was doing that thing so common in pop-sci or science reporting, of taking an interesting theory or result that might explain part of one aspect of a phenomenon and acting as though it explained everything. That, and perhaps giving people a little too much credit…
    I certainly wouldn’t deny that a lot of people who are jackasses online are simply being jackasses, not victims of some sensory distortion. But I do think that even the well-meaning can find themselves being more inconsiderate than they realize for the reason theorized, and that it’s likely a factor even for the malicious alongside the simple lack of consequences.

  • Morgan

    Oh, and looking again at Kit’s comment… I think I may have been misunderstood, or else I’m missing something. You seem to be talking about the idea that people may be taking offense because they can’t see the other person winking or something; I’m talking about the idea that people may be giving offense because they can’t sense the “mood at the table” or see the look forming on the listener’s face while they’re speaking.

  • Will Wildman

    It occurs to me that part of the reason I’m often more comfortable speaking online is that I don’t have to worry so much about all the nonverbal cues that people otherwise expect me to pick up on. (As I think I’ve mentioned before, my ability to consider/recognise/interpret body language is junk. One of my various Aspy traits.) There are only two things that ever really frustrate me in online communication – the inability to hug* people over the internet, and the inability to effectively convey the pacing of my words asidefromremovingthespaces to speed up. What I really want is a punctuation mark that means
    (beat)
    like you see in stage scripts or something. Or I just switch to writing like TJ Dawe, but then an ordinary post would scroll for two feet of screen.
    *’Hug’ in most cases, ‘make out’ in a couple of rarer cases, and other things that I shouldn’t be allowed to do anyway. Like when I dropped out of a dungeon group in World of Warcraft last night because the mage and paladin wouldn’t stop making stupid misogynist ‘jokes’, causing me to ask a friend “Can I get an iPhone that would let me strangle people over the internet? Is there an app for that?”

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    I believe I got the impression at the time that it was doing that thing so common in pop-sci or science reporting, of taking an interesting theory or result that might explain part of one aspect of a phenomenon and acting as though it explained everything.
    Mm. I’d add the cynical comment that autism has been a very fashionable subject in popular psychology and culture recently, so the idea that some commentator might latch onto it in a rather ham-handed way seems far from unlikely…

    You seem to be talking about the idea that people may be taking offense because they can’t see the other person winking or something; I’m talking about the idea that people may be giving offense because they can’t sense the “mood at the table” or see the look forming on the listener’s face while they’re speaking.
    When it comes to sensing the mood, I stick to my theory that some people are just more or less mood-sensitive than others, and if someone can’t pick it up in an online conversation, chances are they aren’t brilliant at it in real life either.
    I would suggest another factor in cases of inadvertent offence, though: most of us are simply better at talking than writing, because we get more practice at it. Expressing yourself in print ain’t easy, not because we can’t see the reader but just because, well, it ain’t easy. So some given offence might come from poor phrasing rather than anything to do with sensing the mood.

  • not_scottbot

    Well, I decided to see if this thread topped 500, and in reading the last page only, I’m still feeling completely obsolete.
    Especially in reference to women and advice in academic settings – back in the dark days of the early 1980s, at the university I worked at, the department chair (you are welcome to hate that grammatical construction, but the chair preferred it) was a woman – as was the assistant chair (who then became the acting chair for a while). So when they sat together, it wasn’t a conspiracy, it was simply the two people responsible for the English department of a university with 10,000 students sitting together. As they did often enough, both in completely public settings and in internal ones. With or without other women present next to them, of course.
    The boss of my boss was the vice president for public relations – she, too, was a woman. And when the chair of the English department and the VP of public relations sat together (oh, let’s say at a reception in honor of a Nobel Literature prize winner), my boss might assign me to write about it for one of the university’s internal or external publications. And when the VP of public relations and my boss sat together, it was simply two women sitting together who just happened to have a clearly defined relationship – one was the boss, the other the subordinate.
    I might add, this was the same dark age that recommended the use of ‘they’ in technical and other writing to get beyond the idea that ‘he’ or ‘she’ were actually meaningful pronouns when talking about people in aggregate (‘When an employee has a problem, they should….’). A policy explicitly endorsed by the chair of the English department, and the VP of public relations, in different settings (one where I earned grades, the other where I earned money).
    But now, apparently, instead of following the obsolete idea that the only way to be equal is through equality, the words written here portrays a world very different from the one I knew back in those horrible, horrible days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, where a large number of utterly misguided people were completely unaware of how valuable it was to ensure that gender retain pride of place when dealing with people.
    Like those women who taught and employed me, along with a number of other people, male and female. And in one case, a woman who was not a Harvard graduate. Being female, her diploma was from Radcliffe, that being the separate but equal institution that granted diplomas to women who attended classes at Harvard. Might explain her insistence on being the ‘chair’ of the department, having already experienced the full glory of gender as practiced in the time we all then thought were the receding dark ages.
    Silly, silly us – we simply hadn’t realized how oppressive our way of thinking and acting actually was, and how it was just a false path along the way to the wonderful world the younger posters here seem to live in.
    It doesn’t matter to me – my experiences aren’t changed by anyone’s opinions of how flawed they are when reflected in my beliefs (after all, most men thought the ideas those women held in the 1970s and 1980s were also flawed, especially the idea that men or women were actually just people), particularly my belief that the only way to start treating people equally is to treat them equally.
    Bigots have always argued that it is not possible to do so, and back then, it seemed as if bigots were on the losing side of how society was changing. Just another illusion of the privileged, it seems. Like the completely deluded head of a university department or a vice president at the same large academic institution. People now in their 70s or 80s, likely as obsolete as I in an age where their misguided beliefs have obviously been rejected by not only those they would have expected – bigots, often wrapped in the current guise of evolutionary pseudo-science or those that rely on religious writings – but also by those they thought would actually benefit from a world where being male or female was no longer a crucial distinction in judging a person’s worth. A benefit for all of us in their eyes, women and men – but then, what would any of those misguided women have known about what it was like to be treated as something other than a woman – after all, that was the world they hoped to achieve, since it was most definitely not the world they had grown up with, and existed in.
    But regardless of their misguided and privileged beliefs, they were not cowards. They would have never have given the cowardly advice that a woman needs to care about what men think about where she chooses to sit.
    I still can’t believe that any woman would say that to another woman – if only because being so cowardly ensures that the sort of change were men and women wouldn’t pay attention to where anyone was sitting based on nothing but sex alone would be impossible. But then, I’m obsolete.
    And so, I guess, is Sonia Johnson, the assistant professor I was talking about earlier in this thread -
    ‘After moving to Virginia in 1976, Sonia’s feminist sensibilities were outraged as she perceived male church leaders directing women to organize and lobby against the ERA. Ironically, of the four “founding mothers” of Mormons for ERA (MERA), she was the one who didn’t have a full-time job and was most available to be the spokesperson for the group. Her forceful rhetoric (sometimes quoted out of context in media reports) alarmed church leaders, leading eventually to her excommunication.’
    http://www.the-exponent.com/2009/07/25/sonia-johnson-mormon-feminist-role-model-or-cautionary-tale/
    (A bit of technical advice – do not spend hours between the first word and the last – cutting the grass, eating dinner, talking on the phone – otherwise posting becomes a problem – luckily, Seamonkey is excellent with caching)

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    NSB, get your head around this: if you’re telling women how to be good feminists, you are being a bad feminist. If you’re expecting women to stop their conversation with each other to applaud your previous deeds, you are being a bad feminist.
    It is not our job to validate your ego. Women are expected to do that for men far too often, and you’re asking us to do it in this thread.
    What are you actually interested in – treating women with respect, not just forty years ago but right now, or in complaining that women aren’t validating you enough? It’s coming across as the latter. And sorry, but that means whatever you did in the past, you are acting badly now.
    Either get off your laurels and converse with genuine respect, or decide you’re obsolete, stick to that decision and go away.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy

    NSB, what Kit just said.
    Plus this from me Well, I decided to see if this thread topped 500, and in reading the last page only, I’m still feeling completely obsolete.
    If you don’t take part in a conversation you cannot expect to come along late in the day and have your comment perceived as words of wisdom. Indeed you cannot expect your comment to be relevant or useful.
    From my point of view you are, unfortunately, not obsolete you are typical. Typical of every bloviator who wants to replace their own monologue for a real conversation.

  • Will Wildman

    Equalitywank. At last, I have found the word that I’m searching for. It’s an invented word, but it manages to encapsulate NSB’s whole mode of operation. The question of ‘what’s equality, what advances it, what restricts it’ is not interesting to him. He has too many other things to be concerned with, like anecdotes about his past female superiors, and cutting the grass. And his slow, sad fading into the twilight of a better age, because we just hate him so much, him and his singular-form-’they’ and his immense powers to Not See Gender. It’s good that he has more in his life than the internet – cutting the grass, eating dinner, talking on the phone* – because otherwise he would be like us, wisps of non-people given form only when we can spew venom at his wonderful egalitarian self.
    ‘Wank’ on its own tends to refer to masturbation these days, but at its root it just means indulgence, doing something for personal pleasure rather than any lofty goal. Fanwank is about altering and smoothing and spackling a story together so that it fits the audience’s need or satisfies their curiosity. Equalitywank is about telling yourself what a wonderful person you are to all those women out there, in the past and the abstract, despite the fact that actual women are repeatedly explaining how offensive you’re being.
    And yet he’s back again and still not actually talking to people, just wanking, wanking, a faux-feminist exhibitionist, wandering up and down the thread in a trenchcoat and nothing else, looking for another opportunity to flash us. It’s incredible how vividly NSB’s posts remind me of the beginning of Atlas Shrugged. The sorrow at better days long past, the sighs of quiescence to the crushing reality that those days cannot be restored in the modern world. Whippersnappers, all of us.
    *Are people on the phone real? It’s not unlike the internet, except that you’re hearing them instead of reading their words. No doubt the phone has some other magical property that makes the people on the other end real, like the personal connections formed with them elsewhere, the bonds of love among family and friends, et cetera et cetera wankery. (I interview people on the phone a lot for my job. I have never and will never meet them. Are they real? If they aren’t, wouldn’t it save a lot fo time if I just guessed what their answers to my questions might be?)

    Ick. I tried writing that in the same tone of voice that I read NSB’s posts in, and now I feel a need to scrub. If that was the mindset I lived in all the time, I might be a misled narcissist too. All the colour drains out of the world and the sunlight feels damp.

  • LE

    @not_scotbot
    It’s all well and good to enumerate the incidences you know of where people argued for equal treatment, where women were able to achieve full participation with or without retaliation etc. etc. But why should we give your anecdata more weight than those who are trying to tell you that despite of the gains of the 1970s, women today are still dealing with the same shit. You’re not making any arguments here – just randomly telling stories while whining about how none of us are taking you seriously.
    Here’s a thought: your experiences are not universal and and your opinions don’t carry more weight because they reference the previous generation’s struggles. Women right here and now have told you that they have different experiences and feel differently about the topic – how about engaging with them instead of sighing dramatically and then disappearing, hmm?
    Grow up.

  • http://www.nightkitchenseattle.com MadGastronomer, whose father was once bitten by a llama

    For myself, while I’m not quite as harsh and profane offline–partly because I don’t hang out with people with whom I have the same disagreements I encounter online, partly because we have learned not to discuss certain things–most of the time, I’m certainly willing to be in appropriate situations. And I was much, much more so when I was younger.
    Ditto.
    Well, I decided to see if this thread topped 500, and in reading the last page only, I’m still feeling completely obsolete.
    Oh, STFU and go away. You’re not going to listen, you’re not going to converse sensibly, you’ve got your petty little idea of what’s right and you don’t want to hear that it hurts people. Shoo, mosquito.

  • Tonio

    Not sure it’s “class” rather than just hierarchy.

    Yes, that’s a much better word for the point I was trying to make.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    b) couldn’t see the point of learning, before venturing out into other cultures, about gestures/comments that wouldn’t be accepted cheerfully in other countries.

    That boggles me. It’s like, there are whole books devoted to gestures in other cultures which seem innocuous to us but which have meanings in those cultures.
    A rather simple example in South Africa is a hand-flap that looks like your fingers and thumb clacking together as though someone’s talking. When you’re in your car and being hand-flapped at like that it’s telling you your turn signal’s still on.

  • Tonio

    Yeah, I’ve heard it expressed as “It’s only words, so if you’re hurt/offended/whatever, it’s because you choose to be,” which, whatever.

    That reminds me of this article which has been rolling around in my head for the past couple of weeks. I’m concerned about the broad assumptions being made by the researchers. From my personal experience and the experiences I’ve read about, I would say that victims know the distinction between accidental harm and intentional harm. We simply deem it as irrelevant. There’s probably a certain amount of learned narcissism involved, where the victim values his hurt feelings more than the intentions of the people who hurt them, having been taught that few others value those feelings. I know how easy it can be to exaggerate the feelings of persecution into a martyrdom, where one uses “Nobody likes me” as an excuse or crutch.

  • MercuryBlue

    My personal favorite is the gesture that in some places is ‘A-OK’ and in others is ‘asshole’.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    ooohyeah. There’s a story there I read. This guy gave the “A-OK” gesture in West Germany, and the roof went up! :O 20 minutes later, embarrassed apologies all around, it was discovered that one should not make the “A-OK” gesture because it does mean “you asshole”.
    Incidentally there’s some subtle gesture evolution – in places where a cop will actually give you a talking-to if they see you tapping the side of your head in public to mean “crazy”, people migrate to putting their fingers against their cheeks and passing it off as rubbing a sore tooth.

  • hagsrus

    I remember my mother telling me that when she was birthing my sister the midwife brought along a cylinder of gas – presumably nitrous oxide – with a mask that required a finger to block a hole on the feeder tube, an automatic cut-off device.
    That would have been in 1948, London.
    Has anyone else heard of this?
    Perhaps it was discontinued for fear of ill effects on the baby?
    My sister seemed to be in rude health from the first moment we were introduced!

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    It may very well have been discontinued for the reason of ill effects; after all, what if the gas escaped into the room and accidentally caused the baby to stop breathing? Babies tend to not have as well-regulated autonomic systems as adults do.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    Clarification: In adults, nitrous would normally simply alleviate pain. But since it would displace some of the oxygen you are breathing, if your lung capacity were smaller than it should be you might accidentally asphyxiate yourself.

  • Orion

    The “ok” gesture also represents money in Japan (the circle is a coin…)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/femgeek1 Melle

    Kit Whitfield: Then there are the communities where the there isn’t any moderation at all, so members have to police themselves, and hence can slug it out without worrying they’re cutting in on the mod’s turf. The latter will, of course, depend on what kind of posters you get, but if the site’s content attracts people who want a reasonable conversation, odds are you’ll gradually get a general community standard based on what the majority of the community feels comfortable with, which means plenty of people prepared to thump someone who breaks it – which also tends to mean a quick response-time, as the job isn’t all on some overworked mod. Being rude just doesn’t pay off.
    That’s been pretty much my experience, yes, although also in my experience, the one thing that will break a low/no moderation community in fairly short order is a sudden influx of newbies. Here at Slacktivist, newbies trickle in (or at least delurk) in ones and twos, and if they’re being twerps, they get called on that, and there’s time for them to either adjust their behaviour, or refuse to do so and get run out of town or get bored and wander off, before the next newbie arrives.
    If you suddenly get a glut of newcomers, though, that adjustment process fails, because they can encourage each other not to give in to the peer pressure/echo chamber/cabal/whatever, often citing “You’re not a mod, you can’t tell me what to do!” as a reason. Which of course discourages the oldbies from speaking up, either against the twerpness or at all, and the newbies often end up taking over entirely. (Which may or may not be a bad thing, I should note, but I’ve usually been on the oldbie side in these situations, so.)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    Hi Melle! Are you new here? If you are, then welcome, and if nobody has said so yet, please don’t kill us with sheep.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    Kit Whitfield: some of us really are just rubbish at maths, and it’s our own fault rather than our teachers’.
    Melle: I wouldn’t say “fault,” really — some people’s brains just aren’t wired for maths. (Or even for all maths — I love algebra and trig, and usually aced them, but my overall maths grade tended to be dragged down by the fact that I couldn’t wrap my brain around advanced geometry …
    I actually came across this one in a calculus textbook:

    There was once an exceptionally intelligent circus horse who could solve problems in algebra and Euclidean geometry, but was unable to tacle analytic geometry because you can’t put Descartes before the horse.

    I deeply regret that I am unable to claim credit for this.
    I <3 math.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Oh, Raj, how we’ve missed you. :-)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    On behalf of the Mathematarian Party, I say that those of you who are struggling with mathematics are just not working hard enough. If only we had a free mathematics society in which mathematics could operate without any of that pesky government regulation, then the power of Free Mathematics Pixie Dust (TM) would reward hardworking mathematicians while appropriately sticking it to those lazy mathematical moochers. As for the very, very, very few who might encounter difficulties in mathematics due to unforeseen misfortune, I suppose there would be private mathematical charities.
    Oh yeah; I’m not obligated to explain how any of this would work, so there!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    {{{{{{{{{Kit}}}}}}}}}}}
    {{{{{{The Kitling}}}}}
    {{{{{{{Mika}}}}}} and can also haz cheezburger & catnipsez & stringy toiz.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    Re: My 7:23AM post
    That’s “tackle analytic geometry”.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/femgeek1 Melle

    Will Wildman: It occurs to me that part of the reason I’m often more comfortable speaking online is that I don’t have to worry so much about all the nonverbal cues that people otherwise expect me to pick up on.
    This is pretty much how I feel as well*, and part of why I get so frustrated and annoyed with people who generalise from “I find it difficult to communicate online because I don’t get nonverbal cues” (which is understandable) to “Therefore, online/verbal-only communication is inferior and cannot lead to ‘real’ interpersonal connections, and those who claim it can are just deluding themselves,” because hey, thanks for dismissing my ability, not to mention that of a lot of people with autism, to connect to people at all, there.
    (* Well, I’ve learned how to read body language, etc., but it’s a more concious process than it is for most people, and it takers effort. I’m willing to put in that effort face to face, because I prefer to not annoy or insult or hurt people if I can help it, but online communication is still easier for me.)
    Raj: Hi Melle! Are you new here? If you are, then welcome, and if nobody has said so yet, please don’t kill us with sheep.
    Nope, not new. I delurked a few months back, IIRC, I just periodically go back to lurking, and I only have internet access once a day, so I comment sporadically even when I do. :) No sheep-defences are required!

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    It occurs to me that part of the reason I’m often more comfortable speaking online is that I don’t have to worry so much about all the nonverbal cues that people otherwise expect me to pick up on.

    I can understand that – I often miss nonverbal cues myself, but I don’t know if that’s autism or from a discomfort with eye contact. I’m uncomfortable with face-to-face conversation for a number of reasons. I find eye contact uncomfortable and threatening. I become nervous and tend to ramble, talking at people rather than to them. I struggle to make my point, often frustrating the other person by taking too long to get to my point. And I have to script my words in my head before I say them, which prevents me from paying full attention to what the other person is saying. Online, I have all the time I need to compose my words and to read the other person’s words at my own pace.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/femgeek1 Melle

    Kit Whitfield: Oh, Raj, how we’ve missed you. :-)
    That’s because he keeps dodging! *pelts Raj with pillows for that aweful pun*
    (Must remember to pass that on to my pun-loving friend.)

  • Dave W.

    @Vermic: Tolkien, no slouch when it came to linguistics, employed “thee/thou” occasionally in LOTR; he mentioned that such was an informal address in one of his many Appendices, otherwise I’d have been none the wiser. The Mouth of Sauron uses “thou” when talking to Gandalf at the Black Gate. It’s meant to illustrate the Mouth’s open disrespect for his enemies during what is nominally a formal parley.
    One of the things that I noticed a few years ago in Return of the King was the use of the you/thee distinction in the scenes between Eowyn and Aragorn. In the scenes at Dunharrow (as he is preparing to ride off along the Paths of the Dead), they both start off using “you,” but Eowyn shifts to “thee” as her speech becomes more passionate and personal, while Aragorn sticks with the more formal “you.” It is only much later, at the betrothal of Eowyn and Faramir, that he finally feels free to address her using thee: “I have wished thee joy ever since I first saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”
    I was struck by the way Tolkien suggests so much of the relationship dynamic between the two of them with those two subtle little pronoun shifts. I had forgotten about that footnote in the Appendix where he talks about the you/thee distinction.

  • spookie

    Firstly, it seems to me that producing something “useful” is a silly idea to attach to a short story. We don’t NEED stories, though we may ENJOY them. Their worth is what we’ll pay for them. Copyright was originally intended to ensure creators would get enough compensation that they would continue creating, not to produce a cash cow for their children or another rights holder in perpetuity.
    Secondly, the vast majority of the people who don’t buy Ms. LeGuin’s book will not buy it because they never heard of her, not because they could get the story free on the internet. Making the work available will sell copies of ALL her works, including this one, though this one will do her little good as it seems to be out of print and the copies available for sale are used and produce no income for her. The more people exposed to her work the more books she sells. Ask Cory Doctorow, who makes all his work available for free on the internet under a “Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share alike, some rights reserved” license the same day the publisher releases them. It certainly seems to have a good effect on his sales.

  • perianwyr

    I already live in Omelas, and I haven’t gone anywhere.


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