Mad Art Lab made a craft! Well, one of the children who participated in our Scientist Paper Dolls Sandbox at CONvergence 2013 did. Photo by Jamie Bernstein.
Every year, the Skepchick Network and Freethought Blogs get together to host a science and skepticism track at CONvergence in Minneapolis over the 4th of July weekend. This will be my third year participating in programming, and every year it just keeps getting better.
CONvergence is one of my favorite cons to attend, for many reasons. Reason number 1, the big one, is that they work hard year to year to make things more and more inclusive and more safe, both in programming and social spaces. Melanie, our kickass track director, has worked incredibly hard to create a balance of science and skepticism programming that will appear to anyone. She’s taken feedback from a wide variety of strong *ahem, guilty as charged* personalities, who all aren’t shy about bringing up issues they see with representation and somehow taken all of that feedback and made it into a programming schedule that I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of. And that’s just the SkepchickCON panels. Looking at the rest of what the con has to offer, they’ve gone even further in trying to make science fiction and fantasy programming that not only avoids some of the pitfalls of typical convention programming (hello, straight, cis, white male gaze), but actively looks those challenges in the eye, says “hey, let’s talk about this issue”, and sits everyone down for an honest discussion about concerns. Over free giant bowls of soup from the Con Suite.
“Your selfies are vanity run amok!”
“Your livetweeting of your experiences is horrible and un-ethical.”
“How dare you use hashtags to express your anger. It’s polarizing.”
“Your Facebook wall is incontrovertible proof of your raging narcissism.”
“Can’t you just be invisible? Can’t you just be quiet? Can’t you just die gracefully so that we can immortalize you rather than continuing to live and inconvenience us with your words?”
“Big thinking is what we’re paid for. You don’t need to worry your pretty little heads about it. We’ll solve it.”
We’re all expected to be quiet.
That’s the trade-off we make for careers.
We know that the moment we speak out, we trade our futures for the chance of torpedoing our careers.
Every time we publicly mention the things that happen to us, we cut the number of people willing to hire us by another slice. We wonder about the moment when a future employer googles us, finds out we’re a “troublemaker” and doesn’t give us the interview. Or we envision the nicely worded letter that tells us that we’re not really a good fit for the office “culture”.
We stay silent while our bosses touch our legs and our back. While they make jokes they would never make in front of their mothers. While the other bosses shrug and brush it away.
And we know that the moment we speak up, we stand a good chance of losing everything we’ve ever fought for professionally, socially, financially.
Even worse, the men who have the ability to speak up… often don’t. We have to remain silent because the man who refuses to stop kissing us at greeting could fire us if we complain. The other men and women on his level remain silent because… well, I don’t really know. But they do.
In its natural state, my brain is almost always over-stimulated. This doesn’t seem like a bad thing if you haven’t experienced it, but in practice, it means that I just shut down after a certain point. Thing that are easy, run-of-the-mill tasks for most people are insurmountable mountains for me. Calling someone on the phone to sort out something? Panic-attack inducing. Even answering emails or messages can be overwelmingly scary. Am I staring at you blankly? It’s probably because I have entirely forgotten how to make smalltalk and I’m reminding myself that you asking what I’m thinking does not mean you want to hear about my recent foray into reading about “alternative” STI treatments in the early 20th century (readers of this blog notwithstanding). Sometimes the ability to function in society is just so overwelming that my brain snaps.
I’m not going to hurt myself. I’m not going to hurt others.
However, I can’t perform at my optimum or even close to it without mind-altering drugs. Right now, due to a fun insurance screw-up, I’m stuck with self-medicating through caffeine and the occasional Sudafed. This keeps me functional enough that I can keep my job, finish tasks, have hobbies and occasionally write.
It does not keep me functional enough that I can pay bills on time without an overly elaborate setup of cell phone alarms, scheduled emails and scheduled payments. It keeps me functional enough that I can go be social with people, but not functional enough that I can do so without an irrational and gripping fear that I don’t belong, that I won’t be welcome or that people will hate me.
How did you play when you were a kid?
I played with Barbies and dolls and Fashion Star Fillies. (I might be the only person alive who remembers them, but I *loved* my horses with fashion accessories.) I had Lady Lovelylocks and Rainbow Bright. I had a baby doll and a stroller.
I also had Legos and Duplos. I had sticks that became bows and arrows, swords and shields. I had rocks and fossils, telling me the stories of the earth on which I was playing. I had trees to climb and in which to build forts. I had crayfish and fireflies.
One doesn’t negate the other. And one doesn’t overrule the others in my head. I loved my ponies and dolls and their lovely clothes. I also loved my rocks and trees and fireflies. I still love all of these things.
I was bullied as a kid. Relentlessly and aimlessly bullied. I was a special needs kid who had some neurological quirks and didn’t have the social niceties or group awareness enough to hide them. On top of that, I also had two (very) lazy eyes, a giant birthmark on my face, I walked on my toes and I was useless at sports. Pick on the weird kid is a game that never loses its entertainment value for kids.
Sound familiar? Yes? Good. We have a common ground to start from.
Let’s start with 5th grade. Gym class.
Your class is running laps. There are two kids in your class who hate you. You’re really not sure why, but they really, really hate you. You were trying to stay on the opposite side of the gym from the boys who hate you. But here’s the thing: You’re slower than them, and running hurts. So, no matter what you do, you fall further and further behind. As you’re falling behind, they’re staying at the same pace, so no matter what you do, eventually they’ll be next to you. And then they’ll subtly push you hard enough that you’ll fall. Or maybe this time around, they’ll say something horrible to you. Or maybe they’ll steal your glasses. That’s always a favorite.
It’s “appropriate”, but I don’t actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.
It is really easy to find yourself fighting the wrong fight, particularly on the internet.
As people, we tend to get defensive when people argue with us, whether they’re right or wrong, justified or not, aggressive or friendly.
The impulse to defend yourself is strong, particularly when it comes to issues of your own body, your own identity, your own worth.
And so I found myself arguing the wrong question this week.
Context: I know not to fight with the trolls. I skim comment threads to get a general feel for them, but I can usually avoid reading them in their entirety.
I can let the insults roll off my back in most cases. After all, this is the internet. I am a woman. I have strong opinions. And I am using what little platform I have to fight for those opinions. This means I get insulted. A lot.
But then something small will happen. It could be one comment in a 300+ comment thread.
In this case, it was an accusation that I was, in reality, flashing people in my costume.
The skirt length is Starfleet Regulation. I wouldn’t want to go against the admiralty.
“Honey, your skirt is a little short.”
To be fair, it was a little short. It was short intentionally. I was dressed in a science officer costume from Star Trek: The Original Series. Not the sleek little work-appropriate but still sexy jewel tone tunics from the new movie, but the flared, strangely-constructed, unapologetically teal and chartreuse polyester cheerleader dresses that fit perfectly with the (now) retrofuturistic vibe of the original show. It’s a screen accurate dress. And by “screen accurate” I mean “short”. And at the beginning of the day, I just assumed the lady who commented was pointing out that I needed to tug down the dress a bit. That was the first comment. After the next 30 or so, I had had enough.
I was at Balticon, a great science fiction convention that leans more to the literary side than the ones that are normally in my wheelhouse. This was my second year going to this con, and my second year costuming there. Last year I brought several costumes, but only wore one: a fairly conservative X-Men costume that didn’t involve skintight spandex, cleavage or even any bare skin below my neck. I did that because I knew the moment I walked in that it wasn’t the kind of con I wanted to wear my Ms Marvel costume. I wore that outfit for all of Saturday, became extremely annoyed with the response I was getting and then dressed in normal clothes on Sunday.
As a costumer, you have to develop a fairly keen sense for what is a safe space and what is not. I felt safe at Balticon both years. It isn’t a space where any harm would come to me. I could wear anything I want there and I wouldn’t come to any legal form of harm. That said, the responses I was getting made me want to run away. Or possibly take a shower to wash off the feeling of eyes and comments.
No, really. Stop it.
I don’t need flashy graphics, scary music and breathless reporters. I don’t need to “Find out after the commercial break!!”
I don’t want you to be the first with your breaking news and speculations.
I *really* don’t want you to interview heartbroken relatives, shell-shocked neighbors and terrified kids.
You don’t need to make this a human interest story. You don’t need to create false suspense.
It is a human interest story already. Anyone with a heart and a mind is already interested.
You don’t need to relate it to local people. What is local in the age of the internet? When we can watch our friends tweeting from lockdown? When we can read their fear in Facebook updates and see through their eyes on Instagram?
My tattoo - “I am star stuff” in amino acids. Photo by Colin Schultz
There are many beautiful ideas in science. We see them as beautiful because they seem to have some sort of unifying force. Or because they’re simple and elegant. Or because some talented writer put words to them that are so perfect that they ring in our heads as we go about our day to day life. But most importantly, they’re beautiful because they’re true.
The idea that strikes me as the most beautiful is one that has been said by many, many scientists, in many many ways.
As Carl Sagan said, we are all star stuff.