Seen and Not Heard

“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.”
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Silence and Friendship

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.

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Rough Seas and Life Preservers

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.

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Good Clothes, Good Girls

I don't actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.

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.

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Cosplaying While White

Photo by Paul Cory

Photo by Paul Cory

 I am lucky.

I look like 90% of the women on the big screen, the small screen, on the covers of novels and in the pages of comic books.

I am white, skinny and have learned how to use makeup (as well as a few laser surgeries) to cover the birthmark on my face with which genetics graced me.

That doesn’t make me a good cosplayer.

In fact, it means that I can be a little more lazy with my costumes than someone who doesn’t share the basic physical characteristics of a character.

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Keep shouting. You never know who is listening.

Rather than directly address the current discussion about sexism in skepticism I would like to tell a story.

Last year, I wasn’t involved in skepticism at all. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. I had all of the books. I read all of the blogs. I had been teaching critical thinking in various forms for over a decade. Heck, I was even already planning my Carl Sagan-inspired tattoo. I was a skeptic. I just wasn’t active in the movement.

There wasn’t really a place for me in that movement. Or at least not one that I could see. It was all strong-willed and brilliant people, all of whom had a tendency to shout very loudly when they disagreed with people.

I can thrive in that kind of community. I had worked around vertebrate paleontologists and museum curators for long enough to know that I can elbow my way up with the best of them. However, I didn’t have the energy to push myself into a group like that, not again, not then. Plus, did I really have anything that I could add to the conversation? I wasn’t sure.

A year before that (why do these things always blow up in June? I’m not sure), I had not been involved in the science communication community either. Again, I owned all of the books. I read all of the blogs. I was already doing science communication in person and professionally. I just wasn’t doing it online.

In this case, the reason was a little different, but not very. You see, the science communication community is also filled with brilliant people, some of them shouting. Their shouts weren’t quite as loud or quite as angry, unless you mentioned “framing”, but they were still a bit intimidating. I didn’t think I had anything to add to that conversation either.

In each case, something happened.

In the case of the science blogs, “pepsigate” happened.

In the case of skepticism, “elevatorgate” happened.

And suddenly I found I had opinions. I found that these communities that I had read in much the same ways one reads the newspaper were no longer an impersonal and one-way path of information. Suddenly there was something happening that I wanted to say something about.

During ‘pepsigate’, I was already struggling with the idea of where I wanted to go professionally. Whether I wanted to stay at the museum job I loved, but paid nothing, or if I wanted to find something where the salary fit my qualifications more, but where I may not have been as philosophically comfortable. I started, quietly, saying things on twitter. Suddenly this gentleman whose blog I had been loyally reading, @canislatrans of faultline.org, was responding to me, listening to my comments and giving interesting answers. Then he was retweeting me, and other people started commenting, some of whom agreed with me, some of whom didn’t, but both those sides made me realize I had a voice that I could use to contribute. I started commenting more, and getting drawn more and more into this community. Then Bora DMed me and told me I should think about going to ScienceOnline. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it. While I was talking with all of these people on Twitter, I still felt like I was a bit of a poser. After all, I had stopped blogging a while ago, and I had ever only marginally blogged about science before that. But my answer was “yes”, I would go.

Because someone had asked me. Because someone had listened to my voice and let me know that my voice was welcome.

In ‘elevatorgate’, it was a little different. I had a bit of an audience by that point, even if I don’t blog often. I was very active on twitter and was beginning to get to know some of the Skeptics, mostly the feminist crew. So when other skeptics started yelling louder and louder about how Rebecca was wrong to voice her discomfort, I tweeted several posts and got quite a few nasty comments back. Then I was asked, rathe snarkily, why I was bothering to spread these posts if that was all I was going to do.

That was when I realized that being a little bit involved was no longer good enough. It was time to stand up and say “I am a member of this community, and I need to do something to sway it a little closer to a community I *want* to be a member of. So I wrote My Privileged World. This post was unspeakably hard for me to write. I had written more strongly worded things elsewhere, but they were all pseudonymous. This time I was standing up, as me, and saying “This is my experience, and I have the ability to voice it.” I was still worried about being shouted down, and even more scared about my coworkers and/or boss finding it. I was shaking when I pressed submit, and I’ll admit that I cried about it.

Then people started commenting. Some of them were mean. Some of them were inappropriate. Some of them were incredibly rude, threatening or downright disgusting. But some of them weren’t. Some of them were affirmations of my point. Some of them were retellings of problems that those women faced, or sympathetic posts from people I barely knew (but who would come to be good friends).

Then someone, I don’t know who (I’m guessing it was Josh Rosenau, actually), asked if I was going to The Amaz!ng Meeting.

Like ScienceOnline, I hadn’t thought about it. I knew by this point that I was going to, somehow, become more active in Skepticism. I just didn’t know how. I had guessed it would be by blogging, and by joining a group in my area. That big conference full of brilliant people and loud voices hadn’t occurred to me as a place I would fit in. So I said “maybe”, knowing full well that I couldn’t justify the price, and that the registration cost of the conference alone would have completely broke my budget.

Then something else happened. Surly Amy and the Women Thinking Free Foundation offered a grant to women who were interested in going to TAM (link to this year’s program). I decided to apply, thinking that I would never get it, but still hoping. Instead of writing the kind of grant application that one tends to assume one should write for a grant application, full of seriousness and grand ambition, I used honesty and probably a little too much humor. I’m pretty sure I referenced Firefly, or at least Nathan Fillion at some point in it. I also said that I wanted to teach young women to think critically, and that one of my favorite things to do was to teach Girl Scouts about volcanoes. I really didn’t think I would get it, so I decided to just be me.

When I received the email saying was a grant recipient I squealed. Outloud. In my office. My office mate probably thought I was posessed.

It meant more to me than just the registration fee. It meant that not only did I have a voice in my blog, but there were people who believed that I was worth encouraging. It might not have been the majority of the community who listened to my voice, or who donated to make my trip a possibility, but it was enough. It was amazing.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the skeptical movement, keep speaking up in favor of inclusion. Keep pointing out things when you think they’re wrong or you think they should be changed. It may feel like you’re fighting an endless uphill battle against an enemy who would like to see you not only defeated but humiliated. It may feel as if you can’t deal with it anymore.

But even when you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of hatred, you aren’t. There are other people here who have your back. And there are even more that you’ve never heard of or heard from. Women and men who are watching this fight and saying “now wait a minute….” Women and men who will finally hit that breaking point and add their voice to the chorus. Women who will say “Well, yes, this movement, like almost all movements, has a sexism problem. But I don’t need to suffer it in silence. They’re discussing it. There are people fighting for a more equal environment. And if I join maybe I can help too.”

Sometimes the best thing you can do to bring about a change you long for, whatever that change may be, is to not shut up about it. Yes, you might feel like a broken record, but at the end of the day, you’re not actually talking to the people you’re fighting with. You’re talking to those who remain silent. Those who may be learning, bit by bit, that they don’t have to be silent. They too can have a voice. One day your voice won’t be alone. It will be backed by a chorus of people who have raised theirs up, not just because they have something to say, which they do, but because they have learned they can say it out loud. You have taught them they can say it out loud.

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Your Prayers Can’t Fix Me. I Don’t Need to be Fixed

You’re at the mall early Sunday afternoon, looking for ballet flats to replace your pair that is falling apart. It’s not your favorite place in the world, but it’s not horrible. You’re there early enough that it’s not crowded, and your fellow shoppers seem to be enjoying the day off work, so the atmosphere is pleasant enough. You’ve found your shoes and picked up a black and white polka dotted dress that you don’t need, but might look cute enough to take on your trip next weekend.

Then a woman walks up to you. She has that typical young suburban mom look: jean jacket, expensive jeans, dusty blonde hair with highlights, pretty, with just enough makeup to hide the first signs of age, but not too much that it’s not flattering. She says excuse me,  and you wonder if you dropped something. You smile.

She gives you a big grin, moves in a little too close to you and does that weird hoppy thing that high school girls do when they find out that their best friend has been asked out by a football player. Excited, happy and overly insincere. You mentally brace yourself for a question about where you got your jeans or advice that your shoes just aren’t quite right for your outfit (you knew this already, but that’s why you’re getting new shoes).

Instead she says “Can I pray for you and your disability?”

You freeze and stare at her, forgetting what your line is. Luckily your brain can do this on autopilot “No, you may not.” you say, then as she opens her mouth to respond you add “Please get away from me.” You’re not sure where the please came from, but file it away anyway. The woman responds “Well, God bless you” tosses her hair and walks off.

You’re still frozen. Suddenly, the years of building up your body and your psyche fall away and you’re that strange preteen on crutches, the one who has to hide before school because the bullies will knock her down if she ventures out into the hallway. The one who has every step from the front entrance to the band room memorized (300 of them. Step, hop, step, hop… you count because it’s easier to count how many steps you’ve taken than to look up and see what kind of pain you’re in for.) The director lets you sit in there and hide while he keeps out the bullies.

Now, you can barely see through the haze of your differences. You logically know that most of the people in the store don’t care enough to look, and if they do, you’re a momentary curiosity to them, but suddenly you’re other, in a way that feels very vulnerable, very exposed. All of these other people, they’re normal. You’re not one of them. How could you ever have thought that you were?

Fifteen seconds ago you were normal, just one of hundreds of shoppers out on a rainy morning. You were completely, comfortingly anonymous. You were whole with all of the traits you’ve worked so hard over the years. The pains, the insecurities, the things you’re embarrassed about, they were all hidden, inside a somewhat pretty girl shopping for dresses. You weren’t thinking about the way you walk because honestly, most of the time, you don’t. It’s not that bad. There’s no pain accompanying it, now that you’ve slowly worked up to the point that you can maintain a decent level of exercise. The only things that really remind you of it are the weakness running up the outside of your leg where there should be a muscle taking up the slack, and occasional questions from friends or small children who are curious.

These reminders don’t bother you. You’re always happy to explain the things that are different about you: an honest question is a chance for honest understanding. Plus, it entertains you how embarrassed parents are when their kids ask a question like that. The weakness only matters when you’re trying to pull two very specific moves when climbing, and you’ve learned to climb around most routes that require that move.

However, the request to pray for you does hurt, in a way that anyone who has never been abnormal can’t understand. The request hurts because it is not only a statement that you are different, which is okay, but a statement that you are different in a way that needs to be fixed. It is a presumption that removes all strength from you and puts it into the hands of this healthy, perky, privileged woman.

You’re not just hurt for yourself, because you know that at the end of the day your limp doesn’t impact your daily life in any way. You’re angry for your friends, who have much more difficult challenges they’ve overcome. You’re angry for the children of your friends, who have challenges that they will have to overcome. This woman, and the women like her who make this request of you every two months anger you because you know that she will ask these people you love, these wonderful, strong, able, whole people, if they mind if she tries to fix them.

Because none of you need fixing. When someone asks to pray for you, a stranger, they are saying “you are less than me” “you are not good enough to fix yourself, so you must need my condescension”. Make no mistake, that is what they’re saying. They have good intentions, yes, but you don’t say to someone who you think is on your level that you want to make them better. You don’t single them out as someone in need of charity. You ask them what their needs are. You ask them what their experience is. You  try to understand.

Please, let your child ask me questions. Let them say that I walk funny and ask why. Because then I can kneel down next to them, explain that because of a brilliant surgeon and supportive hospital, I have a body that works. I can direct them to look at the positives of my experience rather than the negatives. I can ask them to focus on who I am and who I’ve worked to be, as a woman, a scientist, an educator, rather than focusing on my hindrances.

Then, maybe, the next person they talk to, they might think “hey, this person is strong”, “this person is like me”, this person has worked hard to be where they are, and they don’t see their physical or mental limitations as things to be fixed by outsiders, but rather something that is part and parcel of who they are. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t be the kind of person who goes around trying to fix people who don’t want or need it.

Or maybe they’ll grow up to be an orthopedic surgeon and fix me in the way I do need it, when I come to them asking for help. Either outcome is worthwhile to me.

 

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My Privileged World

I’m tired of this world that I live in.

Not the planet. I love this pale blue dot with a kind of love that is usually reserved for religious fanatics and 12 year olds discovering Justin Bieber.

No, the part of the world that I live in that wearies me is a subset of the human cultural world. It’s the part that insists that this world is perfect just because it is better than it would have been if I was born in the past or in a different part of the planet.

Let me tell you a little about the world I live in. Some of you will recognize it. Some of you will brush it off. Some of you will close the window or back off the page as soon as you realize what I’m talking about. But let me try anyway.

I live in a world where I’ve had to change my work schedule because I was afraid of being alone with a coworker.

I live in a world where I have to (regularly) suddenly find some reason to go back to the lobby because I don’t want some man following me to my hotel room, or grab a random acquaintance to ride the elevator with me.

I live in a world where I have to take a male friend with me through a convention hallway so that I don’t get cornered, alone, in what should be a safely patrolled area. Having another woman doesn’t help. They just try to corner both of us.

I live in a world where I have had to call a professor and tell them I wouldn’t be at their class because my newest follower has been standing outside of the room waiting for me for the past half hour.

I live in the world where I have had the thought, as horrible as it is, that “at least the newest stalker walks with a cane, so I can outrun him”.

I live in a world where the only reason I can use my real name online without fear is because my real address is in no way associated with that name. (And partially because I’ve just said F*** it and decided to be who I am.)

I live in a world where I (and several other women I work with) have strict rules for whether security will even confirm whether we work in our building due to problems with people showing up in the past.

I live in a world where it’s okay to call me a bitch because I won’t drink the random cup you just offered me or sit down at your table or let you touch me.

I live in a world where a former boss thought that it was perfectly okay to tell other women that I am harassed because I dress nicely.

I live in a world where men I’ve dated don’t think it’s a problem that I’ve been touched without permission by other men, and excuse it with “well, he’s just like that”.

I live in a world where I am a statistic, and where I am soundly renounced if I dare raise my voice to be anything but a statistic. If I dare complain that I don’t want to ever be put in the situation where I have to fear for my physical safety simply because I am a woman, or have to rebuild the pieces of a shattered and invaded psyche.

This is the supposedly “post-feminist” world that I am so lucky to be a part of. Where we get to be girly and giggly and sexy and never have to worry because those men are just being men and they really do respect you under the inappropriate touching and the cornering and the verbal intimidation and unwanted advances.

And why should I complain anyway? After all, I’m lucky enough to live in the “post-feminist” world, unlike those poor women in other countries.

Well, guess what?

Those women are fighting too. And one day they will win that fight.

And that day, they will turn around, after having reached the same place as us.

They’ll turn around and they won’t be looking at you with adoration for preventing them from being sold as child brides or mutilated, or for allowing them to work outside the home or drive cars.

No, they’ll be giving you the same strange, quizzical looks that we’re giving you now.

They will be looking at people they thought were allies and wondering how they can be allies if they’re only willing to stand in solidarity up to the point where they’re told to not touch a woman’s hair without her asking.

I wonder if you’ll get it then? When you can’t use the straw man of worse offenses to belittle our own experiences of fear and pain? I wonder if you’ll get it when you can’t hold up the spectre of women being oppressed by religion. I wonder if you’ll get that you’ve become the oppressor?

 

This post was inspired by the current uproar in the Skeptic community over an incident that Rebecca Watson experienced, and the subsequent attacks. That said, it’s something that has been simmering in my head for a while now. I used to be the kind of person who would brush off inappropriate encounters as ‘just a situation to get through’. Because of that I’ve put myself through and let myself be put through some pretty nasty encounters. The past two years have been a bunch of little incidents that managed to have the correct timing to make me realize this was more of a systematic problem than I had thought. I’m still not entirely sure I’m ready to address these issues head on, and I’m terrified of putting them out in the open, not under a pseudonym. However, that fear is no longer enough to stop me. I have to deal with enough fear in my daily existence as a woman that I’m not going to give in to the fear of whether people will lash out at me because I dare voice those fears any longer.

Some more voices on this subject:
It’s Not Okay by Kiyomi
The Religion Delusion – Welcome to the Feminist Fold, Atheist Women by Dr. Isis
Different Enemies, Same Feminist by The Barefoot Doctoral
The Inhuman Response to Rebecca Watson by John Rennie
A Pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confind space by Josh Rosenau
Jason Thibault’s The Problem with Privilege: Part 1 and Part 2 (Part 2 wins the “best title” award with No, you’re not a racist, misogynist ass, calm down.)
Jen McCreight’s Context Matters and Dawkins is not a Misogynist
And two of my older favorites:
I’ve Never been Very Good at Hiding by Christie Wilcox
How Not To Be An Asshole: a Guide for Men by Chris Clarke

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Good Teacher/Bad Teacher?

One of my professors has been driving me batty. There are several reasons for this. Partially, it’s just a difference of theoretical constructs. His focus is very much the “grand narrative*” style of scholarship. His explanations tend to be theological bordering on the Biblical. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this if it was the only problem, but I could put it aside. I find enough enough of a challenge in pulling interesting material out of a strange theory that it would be more entertaining than annoying. (And it would be great Twitter fodder.)

Unfortunately, this isn’t his only problem.

He has a complete and utter disregard for facts if they get in the way of his pet theory. Or the story he’s telling. Or his punchline.

In the beginning of the class I was willing to give him the absent-minded professor pass and assume that since the topic he was discussing (Origins of Agriculture) was outside of his realm, he might just not have a clear picture. In our class introductions I had mentioned that I had coursework specifically dealing with Origins of Agriculture, so when he asked what we thought of the subject, I gave him a concise (3-4 sentences each) summary of each the main theories. Nothing controversial. Just a basic overview.

That wasn’t what he wanted at all. In fact, he took my answer and ridiculed me for being both wrong and pedantic. Now I will fully admit to generally being pedantic, in this particular case I wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t even given an opinion on the theories. So I responded with citations, as I would in any other class I’m in, humanities or sciences. Most profs, even if they don’t agree with you, will at least listen to figure out where you’re coming from if you have a half-decent argument. (And if you don’t, then that’s great fodder for their own Tweets.)

Instead of listening to me, he cut me off, made an offhanded remark about that just not being true and moved on to another topic.

I was furious, but I wasn’t sure why. I spent my next class trying to figure out what I was so mad about. I wasn’t embarrassed. Aside from me, the rest of the class consists of Classics grad students, who I will never see again. I wasn’t even particularly perturbed that he didn’t agree with me. So why was I so mad?

After my classes were over for the day, I dropped in to the office of one of my favorite profs. We’ll call him D. I started the conversation with “So, how much trouble will I get in if I smack a professor?” His response was “It depends how much they deserved it.” I explained the situation to him, and as we wound our way through a discussion of the theory behind Classics and various similar topics, I started to realize what I was actually angry about.

It wasn’t that he had embarrassed me, it was that he had dismissed the information that I was providing on some authoritarian grounds, without considering it either way. I wasn’t angry at this man as a student. I was angry at him as an educator. I was angry at him for not taking a moment to either expand on his position in a way that I (and presumably the rest of the class) would understand, or alternately, to give a good reason why I was wrong.

He completely missed a moment where he could have emphasized critical thinking. He missed a chance to actually engage with the material in a way that would have been helpful to his students, who are presumably all being taught how to actually research in Classics. I wasn’t bringing up obscure sources. While they fall more on the anthropology side than the classics side, they are sources that are quoted repeatedly, even in the texts we’re using in the class.

What does this have to do with the seemingly irrelevant story of my conversation with D? Everything. In our conversation, D (as he always does) started at the beginning and tried to tease out the strands of my annoyance. He may not have any background in the subject we were talking about, but by making me express my thoughts in a careful and step-by-step way, he made me understand the weaknesses and strengths of my argument. I may not have learned anything factually new in this discussion, but that wasn’t the point. Without me being aware of it, he took me through my pattern of thinking and even made me aware of something I need to work on in my arguments.

And in doing this, he also highlighted what the other professor was *not* doing. The other professor was teaching facts by rote in a class that should have been about thinking independently and understanding the material, problems and all. Even worse, he was teaching like this to a group of students who are uniquely qualified to think about. The Classics department at my Uni is a pretty competitive program and I’ve always been impressed by the level of the students. This man, by not teaching in a way that took advantage of their abilities, was doing them a disservice, and possibly turning them off an interesting area of study. D, by taking five minutes and talking through the subject with me, managed to teach me more than the random facts and concepts tossed off by the other professor all quarter.

*I’m sure there’s a formal phrase for this, but I’ve mentally called this style of explanation ‘grand narratives’ ever since I was taken to task by a historian because, in his words, “Geologic time is just too big for a grand narrative, so I can’t accept it.” (I’m sure you can tell this is not meant to be a positive term in my literary toolkit.)

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