Sunday, 28 March 2010

Life During Wartime

I'm posting this from the house of my wife, Michelle. I'm staying here at the moment for complicated reasons involving family. Put very simply, my mother, who suffers from a chronic skin condition, and an iatrogenic stomach condition which occurred as a result of a very misguided attempt on the part of one medic to fix said skin condition, had a severe attack of pain on Thursday night, and had to be taken to hospital. My father reacted in the usual way he does to things like this, by being a dick and trying to find some way to blame me for the situation. This is the kind of shit he's pulled since I was a kid. As a 32-year-old human being, I can't be arsed putting up with it, so I packed a couple of bags, headed over to Michelle's and have stayed here since.

Of course, Michelle and I are in the process of getting divorced, so I'm sleeping on the couch, when I sleep at all, which is not enough: I spent all of Thursday night awake and am still groggy from the sleep deprivation. It looks as if, as things stand, many plans are up in the air, but I want to stick to as much as I can: I still have the BPS forms to get filled in, and my writing I can get on with anywhere: I took my laptop with me, though haven't set it up on the broadband here yet, but I have it available to write on, and my poems all filed therein. In an odd way, that's a comfort.

I want to get on with writing. I want to get my BPS membership sorted out, and start moving towards doing something worthwhile in psychology. And I want to sort out getting a place of my own somehow, something I should have done back when, but things kept getting in the way. At this point I'm even considering a council place, something I previously wouldn't have done, but my priorities have changed. I want independence.

Most of all, though, I want my mum to get better.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day

It's March 24th, and that means it's Ada Lovelace Day - the day when bloggers all over the world pay homage to the achievements of women in the field of technology and science. If you're reading this post, then you have Ada Lovelace to thank for it: she wrote the first computer programme, for Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, back in 1843 (why don't we still call computers 'Difference Engines' by the way? In fact why don't we call all pieces of computational technology 'Difference Engines'? I'm gonna start that. Tomorrow morning I will, as is my habit, switch on my Lap Difference Engine to catch up with my blogs, then take my PDE [Portable Difference Engine] to work with me. There I shall labour at a Desktop Difference Engine for about eight hours, before coming home to do some serious writing on the LDE, perhaps followed by a session playing 'Sporting Activities' on my Nintendo Leisure Difference Engine. But I digress.)

Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer programme, and the amazing thing is that she did it as frickin' footnote. She appended notes to a translation of Luigi Menabrea's memoir about Babbage's Awesome Steampunk Name Engine which explained a way the engine could be used to calculate Bernoulli Numbers. The world's first ever computer programme, an item of world-changing importance, the first stirrings of a new world yearning to be born - and she introduced it by going 'oh, by the way, you could use the machine to do this...'

Women in Ada Lovelace's time lived in the footnotes. They couldn't vote. They weren't considered fully paid-up members of society. They didn't get the same education as men, they didn't have the same freedom to act as men, their access to many professions and positions was barred. And so for a long time Ada  Lovelace didn't get her due. The Difference Engine was Babbage's invention and it was Babbage who got the credit. The fact that the first programme which could have ran on the engine was written by a woman went unremarked.

These days, women have advanced by leaps and bounds in society, but there are still women who live in the footnotes, whose incredible contribution to the world around is is not generally remarked on  by mainstream culture. Here's an example: you're reading this on a computer. I'll be honest here: for all I know computers work by magic. But as far as I can work it out, the agents of that magic are billions of tiny transistors which buzz busily away beneath the sleek, black (or, if you're one of those Mac wankers, creamy white) surface of your console, all carrying out the innumerable near-magical functions which allow me to type these words and upload them to the net to read them. This is all computers are, really: extremely complicated Difference Engines. They can carry out many more functions than Babbage's device, but it's the same basic principle.

As our ability to miniaturise computer technology improves, we can put billions of transistors into these funny little boxes. It wasn't always thus. Gather round, children, and imagine a time when the integrated circuits that make up a computer were thought astonishingly sophisticated if they could hold as many as ten transistors. Then, people got smarter, and figured out a way of including, ooh, hundreds of transistors. Hundreds. Imagine what you could do with that.

What was needed, to get from the ten-diode world of then to the billion-transistor world of now, was a way of getting thousands of transistor-based circuits onto a single chip. This method was Very Large Scale Integration, or VSLI. VSLI was pioneered by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway, and is often referred to as the Mead-Conway Revolution because it represented a massive leap in the amount of functions which could be carried out on the computing equipment of the time. The textbook 'Introduction to VSLI Design', co-authored by Mead and Conway, was one of the standard textbooks on chip design and influenced a generation of computer programmers. The computer on which you're reading this is able to carry out its amazing array of functions because of the advances in chip design pioneered by Mead and Conway. We've came a long way since then, just as we've came a long way since Babbage's engine, but without that intermediate period when it was necessary to make the leap from hundreds to thousands, we wouldn't have billions of diodes-worth of power at our feverishly-typing fingers.

There's another reason why Lynn Conway is an important figure, of course, and it's why I haven't yet included a link to her biography until now.

Basically, the platform on which you're reading this blog exists because of the work of a trans woman. Not only did Lynn Conway revolutionise computer technology, she was also a pioneer in terms of gender identity, transitioning during a time when it was even harder for trans people to be accepted than it is today. Trans women are still horribly marginalised by  mainstream society, and suffer consequences from lower wages, status inconsistency, and abuse to having a much greater risk of being murdered than people in the general population. These days, it's trans people who live in the footnotes, and whose contribution, even if it's awesome and game-changing, is overlooked by the mainstream. And, for that reason, Lynn Conway is my high-tech heroine for Ada Lovelace Day this year.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Why must we be surrounded by frickin' morons?

So you'll recall I was very pleased with this story, right? Particularly because it suggested that, in a world filled with idiots like Blanchard and Bindel, it showed that some people were behaving like decent humans and accepting the fact that we live in the future?

Well, fucking guess what.

Legally recognising that someone can have a gender outside the limited binary male/female division imperialist culture recognises would seem to be too hard for some people in Australia. Evidently it makes them choke on their Vegemite sarnies. How nice of John Hatzistergos  and his ridiculous chin to make sure Norrie May Welby doesn't have the freedom to go about interfering with these people and their dull suburban lives drinking XXXX, watching Aussie Rules Football and quietly wishing for an end to the slow, lingering, inceremental brain-death which is all they've known since birth. What a fine use of his public office. It isn't as if his time could be better used prosecuting, say, actual criminals. Yes, John, you and your chin spend your time going after gender outlaws instead, it's easier than taking on cases which might get you shot. You big-chinned prick.

The future is coming. There is no point standing in the way of a world of greater freedom and diversity for the sake of a few votes from the kind of rat-faced, barely-literate scum who can't count beyond the number two or think beyond the notion of 'us and them.' Some day, politicians will realise that, and we will all be able to breathe a deep sigh of relief. Until then, we just have to keep doing what we can in our own small way to widen peoples' understanding of issues like this, even in the face of obstacles like Kevin Rudd's uniformly appalling taste in ties, or John Hatzistergos's walking solar eclipse of a jawbone.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Late-breaking FAIL: webcomic creator in cissupremacist quiz error

I decided recently that I should apply for membership of the British Psychological Society. I have a valid degree to apply for graduate membership, and the recent business at the APA  over the DSM-V categorisation of Gender Incongruence shows that psychology, as a science, needs people who can think beyond the binary. Ironically, one of my favourite webcomics has recently provided an indication of why this is the case.

XKCD is a webcomic produced by Randall Munroe. Munroe comes from a scientific background, having worked as a contractor for NASA, and often includes geeky, science-based humour in the strip. He's also currently conducting some kind of research into colour blindness, and has included a survey on colour-blindness on his site.

If you've been following this blog awhile, you'll have worked out what's annoyed me. It's this question:

Do you have a Y chromosome?
If unsure, select "Yes" if you are physically male and "No" if you are physically female. If you have had SRS, please respond for your sex at birth. This question is relevant to the genetics of colorblindness.
What's particularly annoying about this is the fact that Munroe is clearly trying to be gender-inclusive, bless him. And I can sort of see why you might want to know the birth gender of people who are colour-blind, if you're studying the genetics of the condition. But...the fail. It burns.
It burns for a lot of reasons. Mainly because it's more complicated than that. Munroe doesn't allow for intersex people: by reducing 'physical maleness' to the matter of having a Y-chromosome, he excludes men with Klinefelter's syndrome (on which note check out Helen from Bird of Paradox's post about KS Awareness Week), who have a Y chromosome, it's true, but also have an extra X chromosome, and are less 'physically male' than the generic-model XY-guy. He excludes those people with tetragametic chimerism who can have XX and XY chromosome structures in different parts of their bodies. And he is of course tremendously hurtful to trans people by reducing the issue of their gender to what chromosomes they were born with.
I don't think that this was deliberate on Munroe's part. He's mentioned people who've had SRS, he's tried to frame the question not as 'are you male or female?' but 'do you have a Y-chromosome?' He's tried. This isn't the kind of Cisfail the Guardian, say, engage in when they run columns about trans people and queerness by folk like Julie Bindel or Bea Campbell. But he's got the whole thing bloody wrong. Not just ethically, in fact, but methodologically.
Because the thing is, doing a survey on the internet, in which anyone can take part, is a lousy way to carry out research. You'll get lots of responses, but how do you know those responses are the same people? How do you know which participants make up your sample? The data at the start of the survey are meaningless because - and I'm gonna rock you in your socks here, people - the internet lies. Anyone (i.e. me) could go on Munroe's survey, and claim to be, say, a colourblind Frenchwoman in possession of a genuine Y-chromosome, and then proceed to answer the survey by, say, giving the colours increasingly ridiculous names. This happens when you do research. One of my old psych lecturers said that psychology experiments are tainted, for the most part, because the samples they usually use are made up of psychology students, and usually most of those students will either (a) be nice students trying to 'help' you get the result you 'want' or (b) evil little feckers (i.e. me, again) deliberately trying to give answers which will give you the result you don't 'want.' So, y'know, doing a survey on the internet in which anyone can participate is methodologically unsound from the get-go. So why ask an offensive question in the first place?
It'll get lots more responses, that's certain. But a more tightly controlled research project carried out among a smaller participant population would yield better quality data from participants who could be much better described. As it is, Munroe's survey is basically an open invitation to people to lie about their gender, about whether or not they're colourblind, about what country they're from (and we've noticed the annoying 'Tell us your native language, but answer questions in English' question, haven't we?) and so on, and then to 'answer' the survey by calling the colours things like 'Jan Vermeer's Pannetone Cyclotron', 'Grrr-nommy-nomminy' and 'the mongspoddler'. Not that I would endorse such behaviour (which may or may not have been carried out by me).
The fact is that, frankly, trans people, as much as we might wish it otherwise,  are such a statistically small section of the population (yes, even on the internet) that, unless you're actually doing research on the trans community (and research in such a sensitive area should come with very specialised ethical requirements), it isn't worth controlling for the possibility of trans men and women answering your survey. Munroe could easily get away with asking the question 'Are you male or female?' safe in the knowledge that most of his results will come from cis people, and that any statistical patterns relating to biological gender will be easily apparent in the data. To get into discussion of chromosomes, to talk of being 'physically male' or 'physically female' and to ask trans people to give their birth gender (therefore reminding them of their status in some bigots' eyes as not real women or men, with all the traumatic memories that will trigger) is both unnecessary and irresponsible. It's bad science, in both senses of the word. And, coming from the creator of a strip who's so often found humour in mocking other peoples' scientific errors, it's a depressing thing to see.
As any scientist will tell you, the biggest part of the job is asking the right questions. Munroe has tried to ask the right question in his survey, but he's tried too hard: and when he finds himself toiling through page after page of deliberately buggered-up results, he'll only have himself to blame.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Week in FAIL

Maybe it's something in the stars. Maybe the turn of the seasons, and the first signs of proper spring weather have made people friskier than usual. Maybe there's something in the water. Or maybe years of exposure to bad media have finally, irrevocably cracked the collective global brain. But if this week was marked out by any one thing, it was by masses, absolute steaming shitheaps, of FAIL. FAIL everywhere you look: here a FAIL, there a FAIL, everywhere a FAIL-FAIL. Want examples?

Well, for starters, there was the UK Government report which decided that it's apparently alright for teachers to be members of the fash. What a load of cock. The BNP are scum, usually with lists of criminal convictions as long as your arm, and they operate a policy of trying to intimidate people out of opposing them. I don't have kids; but if I did, I wouldn't want BNP members anywhere near them. Schools have a duty to help kids develop a sense of citizenship as members of a multicultural society, and the BNP are actively against that. As well as being actively against trans people, gay people, disabled people, and the existence of rape as a concept. If you hold views like that, you shouldn't be in schools. In fact, you shouldn't be in society. You should be in the woods, dangling from a tree with your own shit running down your legs while birds piss in your eyeballs. And that's what I think when I'm in a forgiving mood.

What else happened in the world of FAIL this week? Well, Lady Gaga finally put the kibosh on the rumours that she's (yawn) 'actually a man', and, ironically enough, did so in a manner which completely sucks up to THE man. It's okay, everyone! She doesn't have a dick after all! Lad-mag readers: you may now masturbate yourself safely into scrotal oblivion untroubled by complex thoughts about gender and sexuality! Rejoice! Let joy be unconfined! Whatever. I still like the tunes, but as far as the really cool kids are concerned, the Gaga moment is now over. She belongs to the people who drink in Wetherspoons now. She's dead to us.

(Oddly enough it was something of a week for the intersection between trans issues and annoying little pop-waifs. An entity that calls herself Kesha has been sharing her 'appreciation' of trans women with media outlets for...well, some reason or other. It's unfortunate  that she seems to have confused trans women with drag queens in her description, but I suppose her heart is sort of in the right place and it's nice to see someone in the media saying something positive. Still, though. Category error is a form of FAIL.)

But the top FAIL of this week has to be the ludicrously disproportionate response of some big beasts of UK poetry  to Todd Swift's complaints regarding the editorial selections for Roddy Lumsden's poetry anthology Identity Parade. I'm not entirely sure I agree with Swift regarding Lumsden's decisions, but I can respect the fact that, unlike some toilers in the poetic vineyard, he isn't afraid to put his career on the line by fronting up to the big boys. Said big boys did not exactly cover themselves in glory with their responses: Lumsden felt so confident in his selection that he called in a pal to deep-six Swift's impending review of the anthology, and Bloodaxe head honcho Neil Astley took to ripping the piss out of Swift on his Facebook page like a fourteen-year-old girl making an especially inept attempt at cyberbullying. Nice work, fellas. You've really countered the view of the UK poetry scene as cliquey, tribalist and backstabbing. FAIL.

And that was the week in FAIL. Now, here's Bill with the weather...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

You can blame Kate Fox for this one

It isn't going on the Blankmedia profile because it's just a silly little piece. But I feel like getting it out there, so here it is. I was reading Kate Fox's Facebook page, and she was writing about a chinese meal she'd had where a woman sang really kitschy songs throughout - someone else said that at their branch of (popular UK home improvement chain) B&Q, they always play Roxy Music's 'Slave to Love' on a Friday night. Which of course set odd-brained Adam's odd brain off, and led to...

Bryan Ferry at the B&Q

to the tune of 'Slave to Love'

I see you gliding
across the floor
with some flat-pack bookshelves
and a circular saw.
Your orange trolley
is filled so tight,
but you’ve got no brolly
and it’s a rainy night.

I move closer to you
through the widest aisle:
store assistant watches
with geriatric smile.
We admire the woodwork,
all tongue-and-groove;
I adjust my silk tie
it’s time to make my move.

I draw up beside you
and I take my chance:
for the merest instant
our trollies dance,
but too soon I realise
you’re no good for me:
‘cause here comes your girlfriend
and she called security.

But I hold no grudges,
I’m no jealous guy:
if I get no action,
there’s always DIY...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

'The sniper's bullet is an extension of his eye: he kills with injurious vision.'

As a genderqueer person it always annoys me when some cis gay men engage in transmisogynistic (and indeed just plain old misogynistic) behaviour in a pathetic attempt to shore up their own self-esteem by kicking down at another marginalised group. Prolonged observation of one such specimen in the field led to the writing of this poem. I'm honestly not usually this vicious (I'm actually quite the sensitive little flower), but if I catch you doing something ignorant, bigoted and just plain wrong, then I will watch everything you do, note it down, and then create a portrait which shows your ugly side in such detail that it will ruin you. Or to put it another way: do not fuck with the bard.

Full o'Busy

So just time to bring to your attention this heartening link from Bird of Paradox.

We live in the future, people. Don't let anybody tell you different, especially if they want to drag us back. The Future = NOW.

Gotta dash!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Publish and be Spammed

All of which ruminations on confidence lead me into one of my own tender and vulnerable areas of self-doubt, neatly summed-up in the subtle and nuanced suggestion my inner editor makes to me on a near-daily basis:

'Oi! Bitch Boy! Are you ever going to get around to fucking publishing something already, or are you just gonna sit there sobbing all the time because your fucking hair won't do what you want it to?'

Yes, that's what William Shawn's been doing since going off to the great editorial roundtable in the sky: haunting me with abusive editorial advice. As you can see, he's lost none of that dry New Yorker wit.

He does have kind of a point, though: it has been a long time since I've published something substantial, and the poems are kind of piling up and banging on the door to the outside world. 'Let us out!' they plead. 'We have grown tired of the smell of tears and discarded hair-care products! We wish to live! We wish to be free! We wish to siiiiiing - '

Yes, and that's  quite enough of that, thank you, poems. Actually I have kind of got them into something resembling an order, and have what amounts to a pamphlet-sized collection with which I'm just about happy. And I was about ready to start shopping this around publishers when, at her (fantastic as usual) gig last week, Kate Fox asked me a question which knocked me for six: 'If you did publish a book, who do you think would read it? Who do you publish for?'

I'm sure Kate didn't mean for this to happen, but this struck me as a deeply worrying question. Not because I fear no-one will read a book I publish. It's a bit more complicated than that. I think there are probably a lot of people who would, but I suspect (in some cases I know) that some of them don't really have the disposable income to spend on fripperies like collections of work by minor northern poets. Conversely, I strongly suspect that there will be a large part of the poetry reading audience with disposable income who will actively avoid spending money on a book by someone like me. Because - well, let's be honest, I'm something of a freak. And while I'd like to believe that the poetry-buying public would turn out in droves to read a pamphlet of poems about growing up as an anorexic, self-harming boy with an unhealthy obsession with Tori Amos and entirely too much of an interest in make-up and shiny shiny shiny things...well, I would like to believe that Katee Sackhoff is at this very moment saying 'fuck these Hollywood assholes, what I need in my life is an overweight thirty-two-year-old poet with an unhealthy obsession with Tori Amos and entirely too much interest in make-up and shiny shiny shiny things, and also I'm going to cut my hair short again, and take up Brazillian ju-jitsu, fuck it' but, y'know, I kinda doubt that too.

While I was busy pondering all this, I posted Kate's question on my Facebook profile, which lead to some interesting back-and-forth between writers Kevin Cadwallender and James Whitman, as well as my ex-wife, Michelle, and others, about whether poets should actually bother considering their audience. What emerged from all this discussion, and from my own private thoughts on the matter, is that for the writer of poetry, considering the audience is not that important (in fact in my own experience it's actively harmful, and turns you from a poet into a performing monkey), but for the publisher it's crucial. Publishers may not make much money on a book of poems, but they don't want to lose money, either. And, especially if the publisher is a friend of mine - which, in a close-knit world like that of poetry, is usually going to be the case - I know that I will feel tremendously bad if I cause a friend of mine to lose money.

Of course, as Kate herself pointed out on Twitter, we live in interesting times for publishing, and it might well be possible to find some way of publishing a book that could be sold to those wishing to buy it, while still making it accessible to those who lacked the income as well. Joolz Denby has done an interesting thing recently by giving away her new novel, Wild Thing, for free, to make the point to her reluctant publishers that there is an audience for the book. Others have done similar things with novels, and found that giving away books free online actually doesn't hurt their print sales any. They say that the people who download the most music illegally are also the people who buy the most music by legal means as well: maybe it's the same with books.

What I'm tempted to do with the new pamphlet is this: publish one version of it in downloadable form, as a PDF, which anyone can download for free. That way, people who want to read my stuff but don't have the disposable to drop on it can still read it . It also, and this is a practical consideration, puts the book in easier reach of my US fans. I mean, if you're one of my fans and you live in America you might want to buy a hard copy of my book, but let's face reality: one of us is going to have to pay the postage. You won't want to, and if I do, and turn out to have, say, more than three US fans, I'll wind up financially crippled (I posted two books overseas to a friend in the states recently, and needed to be revived with smelling salts after the guy in the shop told me how much it would cost). So there would be an accessible, free version of the pamphlet; there would also be a print version for people to spend money on if they wanted. There would be different content exclusive to each version too,  so the real Adam Fish completists - yes, both of them - would have to get both books to have everything.

I think this would be a feasible way to serve the people who like my stuff but can't afford to buy the damn book, while also creating an incentive to buy for those who could. Plus, by making the book as available as possible one gains a certain amount of audience leverage. Maybe the people who pay money for poetry books won't buy a hard copy of this pamphlet; but being able to say that the free version was downloaded x amount of times gives me a certain amount of cultural capital, creates the perception of me as being popular to some degree, and makes it more likely that people will buy the next book (which makes the next book more appealing to a publisher).

It seems to make some degree of sense. But I hate thinking this way. It seems mercenary and cold-hearted and not entirely in the spirit of art. As a certain Amherst poet whose name appears in the title of this blog put it, 'Publication - be the auction - of the mind of man/Poverty - be justifying - for so foul a thing'. I'm not poor. But part of me would quite like to auction off a little of my mind. And if I can do that in a way that includes all the people who'd want to read the book, and still works in the long run to my advantage as an artist, that can't be a bad thing. Can it?

I don't know. But I'll have to stop considering it for a moment because, in a surprising development, Katee Sackhoff has just turned up at the door with a case of Anchor Steam, a pair of sap gloves, and a mint-condition vinyl copy of Y Kant Tori Read. Maybe there is a paying audience for my work after all...Yeah, right.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

'It's not Number One who will come out alive: it's the freak in the corner with his eyes on fire.'

The ever-reliable Charlie Brooker speaks some Strong Truth in his TV review for today's Grauniad: 'One of life's sorest tragedies is that the people who brim with confidence are always the wrong people.' (emphasis mine)

A sore tragedy indeed, and one to which I've been giving a lot of thought in the past few weeks. Having found myself unemployed at the end of last year, then making the rounds of job interviews at various places, before securing a job in my current workplace and trying to fit in (and then deciding not to bother trying to fit in) with a new bunch of people, I've been thinking about that elusive beast we call 'confidence' or 'self-esteem' or 'self-worth', or whatever. You know the kind of thing I mean: the can-do, go-getting, utterly sickening attitude of the kinds of prick (and very often the kind of person displaying this behaviour is in possession of a prick, and disgustingly comfortable being so) who truly, honestly believe there's nothing they can't do. The kind of scumbag who winds up on the Apprentice or the other tawdry 'reality' programmes in which gangs of gurning halfwits are pressed into performing moronic tasks for the amusement of Space Raider-chomping never-weres. Those feckers.

The weird thing I've noticed is that, whether on reality TV or in the global marketplace (remember all those smug assurances that the credit bubble wouldn't burst for another billion years?), the confident bastards always fail. This shouldn't be that surprising, psychologically speaking. And it hasn't been surprising for over twenty years. In 1989, Cornell University psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning conducted research which proves, essentially, that the more confident you are of being able to perform a task effectively, the more likely you are to fail. Conversely, truly effective people usually underestimate their performance. Other research has found that trying to boost peoples' self-esteem has no effect on academic improvement, and that employing people with high self-esteem can often be a risky decision because, when their ego is threatened, they usually fuck up. The evidence is there, and has been there for two decades, that recruiting and promoting people on the basis of their being super-mega-confident is an incredibly stupid thing to do. And yet, we continue to live in a world that, as I said yesterday, rewards confidence over actual achievement. Why?

Well, one reason is probably that people in the business world have a very poor understanding of genuine psychology. It amused the hell out of me, during training at my new place, to have to answer yet another bloody VAK questionnaire based on the now mostly discredited pseudo-science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, but the lack of willingness on the part of business to use genuine personality measures in categorising their staff is a pretty serious matter. If you can't classify staff properly you risk recruiting the wrong people, deploying those people to the wrong areas and, ultimately failing spectacularly, dragging your profits, and maybe even your company, down in flames. But valid and reliable personality measures are difficult to administer. You need qualified technicians to administer and interpret them. They take a while to complete. You need to pay for the tests, and you need to pay the technicians for their hard work as well. This is discouraging to many businesses, but the bald fact is that you get what you pay for. Most personality measures used by companies today are basically no more valid or reliable than a Cosmo questionnaire. If you answered mostly As, Bs or Cs, you're an idiot and your company is fucked.

There is, of course, another reason why people in privileged positions continue to reward confidence, though, and that reason is privilege itself. Basically, the more privileged you are, the more confident you are likely to feel. Remember that privilege can take many forms. Men have privilege over women; cis people have privilege over trans people; whites have privilege over people from other races; able-bodied people have privilege over disabled people, and so on. These oppressions can and do intersect, and people who lack privilege in one way may still have privilege over other groups, and may still abuse it (a good example of this would be the way a lot of cis gay people, who lack hetero privilege, are perfectly happy to exert privilege over trans people, often in hateful and exclusionary ways).

When you look at people in the top positions in industry, you see that, despite decades of equality activism, they still tend to be able-bodied, cis gender, heterosexual caucasian males. Despite the bleatings of the Daily Mail tendency, the archetypal black lesbian in a wheelchair decidedly does not get it all her own way (though if I worked in recruitment I'd hire a black lesbian in a wheelchair in a heartbeat. Imagine having to contend with racism and homophobia and ableism on a daily basis. She'd be hard as fucking nails.). And the reason for this is that we recruit, especially for higher-level positions, on the basis of confidence. And not just confidence in job interviews, but in the business environment. In the office. At the social events. At the squash club. Down the pub. We hire and promote people who exude confidence, who seem like 'good blokes' and walk with a swagger (though we only reward swaggering in people who are like us. Swagger as a member of a minority group and just wait to be accused of being 'uppity'. It won't take long.).

And by rewarding confidence, we reward privilege. People who lack privilege, people who are marginalised by society, have to contend with being reminded of their lack of privilege on a daily basis. (Don't believe me? Think I'm being needlessly 'politically correct'? Read The Invisible Knapsack, or one of its many variants unpacking heterosexual, cis or other forms of privilege.) You are constantly told, in ways both subtle and unsubtle, that you don't belong. That you aren't worthy. This is bound to make it harder to feel confident in yourself. Conversely, if you are privileged, the world goes out of its way to reinforce your confidence. Most of the rich, famous, celebrated people look like you. You can drink where you want, you can sit anywhere you want on the bus, you have no problem flagging down a cab. This is bound to make you feel more confident in yourself.

To put it bluntly, then: rewarding confidence is a way in which privileged people can reward and promote each other on the basis of privilege, without seeming to. They themselves may not even be conscious that they're doing it. But it's discrimination all the same. It's also actively harmful to businesses, because confident people are more likely to fuck up; and, because people with lower self-esteem actually seem to do better in challenging situations, it actually leads to us ignoring a vast wealth of ability, skills and experience which could help pull us out of the economic hellhole smug, confident, privileged people have dragged us all into. It needs to stop.

I'm not holding my breath, though. And, before I go, one final word on self-esteem. There is a way in which those of us who lack privilege can make our self-esteem stronger than that of the privileged. Most privileged people derive their self-esteem from their position in the hierarchy, from being 'top of the heap.' This is not a very strong basis on which to build your self-esteem, and that's why, as in the Baumeister paper I linked to above, it basically crumbles and leads to EPIC FAIL when it encounters an ego threat. If you lack privilege on one axis of the kyriarchy but have it on another, you could follow the 'kiss up, kick down' strategy of picking on groups below you, but this still leads to the same weakness: as soon as you encounter ego threat, you'll fuck up. Or, you could do the smart thing, and base your self-esteem not on your hierarchical position, but on your achievements. Doing this means you have a firmer, more realistic basis on which to build your self-confidence, which gives you a better chance of handling ego-threat scenarios. Privileged people don't like to do this because it's hard work and, hey, why bother when you can just sneer at the outcasts? But it pays dividends when the chips are down. And it's one way in which people who lack privilege have a head-start, because if you base your self-esteem on achievements rather than position, by negotiating the daily challenges of a world which tries to disadvantage you in a million different ways, you've already achieved something great.

And, in facing a world which rewards privilege and marginalises those who lack it, it's important to keep your self-confidence up as an act of resistance to the kyriarchy. And if you are privileged, then you could maybe stop repeating your affirmations into the mirror and listen to the quiet, freakish people in the corner of the office for a change. They might have some ideas of a little more relevance to your business than what England need to do to win the world cup, or what you'd like to do to Cheryl Cole now she's single again. To sum it up: for the marginalised, self-esteem management is self-defence; for the privileged, self-aggrandisation is self-abuse. And we all know what happens when you do too much of that.

Friday, 5 March 2010

You've Got Ray Blanchard In A Whirl...

My last post, about my dissatisfaction with the inclusion of 'Autogynephilia' as a diagnostic category in DSM-V has  caused some controversy on Twitter, which I feel I should address here. What I specifically want to address is the accusation that I don't believe Autogynephilia is 'real'.

The reality, of course, is more complex than that. The thing about psychiatric diagnoses is that they are harder to arrive at than biological ones. Klinefelter's Syndrome is comparatively easy to diagnose: either your karyotype indicates you have an extra X chromosome or it doesn't. Gender Identity Disorder - soon, gods and goddesses willing, to be reclassified as Gender Incongruence - is a more nuanced diagnosis to make, depends on a lot of factors, and can be experienced differently by different people.

The reason for this is that psychiatrists and psychologists, in classifying mental disorders, are dealing not so much with specific viruses or bacteria, but more nebulous collections of symptoms. Many of the symptoms occur together and often react well to certain forms of clinical intervention. Where this happens it is usual to apply a diagnostic label to the collection of symptoms in order to aid the treatment of individuals who present with them in the future. But the labels we apply to these collections of symptoms are always subject to change, as are the symptoms which fall under a certain label. For example, schizophrenia as we know it has developed over a curious course of diagnostic evolution from its original classification as 'dementia praecox' to the clinical definition we know today. Currently, moves are afoot to eliminate Asperger's Syndrome as a separate condition and merge it with the other Autism Spectrum Disorders, on the grounds that it fits in better on that spectrum than as a separate entity. All this is as it should be: research modifies our understanding of a condition, which in turn modifies the way we categorise it, which in turn leads to improvements in the ways we treat or help people deal with these conditions.

In a perfect world this is how it would always work, but this world is far from perfect, and, despite vast efforts to build in a system of checks, balances and controls, psychologists and psychiatrists are at least as likely as people in the general population to have prejudices and biases, and these biases can and do creep into the disciplines themselves. This is one reason why periodic revision of the DSM is a good idea: it allows for reevaluation of the previously accepted psychological norms.

'The normal' itself is, of course, one of the biggest biases that can creep into diagnosis. I mentioned in my previous piece that, for a long time, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric 'disorder' because it was regarded as 'abnormal.' Thankfully, these days it is accepted that this isn't the case. But psychiatry persists in categorising some sexualities as normal and others as not so. The device used for this purpose is the idea of 'paraphilia' or, in layman's terms, sexual fetishism.

Paraphilia, as a diagnosis, has its uses, in that it provides a useful framework for considering the sexual desires of people whose behaviour is genuinely harmful, such as paedophiles and sex murderers. You'll note that the DSM-IV definition talks of non-normative sexual behaviours which 'may cause distress or serious problems for the paraphiliac or other persons associated with him or her'. But, notice the may. Something doesn't have to be causing anyone harm to be considered a paraphilia. Your kink might be pretty innocuous - maybe you have a thing for being shagged on formica tables, or you like to masturbate while listening to Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. You're not harming anyone (unless you go to a concert hall to pleasure yourself), but it doesn't matter. You have a paraphilia. You have a disorder. You are, as they say, in the system.

Look: I've known some kinky people. Hell, I'm pretty kinky myself (you don't want to know what I want Girl Obelix to do to me), and none of the kinky people I've met seemed mentally ill. Some had other mental illnesses, such as depression, but no more than in the general population, by my reckoning. And where there did seem to be a link between their particular pastime and some level of, say, depression or alcoholism, this could always be understood as a reaction to their marginalised status, and the prejudice they suffered from people with more privileged 'normal' sexualities.

I'm coming to understand that the social construction of mental disorders, which seemed like a purely theoretical idea when I first studied psychology, is a reality. To say disorders are socially constructed does not mean they aren't 'real.' Rather, it's the case that when people fall outside social norms, the response of people in society to their behaviour actively constructs their disorder. Consider the paradigm that has recently emerged in the field of disability activism: people are not disabled in themselves, they are disabled by a society which creates obstacles to their effective functioning, to the benefit of the privileged. Without wanting to come across as entirely RD Laing, I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that many people we class as 'disordered' actually reflect the disordered state of society.

Gender Incongruence is a real thing which people experience, and which can be treated with a variety of methods, up to and including gender reassignment surgery. But it only becomes a disorder because it conflicts with the social expectations a society places on someone because of their birth gender, and failing to meet those expectations causes feelings of trauma and guilt. Most sexual fetishes only become disorders when the treatment of people who happen to enjoy such fetishes leads to their experiencing feelings of marginalisation and low self-worth.

This applies even to those disorders considered to have a strong physiological basis. Depression seems to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain (given that it often responds to treatment using chemicals which correct said imbalances). However, depression as a disorder, rather than a normal, acceptable and managable part of human diversity, is constructed by a society which unduly rewards self-confidence and bonhomie over actual achievement (there'll be more on this in my next post, which will consider the issue of privilege and self-esteem in greater depth).

So, to return to Autogynephilia, here we have a definition of something which could easily be classed as Gender Incongruence, but isn't because some cis male psychologists have decided that the only real gender incongruence is heterosexual in nature. If you're a trans woman and you want to fuck men, Roberta's your auntie. But if you're male assigned at birth, feel gender incongruence, but want to get it on with other ladies...that's not real Gender Incongruence. That's just a paraphilia. That's just sexual deviancy (don't worry if you're a trans man who wants to fuck other fellas, though. Ray Blanchard doesn't consider gay trans men in his definition of Autogynephilia. Perhaps, like Queen Victoria on lesbians, he doesn't think they really exist).

I cannot see the logic in this distinction. As far as I can work it out, Gender Incongruence is the same regardless of who you want to bump uglies with, because, well, Gender Congruence is the same, regardless of who you want to bump uglies with. So 'Autogynephilia' can only be a socially constructed 'disorder' based on the heteronormative, cissupremacist prejudices of our society. But it isn't just a bad diagnosis. It's actively harmful.

Many transphobes today persist in regarding being trans as a 'lifestyle choice'. By creating a false division which says one type of Gender Incongruence is real, but one is just a 'perversion', the deployment of Autogynephilia as a diagnostic category legitimises this perception. It makes psychologists and psychiatrists complicit in the marginalisation of people who are already heavily marginalised by society. This is a deep betrayal of psychology's basis as a science, and psychiatry's basis as a branch of medicine. The purpose of science is to describe reality objectively, free from the biases and prejudice of phenomenologically lazier forms of discourse. The purpose of medicine is to heal those who are hurting, without harming them further.

'Autogynephilia' does not meet either of these requirements. It is scientifically unnecessary: everything it involves could easily be described in terms of Gender Incongruence. And it is medically abhorrent, as it leaves people who form a normal, healthy part of the gender spectrum with the idea that they are somehow 'wrong', with no possibility of cure, and causes them further harm by legitimising the prejudiced views that they're all just perverts.

None of this means that there are not birth-gendered men who identify as female in a primarily sexual context. For some of these people it is just a fetish, either cross-dressing or enforced feminization. That's fine. For some it goes deeper. There are also, of course, trans women who aren't very sexual. And there are trans women who are very sexual, and trans men of all kinds too. The gender spectrum is just that, a spectrum, on which there are many varieties of experience. This is a concept bourne out by the experiences of people in the trans community and their cis allies every day, but it's a concept which still meets with resistance from the more bigoted sectors of the population. The job of psychologists is to break down this bigotry by revealing the truth about the human psyche. The job of psychiatrists is to help those who are harmed by such bigotry. So the message to the people compiling the DSM-V should be clear: focus on a more inclusive, but still robust, definition of Gender Incongruence, chuck 'Autogynephilia' on the scrap heap with dementia praecox and sexual inversion, and do your bloody jobs. It's what you're there for.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Another Invented Disease

'Girls can cut their hair short...wear shirts and things...because it's okay to look like a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think being a girl is degrading.' - Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden (by way, I freely admit, of Madonna's 'What It Feels Like For a Girl')

We haven't talked about Psychology on here in a while; I mean Psychology as a science, rather than the areas in which other posts might trespass on ideas from the discipline. Which is something I really ought to rectify, because all the big beasts of the Psych world are currently getting together, emitting a series of low bass rumbles and high-pitched yammers at each other, and in the process secreting a new edition of the Psychologists' 'Bible', the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 5th Edition  or, to give it it's catchy and ever so slightly fetishy acronym, DSM-V.

I have a copy of DSM-IV on my bookshelf at home, acquired when I was studying Psychology at Sunderland University. It's an interesting book. It has a chequered history. For a long time, Psychologists listed 'homosexuality' as a disease in previous editions of the Manual - DSM-IV is, I think, the first edition which didn't, after a long and protracted campaign. Shamefully, one of the people involved in that campaign was Ron Gold, who, though he did good work on that issue, later ossified into yet another trans-hating cisgay man, spewing crap about how trans people don't really exist on sites like the Bilerico project (I'm not linking to Gold; hateful, cowardly betrayers of liberty will get no through-traffic from this site. Instead, because ze's sound, intelligent, thoughtful and, let's face it, quite the looker, have a gander at Tobi Hill-Meyer's Bilerico columns instead).

DSM-IV also, of course, includes the controversial condition 'Gender Identity Disorder'. Controversial not only because pricks like Gold think it doesn't exist (and even bigger oxygen-thieves like Julie Bindel apparently genuinely believe it was invented as a conspiracy by evil Psychlons to try and trap us all in some Mad Men 50s fantasy world), but also because many trans people resent the idea that they have a 'disorder'. In that respect some good work is being done in the new DSM, in that GID will be replaced with the much more open category of 'Gender Incongruence' which will, quite importantly, be regarded as a curable condition: people who suffer gender incongruence will be considered cured when they have SRS to realign their physical gender with their felt gender. Fair enough.

Of course, as the saying goes, nothing truly brilliant was ever designed by committee and so, of course, the inevitable academic horse-trading on these things means that, in order to satisfy crawling half-humans like Ray Blanchard, - a man so fucking anal that he decided the condition of wanting to have sex with adult humans needed to be technically codified in the same way as a paraphilia, for Satan's sake - we're also getting some rather hateful new syndromes tagged in on the back of Gender Incongruence, specifically 'Transvestic Fetishism' and 'Autogynephilia'. Here's Cheryl Morgan with more on this ugly little bit of theorizing.

There is an awful lot about all this that really incenses me. One thing is the way in which, as a discursive psychologist, I find it repugnant for privileged cis males to define psychological categories which write marginalised people out of their own narratives. But one of the other really annoying things is that, as Morgan points out, 'Transvestic Fetishism' and 'Autogynephilia' are parsed as applying only to 'men' who wear 'women's' clothing or 'imagine' themselves to be women.

Because, of course, it's obvious that girls would want to dress up like boys because, you know, when you're a boy, you'll get your favourite things, other boys check you out etc etc (of course, under Blanchard's categories, Bowie would probably be considered mentally ill for dressing up as a girl in the video for 'Boys Keep Swinging', which shows how medieval Blanchard's thinking really is - it being a truth universally acknowledged that if you think Bowie's wrong, you fail at life), whereas being a boy and wanting to be an icky, yucky, girl is, as any fule kno, clearly a sign of mental illness.

Well, I'm sorry, but if that's the case, then hullo clouds, hullo sky, and colour me fucking crazy. Because if Ray Blanchard is what passes for a supposedly sane human being these days, you can book me a one-way ticket to Arkham Asylum and throw away the key. But then again, it's worth remembering that one of the most disturbed villains in the Batman canon, Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow was...a psychiatrist.

It's a good thing the Scarecrow's fictional, really. If he existed, they'd probably get him in to chair the DSM-V subgroup on costumed vigilantes.