Archive for May 2012

Why “bad feminist” is a dangerous humblebrag

May 30, 2012

I hear this a lot.

Oh dear, I’m a bad feminist!

Don’t tell the sisterhood, but…

And if that makes me a bad feminist, tough!

[Tweet inexplicably followed by the hashtag #badfeminist]

And why exactly does this annoy the fuck out of me? Well. Assuming “bad feminist” means someone who does not actually fulfil the requirements of being a feminist, you might expect to hear something along the lines of:

I want my daughter to grow up believing she’s inferior to men. I’m such a bad feminist!

But you never do hear the phrase in that context. Instead, you hear:

Actually, if we could afford it I’d be happy to give up work. I’m such a bad feminist!

Pink is my favourite colour. Oh dear, bad feminist!

Being dominated turns me on. Don’t tell the sisterhood!

I wasn’t offended by that thing that offended some feminists. Guess I’m a bad feminist after all!

Gloria Steinem may string me up by my toes, but I want to be there for my kids and my husband.

In other words, you almost always hear the “bad feminist” boast – because, yes, it is a boast – in a context where the speaker is telling you they’ve somehow failed to live up to expectations, or failed to fit in with accepted thinking. In other words, a context where the speaker is setting up a proscriptive straw-sisterhood in order to contrast themselves with it. A context where the speaker is none-too-subtly telling the world about their unique snowflakicity.

There are several deep ironies here. One is that the right to determine your own thoughts and actions is a core goal of feminism. Another is that this straw-sisterhood, meeting regularly and laying down the law on all aspects of feminist life, only exists in the fevered imagination of the “bad feminist” herself. But the deepest irony of all is this.

When you describe yourself as a bad feminist, it sounds on the surface like a minor, charming admission of failure. But scratch that surface very gently and it’s revealed to be a boast. Scratch the surface a tiny bit further and it becomes clear that you’ve created a whole imaginary phalanx of nasty, bossy feminists to help you make that boast. And when a fresh batch of imaginary nasty feminists is released into the world, it undermines feminism because it misrepresents feminism. The self-proclaimed “bad feminist” is throwing an entire human rights movement under the bus for the sake of being able to say: “Tee-hee, aren’t I naughty?”

In other words: when you boast about being a bad feminist, you are being a bad feminist. Just not in the way you think you are.

Help with my thing

May 24, 2012

I know a guy who’s continually starting new things. I say “things” because I don’t think there’s a better word. They’re mostly political-ish campaigns but it might be a charity fundraiser one week, a new blog the next, and so on. Mostly they’re things that sound vaguely like a good idea, so it’s been hard for me to work out quite why he irritates me so much.

Then I got it. Firstly, he doesn’t finish much. He’ll start a petition, hassle everybody he knows to sign it… then walk away. Or he’ll start a “community website”, hassle everybody he knows to contribute blog posts and pictures… then walk away. He’s not even a friend of mine, but he’s still asked me to support three different campaigns in the past couple of months. A friend who follows his progress closely tells me that he’s started and abandoned five websites in the past year.

But I realised today: that’s not the main reason why he annoys me. He annoys me because in addition to not being a finisher, he is not a joiner. I’ve never known him help out with an existing campaign or somebody else’s event. He always starts his own things, because he is desperate to be a leader, desperate to be the guy who starts things.

Why does that annoy me? Because it’s not fucking fair, that’s why. Because in a fair world, people who do voluntary stuff in their spare time would all get a fairly equal share of helping out with existing stuff and starting their own stuff. And I believe that (again, in a fair world) if you start something you take responsibility for it, and you push it through the dip of other people’s apathy and hostility, and you get it going and you nurture it and you damn well keep it going until you’ve either achieved what you needed to achieve or found someone else to take over. You don’t walk away without a damn good reason, and you’re supposed to feel bad if you do.

You might say “Hey, Gryphon, take a chill-pill. You’re talking about voluntary work here, done in his own time. You don’t get to dictate how other people’s voluntary work is done. Isn’t it better he does things a bit badly rather than, like so many people, doing nothing at all?”

Well, actually… no. Starting a new campaign or event of your own is rewarding because by its very nature it tends to be something you’re deeply interested in. You have ownership and you get to take most of the credit. Whereas helping out with other people’s events is less rewarding, because you’re fitting in with other people’s ideas and schedules, you don’t get to control what’s going on and, y’know, it’s not your thing. But if everybody decided just to do the fun, rewarding bits, there would be nobody left to help with anything, stuff often wouldn’t get completed and we would have some serious tragedy-of-the-commons shit going on.

And while we’re talking about the commons, I also believe there’s a finite store of general goodwill to be had. There is a limit to people’s willingness to sponsor your sponsored events, sign your petitions, man your stall, give out your leaflets and, well, generally help with your thing. That store gets depleted every time someone starts something new and requests support for it. And if you deplete that store without actually doing any good as a result (because you abandon every project before it achieves anything) you are actively doing harm. That’s why doing voluntary work in this way is not a mildly benign or even neutral activity.

I don’t start my own things much, partly because of my belief that people will be more sympathetic to your latest request for help/attendance/support if you’re not continually demanding this. I guess my (until now, unexamined) assumption was that you could earn that support by helping with other people’s things.

Apparently not. The most recent thing I started and ran myself was a public event in November 2010. I didn’t ask for help organising it; I just asked my circle of friends and acquaintances to attend. I took on the responsibility of organising it myself, with the help of one other person. 300 people were invited to the event by post. Another 600 or so I invited more casually, through Twitter. My co-organiser took care of the local press, Upcoming, etc. I singled out a few friends that I guessed were certain to support me, and contacted them individually to check they were coming. This was my thing. This was the basket I’d put all my eggs into.

And I thought that because I’ve never asked my friends to sponsor my trek in the Himalayas or bake a cake for my jumble sale, that would count in my favour. I thought that because of all the times I’ve gone to their art exhibition and baked cakes for their fundraiser and sponsored their 5k run, it would count in my favour. I thought about all the petitions I’ve signed, all the stalls I’ve manned, all the marches I’ve gone on, all the times I’ve dragged myself out on a wet evening to “be there for” various people, and I thought “yes, this will definitely count in my favour.”

It fucking well didn’t. Guess how many people turned up on that rainy and windy night? One. One complete stranger. My closest friends and loved ones had excuses for not being there; nobody else even thought they needed to explain. They saw no reason to offer their apologies, because, hey, you can’t support everybody’s stuff, right?

And that just made me boil with fury, because I felt as if I had damn well earned support for my event by putting my time and energy into organising something good and making sure it happened. I felt as if I’d doubly earned it by “doing my time” helping out with other people’s events and campaigns, and triply earned it because I hadn’t abused people’s goodwill with an endless stream of bullshit. But this guy gets more support for each fresh piece of poorly-thought-out, quickly-abandoned rubbish than I got for my one event.

I’ve heard that in the crazy world of business, you’re more likely to get venture capital if you have a string of failed businesses behind you. You’d assume the venture capital would go to people who are starting their first business, who’ve never fucked up, but actually it goes to people who’ve jumped into carrying out a series of poorly-thought-out ideas and failed at all of them. And I wonder if that’s how it works in the world of voluntary things. Perhaps the guy who’s started and abandoned twenty things in the past year is somehow seen as a better bet than the guy who only does one thing every eighteen months or so and tries to do it really well. If so, I have no idea why.

Anyway. It’s clear that there is not an infinite supply of goodwill and support. In a perfect world it would be divided equally so we all got the same amount each. (The guy I’m talking about would have used up his year’s supply by mid-January.) But clearly we don’t. It’s a common store and if other people have been pulling a lot of bullshit lately, there will be no goodwill left for your thing. And it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve personally worked on it or how infrequently you personally make demands on the goodwill store.

We don’t live in a perfect world. And I can only control my own behaviour.

So I won’t keep sponsoring you. I might sponsor you if you’re doing something challenging and you haven’t asked me for sponsorship for at least a year and I don’t suspect your sponsored event is a thinly-disguised holiday. But the ex-colleague who does three half-marathons a year and asks me to sponsor him for all of them? Nu-uh. Maybe if you do a full marathon, mate.

Ditto events. Yes, it’s important to you and you’ve put a lot of work into organising it. Well, that’s how I felt about my November 2010 event, and if you’re reading this you almost certainly didn’t bother turning up to that. (Unless you’re the one person who did. Cheers, Dave, I still appreciate it even now.)

Ditto your fucking petition. I know it only takes a minute to sign. But it’s longer if I’m responsible enough to actually read what I’m supposed to be signing.  And I get asked to sign perhaps ten a week. And it’s not as if by signing your petition I’m building up some kind of credit which will make you more likely to sign mine. It’s no more reciprocal or fair than any other thing. I think in my entire life I have created two petitions. Both were really important to me, both were ignored by most of my acquaintances. So fuck any person or organisation who thinks I somehow owe them because it’s “just a minute” to sign.

Ditto how you really want me to write to my MP. That can take a good fifteen minutes. You’d better not have asked me to do the same thing in the past year, or I’ll say no with a glad heart.

In other words: I cannot create a world in which goodwill and support is distributed fairly. But I can ration my own goodwill and support in a way that I believe is fair. Because I have reached the conclusion that trying to support everything is not actually the right thing to do. Not only is it impossible and a one-way road to burnout: it’s actually unfair to treat each thing equally when equal resources and commitment are not being put into them.

BASE jump

May 22, 2012

What does the “base” in “base jump” stand for? I always thought (not that I thought about it much at all), that “base” just meant a fixed point on land to jump from, as opposed to jumping out of an aeroplane. But now I realise it is in fact a crap acronym. Wikipedia tells me that BASE stands for:

Buildings
Antennas
Spans
Earth

These are the four categories of object you can jump from. The Wikipedia entry helpfully clarifies that “spans” means “bridges” and “earth” means “cliffs”.

Whoever came up with this (Carl Boenish?) had to pick awkward synonyms for two of the words they really wanted to use in order to shoehorn them in. It’s a classic crap acronym.

The cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws

May 18, 2012

There’s a complex class aspect to our expectations about circadian rhythms. When you read a lot of 19th-century fiction, you realise that “people who come in the morning” is code for tradesmen, workers, people who aren’t social visitors as leisured as you are. The expectation persists to this day. That’s why so many blocks of flats have a general buzzer that will automatically let you in up to a certain time of day (usually noon) but then stop working. It’s for postal workers, deliveries, people who’ve come to fix stuff: basically modern-day tradesmen. If you want to get into a block of flats in the afternoon, you’d better be visiting a specific person (or unafraid of ringing lots of strangers’ buzzers until you get an answer). In other words, unless you fit the 19th-century expectation that an afternoon call is a social call, you’re forced into antisocial behaviour.

So. The morning is for “real” workers, people who “get their hands dirty” and whatever other bullshit cliches you want to spout. That’s the cult of early for you. Yes, there’s grudging respect for people who do night shifts, but unless you live in a town where night work is very common, there’s no culture of trying to show this respect by keeping quiet in the daytime.

Personally, I have the white-collar privilege of being able to work from home a lot of the time and choose my own hours. Yes, being responsible for planning my own workload is mentally tiring, but I fully acknowledge it’s a privilege. I’m judged and paid on the actual work I do, rather than having a boss who plays power games about controlling when they get to see my face. That is most definitely a privilege, and I appreciate it.

Yes, working from home does involve mental effort and discipline, because there’s no longer an easy, spatial way of separating home stuff and work stuff. I’ve read endless blog posts about how you can get into work mode by dressing in smart clothes, setting aside a room of your house for work (because naturally, everybody’s house is big enough to do that) and performing little start-the-day and end-the-day rituals. That’s fine, but I’m coming round to thinking that perhaps the smart thing would be not to separate them at all, but just to get the most out of both of them.

I recently read a blog post on productivity and willpower that suggests you’d be better off not getting dressed before you start work. I accept what the author says about willpower being a depletable resource. I’m not completely sure that she’s right about willpower being at its strongest first thing in the morning – does that work for night owls? But assuming she is right, homeworkers like me should stop getting dressed and ready first thing. Why use up your precious, depletable willpower on choosing a suit or blow-drying your hair when you could be tackling your actual work – the thing that matters? You can do the face-the-world stuff mid-morning and treat it as a break from work rather than as stuff to be done before your work can start.

Great from a productivity and happiness point of view. But are you strong enough to withstand the cultural pressures telling you to get dressed earlier? If you’re still in your pyjamas at 10am, you will have to withstand loaded comments from every “real” worker you encounter. And no, of course you are not safe from these comments in your own home unless you never receive any deliveries, never have any work done on your house, never have the boiler checked or the meter read, never forget to put the bin out and have to rush out with it when the binmen are already there.

The comments are mostly light-hearted teasing. But the message is: you are a useless, pampered aristocrat and you don’t know what real work is. Those Superman pyjamas might as well be a smoking-jacket and a monacle. Your real income doesn’t matter. Your real working hours don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done any number of back-breaking “real” jobs in the past. You are the idle rich and that’s the end of the matter. And as with many jokes designed to reinforce cultural pressure, it’s very hard to argue without looking humourless.

In other words, the cult of early has preserved the sumptuary laws. They don’t have any legal force, of course, but un-codified expectations are often even harder to challenge than codified, legally binding ones. If you want the status of a worker, you must put some real clothes on.

Of course, this is about preserving someone else’s right to feel better about themselves by judging you. That’s why there’s not much you can do to stop being judged in this way, short of jacking in the freelance graphic design work and becoming a miner.

A little story to illustrate this: I used to subscribe to the “get dressed early and smartly” school of thought, so one day I opened the front door to a delivery driver in my work-from-home suit. His face cracked into the usual leer of thoroughly relished contempt and his first words to me were: “You haven’t been out, have you?” It took me a while to work out what he meant, which was a bit slow of me given that jokes about my laziness are the main topic of conversation I get from delivery drivers. He’d spotted a spider’s web woven across the front door, which was hard evidence that I was a lazy stay-at-home. With this guy, my smart clothes made no difference. My explanation of the concept of remote working made no difference. He just kept repeating “You haven’t been out”, amused and accusing. The subtext was so very obviously “I’ve caught you slacking!”

I closed the door on him while he was still cackling and then remembered: I had been out that day already. But I’d left the house by the back door, because I keep my bike in the back garden and this journey was by bike rather than on foot.

But the thing is: it didn’t matter. The fact that I actually had been out was no more relevant than the smart clothes or anything I said or the fact that I’d finished a difficult conference call to someone in a different timezone minutes before he knocked on my door. Nothing mattered. When people enjoy judging, they will keep on judging in the face of a huge heap of evidence that judging is not required. This is one instance where the “never apologise, never explain” thing actually applies. Just put on your metaphorical smoking jacket and close the door in his stupid fucking face.

Diva culture

May 16, 2012

There are work cultures in which the cult of early does not apply. These are cultures in which people claim that the main thing is what you actually do, and praise attaches to being “really good at what you do” rather than to presenteeism.

Have these work cultures stripped away the bullshit to encourage real, objectively measured productivity, or do they just have their own flavour of bullshit? I’m sure you can guess my answer.

The template for these cultures is the entertainment industry, where your morning lie-in is justified because you’re bringing crowds a little piece of magic in the evenings. It’s a culture of working late, playing late and sleeping late, and that’s just rock ‘n’ roll, man.

Fine, but the coercion to fit a pattern is just as powerful as it is in the corporate world. You’re expected to party after the gig, to stay up until the early hours whether you want to or not. “Phoning it in” – that is, doing your work adequately but in an uninspired way – is considered bad, so you need to think of ways to remain constantly inspired, enthused, full of magic, full of yourself. No wonder so many people in the industry take drugs. And if you’re a bona fide star, you’re expected to make outlandish demands for your rider. People are disappointed if you don’t ask for puppies and kittens, or a thousand brown M&Ms.

It’s not a culture of doing the work and giving the audience what they want. It’s a culture of creating a myth and working as hard as you can to maintain that myth, at the cost of your own mental health as well as inconvenience to others. You have to be very strong to resist it.

Geek culture is partly modelled on this. We talk about “rock star programmers” for a reason. You don’t have to be an early bird – hooray! – but you are expected to get in late, work late and thoroughly muddle the boundaries between work and play by working in your free time and mucking about on Reddit (or whatever) during work time.

I’m currently working in this kind of environment (though not as a programmer). I’m usually the first to arrive, despite having one of the longest commutes. That’s fine by me because there are no smug early birds to say “Good of you to finally grace us with your presence” or the like. The only downside is occasionally having to wait outside for someone to let me into the building.

But it is a work culture like any other, and there are expectations. You don’t have to wear a suit – hooray! – but you are expected to dress and behave in a certain way. When I’ve gone into these environments before in my “err on the side of smart” clothes, people take the mickey and ask why I’m wearing what I’m wearing.

One of the people I currently work with is a young man who has seriously bought into the “rock star programmer” myth, perhaps without even realising it. He turns up at some point after 10am and then immediately goes for coffee, because geek culture is so much about coffee. He has special programming music to listen to when he’s “in the zone”. He dances at his desk and sings along. (A deaf person would assume he was singing very loudly, but actually no sound comes out of his mouth.) He always stays late and every now and then he pulls an all-nighter. This is part of being a rock star programmer, but also part of the cult of sleeplessness. “I stayed up all night because I am a diva creator; I am more than a corporate drone. I stayed up all night because this is how rock star programmers roll.

Then everybody in the office talks about him admiringly, telling each other about the all-nighter he pulled, reinforcing the diva-culture myth that staying up all night to do something is more praiseworthy and heroic than just getting it done in the daytime.

I think I may have to repeat myself. Again.

There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Whether you are “good” or “bad”, hard-working or lazy, is not about your circadian rhythms. It is about who you are and what you do.

Pulling an all-nighter may mess up your sleep patterns so you feel more tired than you would if you’d done the same work in the day time. It may therefore incur a higher mental “cost” per hour of work. This does not in itself make the work more valuable. The work is more valuable if the work is more valuable.

In other words: geek work culture is just another work culture with its own rules to follow and its own myths about what our choice of working hours means.