Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Google Plus & Why Pseudonymity Really Really Matters

I will try to make this brief. Google Plus (still in beta) wants users to use their “real” names and has already closed a number of accounts whose names it considers pseudonymous. A lot has been written about this, but I cannot rest until I've stuck my oar in.

Pseudonymity is absolutely essential for all kinds of on-line interaction. Why? Five reasons.

1. Gender affects everything. The first and single most useful thing I learnt about pseudonymity on-line, when I was sixteen years old, was the joy of not being immediately identified as a woman. You learn an awful lot when you allow others to assume that you are a man (something I touched on in our review of Catfish). Quite apart from your every opinion being judged in the context on your gender, sexual harassment is an enormous issue for women on-line. The Feminist Philosophers blog were onto the fact that gender is the first thing Google Plus asks, some weeks ago, suggesting that we all say "Other". Randall Munroe (as in xkcd) has also written about this matter. But obviously, for most of us, selecting other makes no odds if we're forced to use our “real” gendered names.

2. In meat-space, you can talk to people and enter into discussion without giving your name and certainly without giving your surname. It is normal to get to know people very well by a nickname or first-name without having a clue about their last-name, let alone have a casual conversation with them. If a screen-name requires a first and second name, you become more exposed on-line than you ordinarily are off-line.

3. (a) The internet has historically allowed much greater freedom both from and to your various identities. It is possible to come out on-line when you're in the off-line closet, it is also possible to interact on-line without other people being aware of your physical appearance, gender, sexuality, disability status, race, religion etc.. This is a very good thing. It creates an environment where others are forced to be more open-minded in their response to you than they otherwise would be. It also allows us to explore identities and talk about experiences when it would be impossible to do this with our nearest and dearest looking on. It's not about pretending to be someone else. Using a pseudonym on-line is like going to a different part of town. This is especially important for young people who find themselves marginalised, isolated and bullied – without pseudonyms, their bullies can follow them everywhere.

(b) Lots of people – like Bug Girl - have jobs where they cannot express certain views under their professional name (usually their legally-recognised name). These views don't need to be extreme or kinky or anything others would disapprove of, but some companies and especially governmental organisations just don't want anyone talking sex, politics or religion in contexts where they can be identified as their employees. Sometimes a "real" name is enough for such identification.

The possibility of multiple identities is not just a new liberating effect of the internet – it's what people have always done, the internet just makes it better. I don't tell lies or make any effort to conceal anything about me, but I am a slightly different person in different contexts. I use slightly different language and discuss different subjects when talking to my nephew or my Granny or my doctor or this friend or that friend. The only difference on-line is that I have to use different names in order to carry this off because this world is made of searchable text.

4. Names are massively important to us. Both the names we have been given and the names which we choose. The ability to call yourself by a name you feel at home in is not a universal privilege. We know this very well in British History, having seen both the coerced Anglicisation and later attempts to de-Anglicise Irish, Scottish and Welsh names. My own surname is a product of this process.

Outside English, there are completely different ways of coping with names which don't fit into the neat Given-name Family-name, with no special characters model and can't really be fit into it. Urycon has a great post about this and Chally has touched on this matter here. The removal of flexibility with names not only effects one's ability to use a chosen name, it can also effect one's ability to be known by the name given to you by your family.

What's more, chosen names are not themselves disposable – as Skud, who has had her Google Plus account suspended wrote last month here:
“People sometimes speak as if pseudonymity is the same as anonymity, or suggest that pseudonymity is nothing more than a way to avoid accountability for one’s words. It’s not. Persistent pseudonyms (those used over many years and perhaps across multiple sites) can accrue social capital and respect just as “real” names can, and be subject to the same social pressures towards civil behaviour if the community has a strong culture of respect. Without a culture of respect, real names won’t help. With it, real names won’t matter."
I am quite proud of being the Goldfish. Some of you know my real name, but this is the authentic me too. I am the Goldfish. Coo coo catchu.

5. If there is any evidence that forcing people to use “real” names reduces abuse, it doesn't seem to be very forthcoming. Geek Feminism has posted the brilliant Anti-Pseudonym Bingo and a request for such evidence. My experience is that scoundrels are more than happy to be scoundrels in their own names – it's far more subtle and powerful social pressure that inhibits verbal abuse, harassment and so forth. And that pressure can only exist where everyone feels comfortable being themselves, whichever version of themselves they choose.

There's an on-line petition asking Google to allow pseudonymity on Google Plus here. I have probably missed other important posts, I've got limited on-line time at the moment and generally feel rather out of the loop.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Clare's Law", Domestic Violence and a little knowledge being a dangerous thing

The government is considering whether women should have the right to ask police if their partner has any violent criminal convictions. "Clare's Law" is being proposed in memory of Clare Wood, a woman who was murdered by a man she met on Facebook (a detail that isn't very pertinent but has been made much of in the press). Leading the campaign, Hazel Blears said,
“Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous
relationships and this can mean they start a relationship with someone with no
idea if they have a violent past. Clare's tragic death shows how vulnerable
women aren't always protected under current law, and until women are given the
right to know if their partner has a history of serial domestic abuse, they
can't be sure of the risk that they face.”
This makes me very sad and frustrated. Incurable Hippie has already raised some concerns. Let's break down what Blears has said here and why it misses the point on how domestic violence works:

Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous relationships and this can mean they start a relationship with someone with no idea if they have a violent past.

People targeted by abusive men and women are always unaware of their partner's previous relationships because abusers tell lies. Abusers are usually good liars and vulnerable people often believe those lies. Lies might include, “My ex lied to the police to get me into trouble.” Abusers are very good at telling stories about how they have been hard done by and mistreated by others because that's how they explain events to themselves, let alone everyone else.

My ex accused me of slagging him off to everyone before I had told anyone about the full extent of the abuse. When I was with him, I believed his story that I was the only person who had provoked him to violence, but with hindsight I realise this is extremely unlikely. He'd described a few previous relationships which had ended abruptly and where friends had taken sides against him. He only ever confessed to one incident, when in his youth he had hit a girlfriend when they were both drunk and she was “hysterical” and throwing things at him – it was practically self defence, but of course he felt bad about it years after. In that case, he gave his victim a black eye, so conceivably this was something I might get to hear about some day.

As far as I know, my ex has never been reported to the police for anything. The whole problem with domestic violence is that you often don't understand what is happening while it is going on and afterwards you just want to get on with your life and have nothing more to do with your abuser. Unless you are seriously injured, there are real limits to what you could do about it even if you were motivated to act. The vast majority of people who have committed violence against a partner will never have come to the attention of the police.

Clare's tragic death shows how vulnerable women aren't always protected under current law

If Clare Wood had known about the history of the man who went on to murder her, she would not have entered into a relationship with him. The question is, had this law been in place, would she have asked the police about him? Most women do have relationships with men, but how many women would actually ask police about their new partners? And how many men would feel less than very uncomfortable at the idea that their girlfriend had run a police check on them?

Even having experienced domestic violence, it would never occur to me to run a police check on any new partner. If a woman has any reason to feel suspicious about a new partner, something is very wrong. It doesn't mean the chap is a villain, but it would suggest to me that something to do with those two people is at least slightly amiss. As in, they should probably leave it there.

But there's also this issue of "vulnerable women". When I consider my own vulnerability, my big problem was that I didn't trust myself. When things went very wrong, I didn't take my own distress seriously. I let someone else tell me what was okay and what wasn't. And this new law seems to be saying,
“Ladies, do you think your new chap may be a violent bully? Don't trust your gut – ask a policeman! Has he hit you once or twice? Well not to worry your pretty little head. If he has no criminal convictions, then he's probably a perfectly nice chap and the violence is just something you bring out in him.”
Added to this is the damage even the reporting of such an idea does to gender equality. One of the reasons that domestic violence prevails is ideas about the normal behaviour of men and women. Even with everything I knew about this, even having studied psychology, part of me bought the line that my ex couldn't really help himself – I'd felt angry to the point of wanting to punch people on occasion but of course, I didn't have testosterone to contend with. We accept male anger and aggression as normal, even necessary for heroism in our cultural narratives. As a very young and inexperienced woman, I didn't know where the line was between “normal” masculine anger and aggression, and abuse. Clare's Law promotes this confusion – it promotes the idea that there's a fine line and that line is only crossed when a prosecutable crime has been committed.

And this disadvantages everyone – not only does it cast men as dangerous to women and children until proven innocent, but it affirms the idea that domestic abuse is always men beating up women. Women are vulnerable, men are dangerous and any man who finds himself being abused simply doesn't fit into this universe. Men are much less likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, but they are only slightly less likely to have their lives ruined by abuse.

We need to make vulnerable people less vulnerable. We need to promote a culture in which all men and women have both the confidence and the practical and economic ability to make choices for themselves based on their own instincts and desires. The government are considering this new law, having made massive cuts to benefits, legal aid, funding to refuges and even police budgets. This government is making vulnerable adults a lot more vulnerable than they used to be – a law offering false reassurances to untrusting women is not the answer.

And, incidentally, following Clare Wood's death, the Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that she had been badly let down by the police. Not the law, but the police who are supposed to enforce it. She had reported being sexually assaulted, threatened and harassed by the man who later went on to murder her, months before he killed her. The new law would only have saved her if she was suspicious enough to run a check at a very early stage, whereas the current law should have saved her regardless.

Until women are given the right to know if their partner has a history of serial domestic abuse, they can't be sure of the risk that they face.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

But they never can – and no-one should imagine that a police check can protect them or their children or anyone from anything. We need to address the social and cultural factors which leave some adults vulnerable, normalise intimate violence and allow abusers to get away with it. As Pippa says in her post, the idea that any woman might have her doubts about her new partner's temper, run such a check and be lulled into a false sense of security is truly terrifying.

Meanwhile, men who are a danger to women, anyone who has been repeatedly and seriously violent against anyone, perhaps shouldn't be out of prison in the first place?

And before I go, I have to say, there is nothing special about on-line relationships. People having a relationship with anyone who is outside of their existing circle of family and friends are slightly more vulnerable to villains of all variety, but there's nothing special about meeting on-line – in fact, it is possible to share several mutual friends with someone you meet on-line. Meanwhile, people get together with total strangers off-line and always have.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Here's a hand to lay on your open palm

Scooters TogetherHolding one another's hand in public is a privilege Stephen and I rarely get to enjoy. Of course, there are a tragically large number of lovers in this world who cannot hold hands in public without fear of antagonism, abuse and even arrest. Thankfully, our obstacles are mostly practical.

You can't hold hands between two assistant wheelchairs, unless you can co-ordinate the pushers (neither of us can self-propel). You can't hold hands between powerchairs unless the controls are on alternate arms (although Stacey and Mia offer one beautiful solution to this). Scooters, however, provide the possibility of riding alongside one another and holding hands. I'm not all that great with a scooter, but just now we have access to two scooters and a broad and fairly lonely path between us, the woods and the beach.

There is a special art to holding hands whilst driving mobility scooters. Not only do you have to be closely synchronised with the other person, but you have to gauge and respond quickly to the subtleties of the other scooter. Different machines slow or speed up more or less on a gradient or on different terrain. And nothing brakes or turns as quickly as an ambulant person can, even if you have the same reflexes (which I certainly don't). So in other words, it takes far more concentration and is ever so slightly hairy. We meander a great deal. And of course, we take up space. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Holding HandsStephen is more self-conscious than I am, having been subject to a fair amount of harassment and hostility when out and about. He's lived in less friendly places and maybe as a young man, he is considered especially fair game to those kinds of people (not that disabled women are immune by any stretch, in fact we seem to get it nastier if less often). So Stephen is more conscious of the fact that we might be judged. That some people will find it a novelty to see disabled people together, let alone being romantic, in public. That some people will find it cute and some people will find it weird. That people will undoubtedly gossip about us. Stephen says there are places where it would be a bad idea for us to hold hands because of other people - and not just to avoid crushing their toes.

I know this is true, but I also notice advantages. So far we've always been out together in a fairly rural environment where lots of people speak to us, yet nobody has made comments about speeding (ha ha ha) or learner-drivers (ho ho ho) or any such thing - even when Stephen has been using the bright yellow borrowed “power trike” which looks very cool and can go very fast (you can't hold hands with that either, as it has manual brakes).

My hope is that together we exude confidence, and people don't feel the need to say a thing about our wheels. Either that or they have merely been terrified into friendliness and courtesy.

Incidentally, Wheelchair Dancer has written a little about the possibility of intimacy in being pushed, at the end of a post about the crapness of being pushed the general crapness of being pushed.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Funk to Funky

TimeThe trouble with so much life going on, especially life plus ill health, is that everything I do takes at least twice as long as I feel it ought to – which, given my usual snails-pace standards, is a very long time indeed. I'm getting on with stuff, writing stuff, painting, making things, and I'm well used to working around involuntary hiatuses, but just now is a spell where things are taking so long that I begin to feel that I've forgotten how to do any of it. I know, this is not an unfamiliar subject for a blog post, and I don't know how many times I've written this post myself. But there's a reason why it is worth writing, because it does at least mean I'm writing something.

When things take too long, they lose their vitality. They get checked over and tweaked too many times. But time is also a cipher to confidence, and then you're tempted to check over and tweak, or leave it for now and wait for a time to check over and tweak, which means the whole thing will take twice as long. I can't do anything about life plus ill health, but I have to hold onto my confidence, especially when the life bit is giving me so much. I have to lay my brush down when I think a painting might be done, I have to share my writing sooner and press publish directly after the next sentence.

And no, I'm not apologising for not blogging more often, but I thank you all for your patience.