Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In which I conflate two unrelated issues, yay!

I've spent a lot of today reading about the 'LJ Strikethrough', with rapidly-rising disgust. The short version of the wank is thus; Livejournal has, seemingly due to complaints made by a (perhaps dubious) pressure group, been deleting journals that have unsavoury activities listed under 'interests' - regardless of whether the journal in question was a paedophile ring, an abuse survivor's journal, a literary discussion group, a fanfiction archive or even an RP villain's blog that expressed the foul personality of someone who does not even exist. This explanation was given as part of one support request on the topic - it happened to pertain to a blogger who'd been running an RP that had lost two journals pertaining to the latter group, fictional villains;

Material which can be interpreted as expressing interest in, soliciting, or encouraging illegal activity places LiveJournal at considerable legal risk. When journals that contain such material are reported to us, we must suspend them. Because LiveJournal's interests list serves as a search function, and because listing an interest enables other people also interested in a similar topic to gather and/or congregate, we have been advised that listing an interest in an illegal activity must be viewed as using LiveJournal to solicit that illegal activity.

In particular, the interests that you had listed on your two journals' profiles that qualify as expressing interest in, soliciting, or encouraging illegal activity were: child abuse, human sacrifice, kidnapping, killing, murder, paedophiles, paedophilia, rape, and beating people up.

Now, better bloggers than I have already torn this statement into itty bitty pieces, and also noted that it's both ripped holes in fandom and left real abusers underground and unscathed. What I'd like to add to the collective ranting is an observation; it reminds me quite a lot of the discussion that first sucked me into this part of the blogosphere, a discussion that began over here (but which soon migrated elsewhere because it's hard to discuss stuff when people are refusing to publish comments that don't support their side of the story. The tenth comment on that thread has to be one of my favourite internets evar.) The message being put out strikes me as being mighty similar; we've decided already, talking about it would be an incitement to abuse, you can't have this discussion in our conversation-space, it's not safe to say that here because you might hurt someone/get into trouble, so shut up about the difficult stuff, you can't form a group about that, anyone who wants to talk about it in this space must be wrong and evil, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.

I'm making a mental list of books I love that couldn't be hosted on Livejournal right now. But that's by the by. A few days ago I read Trinity's post questioning the wisdom of alliances between feminists fighting against abuse and the far-right. She asked; 'What does that do for us?' Well, here's a presently exploding example of what well-meaning right-leaning men have to say to women who speak out about abuse, whether real or imaginary; shut up. Don't discuss books, or your own past, put walls up in your imagination and your memory, don't go there, stay home at night, good girls can't go to that part of town, shut up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

on surnames;

This was originally an LJ comment; a friend had posted a poll on the matter of surnames, and much conversation ensued. My original rant (which seems more bitter than I had intended);

I've been seriously thinking about this lately because I'm getting married sometime this autumn/winter. It's not a momentous occasion; we're very much in love, and as neither of us have much regard for marriage customs, we're not getting too worked up about it. We're getting married for our own reasons, and we're not too phased by the decision.
But the surname has been a problem. On the one hand, I regard the custom of wives taking their husbands name as barbaric; on the other, the surname I have now is my father's, and I despise my father and would like to have as little to do with him as possible. I've seriously considered adopting my mother's maiden name, or even my mother's mother or my mother's mother's mother's maiden name, but however far you go back, you still just get names that belong to men. The great-grandmother's maiden name is quite fetching, and my mother's is both fetching and Scottish, but still.

I love my partner, and his name is pleasing in sound, metre, meaning and stature...but to make things even more of a mess, it's an Arabic name, and I seriously worry if lily-white me would be exposed to racial profiling if I took it. (He's been known to get it in the neck at airports, and he's barely swarthier than I am.) One other issue is that his name is very rare in the USA and far more common in the UK...and in the UK it's pronounced differently to the way his family say it, so I can't stop myself pronouncing it differently to how they do (none of his living relatives have any connections to Lebanon any more, so I'd maybe bet on me being 'right' :P)

So I've still not settled on an answer. I've considered hybrids of both my father's name and his, and my mother's name and his, but none of roll off the tongue. A hyphenated surname would have five syllables; urgh. He's absolutely willing to take my name if I wish it, but I dislike both the name and the man I got it off, so what on earth would that accomplish? Really, I'd be 100% keen on taking his name, were it not for the political context of that decision. I don't believe that women are just torchbearers for masculinity (you speak of a name that 'connects them to the rest of their family', but I'd question whether the 'family' is an institution worth supporting in that manner. I personally feel no ties to any of my family members excepting my two siblings, one of whom has also toyed with a name-change). I think most people who know me would be very surprised that I'm inclined to abandon my name, but I am. I'd rather choose the name of someone I care for than keep the name of someone who never cared for me.

Really, I feel like it's a messy decision because I'm starting from a total shipwreck. I have no name of my own, just a father's father's father's name that I never wanted in the first place. There's no level playing field here.

Soon after writing that rant, I came across a Grauniad article on the same topic, which applied a lovely description to a woman's surname; 'temporary label'. It's a knotty one. I doubt there's a non-sexist surname option other than making up an entirely new name. (I do know one couple - very new-age - who did just that, but I don't know if gender played any part in that decision).

The OP (Kelbesque) went further, and questioned whether we really need surnames at all; Surnames exist entirely to convey origination information. If that information is
important, neither spouse should need to give that up; and yet their children should have that in their names; and if it isn't, then what the hell are we doing with surnames? ... I have to be honest, I feel surnames are a pretty stupid conduit for origination data anyway. They reflect an ancient and idiotic tradition that has been abandoned for long stretches of history without issue. I would as soon be [first name] [middle name] and not [first name] [middle name] [surname] were it not for the fact that a surname is legally required of me.

Here we seem to come up against changing demographics; in even the recent past, single-person households and even childless couples were considerably rarer than they are now, and the extended family was far stronger. I once heard it said (on Radio 4, no less) that the bicycle was most important development in human evolution in the last thousand years; before bicycles, almost all reproductive partnerships necessarily involved two people born less than 20 miles apart; the faster we've learned to move, the more the family disintegrates. The surname, which would once have likely indicated a discrete geographical and cultural origin, no longer carries enough data to be relevant.

So, origination is bunk. Why surnames, then? I'm inclined to regard them as indicators not of origin, but of a shared responsibility; a united group of creators and created that have a burden of care towards each other. Not necessary, but a snappy way to indicate who's responsible for caring for Baby, (or for Granny, who, unlike Baby, has been pushed to the outer shell of the nuclear family and is expected to form an ionic bond elsewhere). It's making an identity out of care. Can we do that without mindlessly replicating a sexist tradition?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Destroying The Family.

The Mother's War, which I saw when it was MSTed by Punkass Blog.

Now, I read this new PWOT about atheists and Christians a couple of days ago; being neither, it was more amusing than enlightening for me, but it made the very sensible point that focusing on negative examples makes you stupid. He was speaking of a considerably fouler extremist, Fred Phelps, but I think the point stands;

Smearing all Christians with Phelps' bile is a cheap shot, like saying all atheist schoolkids are potential Columbine shooters. At worst, that kind of stereotyping is dehumanizing and divisive. At best, it's a recipe for mediocrity. I compare myself to the worst so that I don't have to try to be the best. I can spend all day on my sofa, playing Wii Boxing and helping no one, and I'll still be a better man than Phelps. But I think we've got to shoot higher here.

So yes, Vox Day is an extremist, and I won't seek to compare all those who abuse the word 'family' for political purposes to him. However, he is trying to compare all his enemies to me. That traditional nuclear family thing he's talking about, the thing all we foul Europeans (wtf?) hate so very much? I hate it. I don't want to be part of one ever again, and reading such praises of the system made me quite upset. Not because I think it's got some nebulous potential to do harm, but because I know it does harm; it neglects me, excludes me, silences me and forces me to fend for myself. What he says - that children without mothers exist outside civilisation - is hurtful not because it's outright false, but because it's generally true and it's fucking unnecessary and, contrary to his characterisation of things, this championing of the status quo, the wonderful ever-caring mother, causes deep harm to certain children, of which I am one.

Even - I recall this quite distinctly - the evening it happened, I was aware that losing your mother was an extreme anomaly - something that got fetishised in storybooks, not something that actually happened to real children, not something that a family has to be prepared to adapt to, to get on with. I didn't truly believe it for most of the next week; no one had told me that she wasn't getting better, that her immune problems were terminal and she only had at most a couple of years before leukaemia set in anyway. It was a Friday, and I went back to school on Tuesday, where my form tutor told me he was surprised to see me back so soon; I remember telling two older acquaintances who had not heard the news - the way their mouths opened, the tones of voice. I was internalising other people's expressions of horror; my own feelings were a silent clamouring that I didn't know what to do with, no matter how many people tried to offer me a shoulder. (Someone - a friend of my parents' - even gave me a notebook specially, but I wrote stories in it instead, because that was emotionally safer.)

That's not important, that - just me wallowing, which isn't something I do often but reading all this Mother's Day claptrap kinda invites it. Up til then, I'm sure our family would have made Vox Day proud; a mother who ran the household, a father who worked long hours far from home and didn't involve himself other than in providing money and laying down the law, and three pretty well looked-after kids. Is it just me, or is there something inherently unstable about this structure?

I recently (awful timing, the thing had been sitting about waiting to be read for months) read The Cement Garden by Iain McEwan. It's a story about four children who lose their mother, and then enter a dreamlike lifestyle of little responsibility, much secrecy and lots of incest.

Like Vox Day, he gets just enough right to be hurtful without being in the least productive.

-The sheer banality; the fact that the important questions are about who's going to put food on the table, who cares for the youngest, who cleans up after everyone. The fact that 'mother' is such an ingrained answer to this question that when that option is not available, what you get instead is passive-aggressive confusion. I remember the first time our father cooked a meal for us - he became furious at our differing tastes, and has only cooked for us a handful of times since. He didn't dump every chore on his daughters; he did the laundry and some of the washing up, but when you're fixing buttons on your father's shirts when you're behind on your GCSE coursework, and cooking nine meals a week, you get resentful about the things your mother used to do. And you really can wind up aggressively not caring about caring about yourself.

-truancy. Losing someone who's absolutely central to your life crushes every thought you ever had about the future - the places she said she'd take you, the wanting to succeed and to celebrate success with her, even her hoping aloud that she'd have grandchildren one day. You don't just lose what you've got, you lose your future. Why not skip school, especially if you're still getting straight As? What's to lose? That said, we three were occasionally skipping from soon after she began her last hospital stay, about three months before she died. But even then we seemed to feel accountable - we'd tell her, even if we'd avoided letting our father know. After she died there was no stopping us; our father didn't know, or care, so long as we kept pulling the grades. He was always furious when he found out, but that was just another thing to hide from, so it merely fuelled the trend. And my school? It was one of those 'good' state schools, which means they hushed up, did their best to avoid letting it get on the records (straight As kids who go to 'good' schools do not play truant, everyone knows that), asked all the wrong questions, tried to make me scared. Children that rely solely on a mother's care very easily sidestep responsibilities without her; there's no reason not to slide down the path of least resistance. And now? I'm in London, halfheartedly jobhunting, and I feel like a truant again.

-the power struggles and blame games. A father who's always left the family in the hands of his wife while he does more important things has no authority over you, but an awful lot of power. He doesn't know you, and you're not accountable to him - he's just judge, jury and executioner, and every so often he gets drunk and tells you that he never wanted a family anyway, that that 'Let's have another baby!' thing Vox Day harps on about is just woman stuff. I honestly tried to relate to him, to be fond of him, for a while. I can't say he ever returned the gesture. And now he's old and infirm and polite to me, and I feel all kinds of cruel for disliking him so much, but ultimately, I remember why I do. Nemesis and Mnemosyne, m? Anyway; McEwan's grotty kitchen hit a nerve, as did the arguments about whose word was law, the arguments about money and material objects (our mother had always been over-generous with random presents, while our father never offered such kindnesses at all). Our clothes wore out; we never had pocket money, but if we asked infrequently enough, we'd get given spending money for more. We lived in a small village in the Pennines, so accessing anything we needed, material or human, was an awkward process that had to be mediated by our father. I won't live outside cities now.

-the fear of outsiders. My father once, drunkenly, told me his madcap story about how social services wanted to take me and my younger brother away (my sister was too old for that) because they'd noticed the truancy; I've no doubt that this was 99% conspiracy theorising on his part; perhaps it was due to his paranoia that we never received any practical or mental health help over it all, which goes to show what a responsible head of household a non-carer father can be. But the process happens; someone clumsily reaches out, you find reason to push them away. Too-perfect relatives, well-meaning schoolteachers, the church... They make you self-conscious. They make you feel like your problems are the wrong problems, and your feelings and wants are the wrong feelings and wants. Besides, they assume you get over it, which in a limited fashion is true; after a year or so, the crushing grey feeling in your chest fades away, and I think most people know that so they forget to keep being kind. But the other part of it, the having no mother part, is still happening, day in day out. It's there when you're hitchhiking to exams because the public transport is shit and there's no one you dare ask for a lift. It's there when you give up your hobby, don't do your coursework, when you get on a train to Scotland, alone, because you want to see your sister and it doesn't matter if you don't get there in one piece. Strangers are easy compared to acquaintances; being alone is even easier. So you push the outside world away.

So yes, McEwan managed to get in a lot of things that touched on my feelings, but I still felt distinctly uneasy about his writing. I felt exploited, though I had no right to; I felt like someone was digging into lives like mine for salacious details that would sell lots of books, making up the perviest bits out of whole cloth, ignoring the meat and bones of it all. It did get me down that he let his family structure dissolve into incest, because there's a real radical distortion of the family happening there, and it's like he's saying it's not juicy enough to interest him and he'd rather use this opportunity for airing unpleasant truths to talk about sexual oddities instead. (He also demonstrated the traditional literary disdain for the resilience and strong identity of small boys; I don't doubt my brother will find he has troubles to trip over, but he's by far the most emotionally and socially healthy of the three of us, and seems to be more mature and stable than the majority of his peers. Look, writerguys, you can poke at my screwiness as much as you like, but call my kid brother a freak and I'll deck you.)

Now, I have huge issues about family life. I already said, I hate - hate, you know, the cold but irrational stuff that you just cannot put up with? - family structures that place a unique burden on a female caregiver. I hate seeing women referred to as somehow having more responsibility to their families than men do. My relationships are a domestic minefield; I once dumped a boy partly because I made dinner for him and he thanked me in a way I disliked. And god, I feel utterly out of my depth around other people's parents anyway, and with SO's parents I'm even more confused. I don't know what parents are for, why they're necessary for people my age, and I'm dismissive in some ways, jealous in others. I know several people much older than me who have parents, and that just mystifies me entirely...but at the same time, I'm keenly aware that it's me who's the weird one. (I even get told so from time to time, though not by anyone worth speaking to). I probably shouldn't have children myself, if I do, it may well be an unpleasant experience for both me and them.

So I have issues about relationships, huge ones; I also have a bond with my siblings that I believe is unusual, but the paperback writers do not want to know. I felt exploited. Now, I've no right to feel like that; if I want books to reflect my experiences I ought to go write them myself, which I am I'm kinda sorta every-so-often trying in roundabout ways to actually do, but I still felt like this McEwan guy was calling me a freak in order to make himself a large stack of money. I'm sure it's not like that for him really. (Vox Day, however, really is paid for telling children without mothers that they're barbarous and futureless, so I feel justified in pointing and laughing at him and describing the sort of family his good Christian stay-at-home mums are actually creating.).

My sister and I both write (she a lot, I a little) and we both seem to dig into family matters a fair bit; she writes about close but dysfunctional extended clans, people for whom family ties are often painful but ultimately matter. The majority of my characters have no regular family structures at all, and those who do tend to be very distant from them. I don't know what that difference says about us. She's almost five years older than me, and perhaps has a better set of memories. We never talk about it, never talk about our mother at all; the only person I talk about my mother to is my 'aunt' (her best friend). In fact, I think I just decided to not tell the sister about this blog, because I am a coward. I want to talk about it, hence why I just wrote a couple of thousand words about it, but I do not feel able to talk about it with her.

I've never written on the subject at such length before, so it's not much wonder that my original point is getting drowned in a puddle of wangst. (It's been a little over ten years, which is a long time in stored-up whining). I believe I was attempting to say that tilting a burden of responsibility entirely onto only one parent is not a safe way to bring up children, and idolising such a model without discussing its attrition rate is an incitement to neglect. I don't think you need to be one of us evil European feminists to see that (but oh, the badge!) I'd genuinely like to know what Vox Day would say ought to happen to motherless children whose father does not seek to remarry. Iain McEwan was a bit more clear on the point of where he expects uncared-for children to wind up.