Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Social Catalyst


I was on my way to write a blog post about the good and bad of social media, but of course I had to check in on Facebook first, and when I did I came across the above video. If you don't feel like taking three and a half minutes to watch it, the concept is that there's this bar where people behave like we do on social media--randomly declaring political beliefs, talking at each other without listening in return, fighting over every little thing, and generally being mean. Basically, social media brings out the worst in humanity. 

I can't disagree with any of the criticisms this video makes--and it's far from the first to make them. I mean, you don't have to look any further than the current American president's Twitter account to see how social media can bring out the worst in humanity. But clearly there is still value in social media. If at least some part of you didn't think so, you wouldn't still be here. 

Here's what I believe: Future generations will look back at the advent of social media as a turning point in humanity's history that ultimately led to a far greater sense of connectedness across formerly insurmountable boundaries of distance, culture, language, religion, and politics. Social media will be the catalyst that pushes the human race beyond tribalism and toward truly thinking of ourselves as a single global community. Optimistic, you say? Yes, yes it is. (That's kind of my schtick.)

But social media certainly has the potential to be this catalyst. Among my Facebook friends I have coworkers thousands of miles from me in the Philippines, Australia, the UK, and all around the US; PTA and neighborhood friends here in Utah, most of whom are very religious and relatively conservative; mostly liberal friends from my college years spent with fellow humanities and then library science students; and friends who are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, and two spirit. (This is not an exhaustive list; sorry if I left you out.) Just like every other human, I'm likely to interact more with those I have more in common with--whether geography, culture, politics, religion, or a similar sense of humor--but I still see those posts from the friends who are less like me. Sometimes those posts connect with me, regardless of our differences; sometimes I'm just not interested in a post so I keep scrolling; and of course sometimes someone says something political or religious that presses my button in just the wrong way, and sometimes I do better than others at either engaging civilly or shutting up and walking away. But whatever my reaction, I see those posts, and every time I do, my worldview expands just a little bit. I get a glimpse into the daily lives of people who are different from me, and more importantly I get a glimpse into their minds. I will never see President Trump the way his supporters do, but thanks to a few of my Facebook friends I have a pretty good idea of how they perceive him. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a major value that social media adds to my life. 

Social media is still relatively new, in terms of the history of human evolution, and we're still figuring out how to navigate this new landscape. We're not used to being so exposed to each other's raw emotions and often-unfiltered thoughts. If the human race had suddenly discovered telepathy, we'd be having the same problem. But telepathy would not only expose us to each other's darkest, meanest, ugliest inner selves; it would also expose us to each other's most loving, most vulnerable, most beautiful inner selves. We would come to see not only our neighbor's anger, but also the reasons for their anger. And we would see their love. Social media can do that too. Social media can help us understand our fellow humans who are different from us in ways that we've never had such easy access to before. 

Image result for jean grey dark phoenix
At least with social media we don't run the risk of possession by an evil alien psychic force.
Or whatever the whole Dark Phoenix thing was. Sue me, I'm a DC guy. 

We just need to learn to treat a name and a profile picture the same as we treat a human being--because, guess what, they are a human being! It wouldn't surprise me if this comes much easier to future generations who grow up in this brave new world than it does to us. But in the meantime, maybe we can all just try extra hard to be a little nicer, and to listen at least as much as we talk? With that in mind, it's now my turn to listen: What do you say, friend? What can we all do to make social media a positive force in humanity's evolution? Or do you believe social media is inherently detrimental? (And if so, why are you here?) Please comment below or on Facebook--I want to hear your thoughts via this fancy telepathic technology Mark Zuckerberg and Al Gore gave us. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bigotry By Omission

The other day I was at a junior high school PTSA meeting where we were about to vote in next year's president. The sole nominee (there's typically only one person willing to do the job, so it's not a traditional election in the sense of voting for one candidate over another) was a man, which is unusual for any PTA or PTSA, at least here in Utah. Having served previously on another PTA as treasurer and then president, and planning to serve alongside this particular presidential nominee as his treasurer, I'm a big fan of men being more involved in PTA. Studies show that children benefit from having male role models involved in their school life, but for some reason a lot of fathers seem to group school involvement into the long list of parenting responsibilities they're happy to let mothers take care of.

At any rate, at this particular PTSA meeting we were enjoying a delicious lunch that the current president had prepared. This president had taken it on herself to serve lunch at every meeting, as a way to incentivize attendance and to share her love of food. So we're eating this tasty pasta salad and we're about to vote on next year's president and I raise my hand to ask, jokingly, whether the nominee can make food this good, because I want to make an informed vote. Everyone laughs and he says that actually, he does enjoy baking with his wife. Later in that same meeting, a visitor spoke to us about her current campaign to be on the school board. I revived my previous joke by asking about her cooking skills. Everyone laughed again and the candidate just rolled her eyes and went on. 

It didn't take me long to start feeling skeezy about my joke--especially the second instance, where it was delivered to a woman. In my mind, I was showing my appreciation for the current president's work to prepare food for us while demonstrating my belief that expectations should be the same for any PTSA president, regardless of gender. What I didn't consider until after the fact is that I was making the joke within the context of a culture where women are often valued only for traditionally feminine skills such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Coming from one of two men in a room full of women, my joke could have easily been understood to imply that when it comes to a position of power in a female-dominated organization like PTA, all that matters is how well you can cook. Hopefully anyone who knows me well would recognize that wasn't my intent--I have first-hand knowledge of the hard work and organizational skills required of a PTA president, and I've seen the experience and knowledge needed to serve successfully on a school board--but few people in that room knew me very well and it's never safe to assume everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt when you've said something potentially offensive. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to consider my audience, consider the context, and communicate effectively. If someone in that room was offended by my joke, it's my fault; I should know better. 

In the church I was raised in, we were taught that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. The former are things you do--murder, rape, drinking coffee--and the latter are things you don't do--not helping someone in need of help, not being kind, not giving a tenth of your income to the church. I have a pretty different idea now of what is and isn't sinful, but I still find the idea of commission versus omission valuable. It's very, very common for people to say sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted things, then get upset when others call them out on it, insisting, "But that's not how I meant it!" And then they go on to list all the horrible things they don't do to whatever underprivileged group they've unintentionally offended: "It's not like I go around beating up gay people or calling you fags. Save your anger for the real bad guys!" To that defense, I say: Thank you for meeting the bare minimum requirement of human decency. You are not a bigot by commission. But if you--if we--want to be better, then we need to be more careful not to commit bigotry by omission: not considering that something we say or do might be offensive. When interacting with or talking about an underprivileged group that we are not part of, we owe it to them to do our best to understand their context enough to actively avoid making their lives worse. Sure, I might mean no offense, but if 99 people before me said the exact same thing and did mean to offend (or simply didn't care who might get hurt so long as it wasn't them), then I don't get a pass for having good intentions. 

Image Source
Image source: A pretty great comic that makes my point probably better than I do. 

I understand that a lot of people are tired of feeling like everything they say is subject to inspection by the political correctness police. This is why Donald Trump is president. But you know what? If you show that you're making a genuine effort to be a kind, understanding human being then others won't feel the need to "police" you, even when you screw up. People say unintentionally heterosexist things to me all the time, and in the majority of cases I can see that they mean well because they've done or said other things to show kindness toward me, so I don't let it bother me. I don't want to spend all my time being upset any more than you want to spend all your time worrying about who might be upset at you, so show me you're trying and I'll meet you in the middle. So I guess I am willing to give you a pass for good intentions, so long as I can see them through your other words and actions, and so long as you're willing to listen, apologize, and change when I point out that you're doing something hurtful enough to warrant my speaking up about it. 

And I'll do the same. I'm going to send an apology to that school board candidate. I honestly don't know whether she gave my stupid joke a second thought, but when it comes to showing that I'm an ally to people from underprivileged groups, I'd rather err on the side of being overly cautious than on that of being obliviously hurtful. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Decoding the Dress Code

My daughter's junior high school has a dress code policy that includes a prohibition on unnaturally-colored hair. I've always been somewhat aware of this rule and thought it was stupid, but it was never an issue because my daughter never expressed any interest in dyeing her hair--until recently. She was approaching the end of ninth grade and wanted to do something fun with her hair for the summer, and she really wanted to do it before the end of school so all her friends would see. I wasn't sure how strictly the dress code is enforced--I hoped it was one of those things where they have an outdated rule on the books, but in reality people are more reasonable than to enforce it--but I knew that she would be taking a chance of getting in trouble if she did it. We talked about that risk and she decided she was willing to take it. I was excited to share the joys of dyed hair with my child and I was proud to see her challenge a rule that shouldn't have existed in the first place, but ultimately the decision was hers: her body, her choice.

I dyed her hair last Friday. She only wanted a little bit in back done, kind of a peek-a-boo splash of color. I loved it. She went to a band festival at Lagoon on Saturday and had fun showing off the new colors. She went to school on Monday and Tuesday. No problems. Tuesday night she had a band concert. When she came up front for her jazz band solo and again for her symphonic band Most Valuable Player award, her colors were very visible. She looked beautiful. And, as it happened, the principal was sitting on the front row.

How do you expect students to learn while her hair looks like this?!

The next morning Daughter was called into the office and told that if she wanted to participate in any of the end-of-year activities over the next week, she would have to cover the unnatural-colored dye with spray-on natural-colored dye. I was furious. Following is the letter I wrote to the principal, who is retiring after this school year, as well as to next year's incoming principal, annotated for your enjoyment and edited to protect the identities of the innocent and guilty alike:
Hi Current Principal (C.P.) and Future Principal (F.P.)--
I am emailing both of you because this morning my daughter was dress-coded for having colored hair, and this raises both immediate concerns I hope C.P. will address, and long-term concerns I hope F.P. will address. I am not surprised that this happened--I know the rules and I discussed the potential consequences with Daughter when she asked me to dye her hair two weeks before school was out, in order to show off the colors to her friends--but I am nonetheless upset, disappointed, and frankly a little sickened. I recognize the dress code is an Alpine School District rule*, but whether and how you enforce the rule is your choice, C.P., and it will be your choice, F.P., so I will hold each of you directly responsible for your choices. 
A dress code that restricts what color a student's hair is--or for that matter anything related to how they use their own bodies to express themselves--has no right to exist in 2018. Enforcing this rule sends the message to children that others have the right to tell them what to do or not do with their bodies, and that is a very dangerous message to send. I would hope that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we all know better than to seek to impose our own values and desires on someone else's body without their consent. Clearly that isn't the case or the movement wouldn't have been necessary in the first place, but at the very least I expect educators to send a very strong message to children--and especially to young women--that their bodies are their own. Period. 
I imagine the dress code had a purpose at one point, to prepare children to succeed in a professional environment where conformity was valued, but that is no longer the world we live in. As you've seen, I typically have my own hair dyed in bright, unnatural colors, and this has had zero impact on my career. In my role as a director** for a global technology company, I have worked with clients at major companies in Silicon Valley, and neither my employer nor my clients care what color my hair is. They are only concerned with the quality of my work, my integrity, and other such things that actually matter. 
Daughter is a straight-A*** student taking multiple AP and honors courses, constantly receiving awards for her art and music, in the process gaining the respect of her teachers and peers, and you, C.P., have chosen to penalize her for expressing herself creatively in a way that literally harms no one, only because it violates an arbitrary, outdated, harmful rule. To be clear, Daughter does not come by her success without challenges: Among other things, her parents are divorced and she is the child of a gay father living in an extremely heteronormative community. Through no choice of her own, she is different in a community that does not value difference. As a gay atheist in Orem, Utah, I have some idea of what that is like, but I can only imagine how junior high school intensifies that experience. I would not blame Daughter for hiding her difference in an attempt to fit in, but she chooses to be open with her friends about herself and her family with a quiet courage that I did not have at her age. Her choice to dye her hair was an artistic way of saying, "I am different, and I am proud of who I am."**** As a father, I could not be prouder. 
My point is not to say that my daughter has special reasons for coloring her hair, so you should make an exception for her. My point is that every child has reasons for expressing themselves the way they choose to, and so long as they are not harming themselves or others, we should encourage that, not punish it. It is one thing to tell children what they can wear to school*****, but it is something else entirely to tell them what they can and can't do with their own bodies--this affects their lives outside of school, and considering that school is mandatory this imposes your values on their lives in a way that is unfair and unhealthy. My children don't often break rules, but I can promise you that if they did break a rule that actually had a reason to exist, I would be 100% with you. However, so long as my child is breaking a rule that is unjust, I will defend and support her decision to do so. 
C.P., I realize you are about a week from the end of the school year and retirement, but it is never too late to admit you were wrong and make things right. Recently, when Daughter was chosen to be a section leader in the high school marching band, I told her one of the most important things a leader can do is admit when they are wrong. I imagine that with your leadership experience, that is a lesson you already know well. I know you love the children you work with****** and you want what's best for them, and I am here to tell you that attempting to exert control over their bodies is not what's best for them and it does not show love. 
F.P., I know that a survey recently went out asking students how they feel about dress code enforcement (among other things). I hope that is a sign that you are seriously considering abandoning this ridiculous rule. If you need more convincing, I'll be happy to discuss further with you. 
--Ben 
*I have since learned the district's dress code is pretty vague. It is the junior high's own rule that explicitly forbids unnaturally-colored hair. 
**I actually switched from the director role into my current instructional designer role last September, but that didn't seem as relevant as the client-facing role I was in for three years. 
***I have since been reminded that she got one A- in eighth grade. 
****I should clarify, that's my interpretation of what she's saying with her hair. She didn't actually tell me this. She may well have only been saying, "I like pretty colors." That is also a worthwhile artistic statement. 
*****To be clear, I feel pretty much the same about restricting a child's clothing as I do about restricting their hair color, but I figure one battle at a time, and I do think there's a significant difference in the degree of invasiveness of the two. 
******She told me so the night before, when we were chatting after the band concert. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The 80s Sitcom Lifestyle

From a very young age, my evening babysitter was the television. Left home alone while my mom worked and my older siblings worked or hung out with friends, I adopted Steven Keaton, Jason Seaver, and Clair Huxtable as my foster parents. As the youngest of seven children being raised in Hawaii by a single mother living on a server's tips, I was fascinated by the mostly white, middle class, suburban, two-parent nuclear family life portrayed on the sitcoms of the mid-eighties. My daytimes, meanwhile, were filled with cartoons and by sitcoms from the fifties, populated by families even more stereotypical of white suburban America than those of eighties sitcoms.

Between what I saw on TV and what I learned in church--where the traditional (i.e. Cold War-era suburban white heteronormative) family is held up on a pedestal--I came out of childhood sure of two things:

  1. The kind of home and family life I wanted. 
  2. That I had been unfairly deprived of said home and family life in my childhood. 
This left me 
  1. desperate to find the kind of home and family life I wanted; and
  2. super bitter about my childhood home and family life. 
It was this desperation that led me to marry young, have three beautiful children, and work my way through three college degrees in search of a satisfying career with which to support my family. I would do anything to achieve that sitcom family lifestyle I'd been chasing since childhood. If I couldn't be raised by Ward Cleaver, then dang it, I'd become him. 

About nine years in, we achieved the dream: a month before our third child was born, we bought a house in a quaint suburban neighborhood two blocks from the elementary school. We started a garden in the backyard. We even hung a family portrait over the fireplace. 

Image result for growing pains family portrait
It worked on Growing Pains
I had everything I'd ever wanted, and still I felt empty. I didn't want to be Ward Cleaver; I wanted to be married to Ward Cleaver. As it turns out, those sitcoms--and the church--forgot to tell me the model of home and family life they were idealizing wasn't ideal for everyone. So at great pain to myself and the people I love most, I embarked on a half-decade transition that has now landed me in a life that looks very much like those eighties sitcoms I loved so much, with our brightly-decorated home with a family picture hanging over the stairway in a quaint suburban neighborhood right next to an elementary school. Every day about 5:30 my husband and I greet each other as we get home from work, we make dinner, we watch TV or read or write. It's not ideal in that our children have to split their time between our home and their mothers' homes, but given the circumstances this is the best possible reality available to us.

Maybe a little more Brady Bunch meets My Two Dads than Leave it to Beaver.

My point is not to say, "Boo hoo, look how false ideals created by television and religion ruined my life." On the contrary, I would have to be blind not to recognize how lucky I am. Yes, it took a modest helping of blood, sweat, and tears to get here, but the fact that I was able to achieve this is a function of my privilege. I recently read an article about research showing that statistically, a white man raised in poverty has roughly the equivalent chance of success that a black man raised in a rich family has. And race is only one of the ways I'm privileged.

This is why representation matters. On TV, in movies, in literature, we need to see all kinds of people in all kinds of family, home, and life situations. We need people of all gender and sexual identities, we need people of all colors, we need people in various levels of economic status. In real life, there are many ways to achieve happiness; we need media that reflects this.

Also, Netflix, if you want to produce a sitcom about two gay dads who are non-custodial parents of five children living in the heart of suburban Mormon Utah, give me a call.