My Distraction Sickness

Andrew Sullivan’s essay for New York Magazine seems especially timely, given that a few of my friends are taking hiatuses from social media at present.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

This has been my reality for so long, I’m honestly not sure if I can imagine living any other way. I justify it by saying it helps me keep in touch with friends far and wide, but how in touch am I, really, when the majority of my updates come through the firehose of my Twitter timeline and are condensed to 140 characters?


A former romantic partner used to have a very active, very rich social circle that he kept in constant touch with through his laptop (and his phone, to a smaller extent). When I’d visit him in the Bay Area, his laptop was a third party in our bed. And I never felt like I could ask him to only focus on me, because those other people in his life were important too. What I eventually realized is that by taking advantage of the very limited time I had to spend with him and giving it to other people, he was showing me in no uncertain terms that I didn’t really matter at all.1 It’s now why I insist that current romantic partners put their phones away and silence any notifications while we’re together. As Sullivan writes:

Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully unplug. I want to get to a place where I can at least read quietly again, without sharing what I’m feeling at every moment with the ever-present dopamine injection that is my list of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I want to hold hands, feel skin against skin, notice the way someone’s forehead furrows, and the way their eyes sparkle with laughter. But how can I do that in an unmediated way without being independently wealthy? But the distractions of my online life aren’t doing me any favours personally or professionally, and I think I could benefit greatly from sitting with the discomfort of quiet long enough for it to start to fit like a well-loved pair of slippers.


  1. I’m no saint here, either. The time I should’ve been spending with my spouse, I was spending it on the long-distance relationship and throwing my energies there. We live, we learn. 

Distress Signals

a black and white double exposure photo of the US flag

It is a peculiar time to be a black American. Maybe there has always been tension in this relationship; maybe in the past I’ve been more willing to live within that tension, to use it to test my own limits of what I can endure. Those limits were pulverized into powder this week.

America is in distress. I am in distress. And I’m feeling like we are all beyond saving.

Lightning in a Bottle

Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders: for the fags; for the fat girls; for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied. We were a community, a generation — in Nirvana’s case, several generations — in the echo chamber of that collective howl, and Allen Ginsberg would have been very proud, here. — Michael Stipe

The speech Stipe gave to induct Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought tears to my eyes. Since the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s death (and Marlon Riggs’), I’ve been in a very somber mood. Stipe’s words pushed the floodgates open and created the space for me — and so many others like me — to grieve and celebrate.

Calling In: A Less Disposable Way Of Holding Each Other Accountable

When confronted with another person’s mistake, I often think about what makes my relationship with this person important. Is it that we’ve done work together before? Is it that I know their politics? Is it that I trust their politics? Are they a family member? Oh shit, my mom? Is it that I’ve heard them talk about patience or accountability or justice before? Where is our common ground? And is our common ground strong enough to carry us through how we have enacted violence on each other?

I start “call in” conversations by identifying the behavior and defining why I am choosing to engage with them. I prioritize my values and invite them to think about theirs and where we share them. And then we talk about it. We talk about it together, like people who genuinely care about each other. We offer patience and compassion to each other and also keep it real, ending the conversation when we need to and know that it wasn’t a loss to give it a try.

A couple of people mentioned (on Twitter) that they couldn’t believe how calm I was in the intersectionality post and in the conversation that spurred it. I used a feminist twitter meltdown as a model of behaviour I didn’t want to follow, but it was the piece “Calling In: A Less Disposable Way Of Holding Each Other Accountable” by Ngọc Loan Trần that also helped me to keep my reactions in check.

(Also: Black Girl Dangerous should be required reading.)

What A Mighty Good Man

After reading “The End of Kindness: Weev and the Cult of the Angry Young Man” today, I posted the following statement on Twitter:

My comment was retweeted, and after that, someone I don’t know asked me to define what a good man was, as he “was neither good nor bad, (but) confused and complicated like every single decent human.”

I thought that was a fair question, and I came up with this:

(A good man is) Interested (in) supporting and advocating for fairness and equality of all people. Willing to critique & correct societal imperfections. An ally in every sense of the word. Not a knight in shining armor. Not perfection personified. But human. And capable of seeing and advocating for the humanity in all of us.”

For the most part, I’m satisfied with this answer, but I wonder if I’m leaving anything out. What makes a man a good man?

(I’m focusing on men specifically for a number of reasons, but primarily because the above article references the online abuse of women that is perpetrated by men)

On the Tyranny of Tradition

NOTE: More than a month has passed since this incident took place, but suddenly, thanks to an article in the Vancouver Sun, interest in this issue has begun anew. I’ve said all I have to say on the subject. I’m also closing comments on this post. If you have something to say, you’re welcome to say it over on the Vancouver Sun’s pages, but I’m making an editorial decision to shutter further comments on this post to prevent them from getting ugly.

(NOTE: After talking to my friend Jason, I wanted to offer this note: I acknowledge that the Morris Men were not pretending to be black people, nor were they trying to mimic black people in their performance. I also acknowledge that as the person who lacked context, the onus was on me to try to gain that context. I hope I did that. My feelings do not trump cultural identity. At the same time, I think geography and location matter.)

I’ve seen a lot of things in Vancouver, but I never expected to see a group performing in blackface right outside my apartment.

I caught the Vancouver Morris Men as they performed on the plaza in the Olympic Village. A group of 8-10 middle aged white men in blackface played instruments, danced in circles and lines, sang songs, and performed routines with sticks. And oh yeah, they were in blackface.

I stood there, shaking with rage, completely gutted by the fact that no one else in this oh-so Liberal and progressive environment seemed to have a problem with what we were watching. It was just me, posting photos to Twitter, standing there with my arms crossed, mean-mugging the whole time while the audience clapped and cheered. I decided to stick around after the performance was over. I wanted to understand why this particular tradition was so important to them. I walked over to one of the performers as he was talking to a couple of women, and interrupted him mid-explanation.

He was explaining to one woman that the reason they performed this way was because of the class differences in society at the time the tradition started. Performance was frowned upon in upper class society, so the dancers darkened their faces with cork to disguise themselves.

“Do you understand that blackface is hurtful to some people?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.

“You’re not the first person who has complained or raised a concern about this,” he said, “but we’ve decided as a group that it’s important to honor the tradition, and that we’d keep performing in blackface.”

I could write more about the exchange, including the belligerent woman who shouted in my face that this was “older than Shakespeare” and that I was wrong to criticize the dancers because “(she) liked it”, and I could talk about the other dancer who, growing testy, tried to talk over me to try to silence me. I’d like to mention that a woman who said she descended from Holocaust survivors understood what I was saying, and opined that when something touches a person like this, it becomes an emotional response. But right now, I want to try to focus on a lesson.

When your tradition, when your art causes people pain, you have a responsibility as an artist, but what is that responsibility, and what is the correct response? Is it time to think of another way to honour your tradition without causing emotional damage? Should you be given a pass because your art is old and time-tested, or because it was the ways of your forefathers? What is your responsibility as a thinking, living, feeling member of the society you inhabit? You aren’t excused simply because you’re “just trying to have fun” or “just trying to be respectful to (your) history”.

Perhaps you’ve never had to face your biases in person. If that’s the case, then you’ve lived a sheltered and privileged experience. When a person comes to you with pain in their voice and tears in their eyes, it isn’t the time to cover your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and sing “LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU!”.

You may never call a black person a nigger, and the very idea of explicit racism may make your blood boil, but when you’re putting forth an image that leads a person who lacks the proper context to an unfavourable conclusion, it’s your responsibility to listen. If you are unwilling to listen, or if you decide that your art and your tradition mean more to you than another person’s stress and discomfort, then you are willfully flaunting your privilege. If you willfully flaunt your privilege, you deserve to be — and will be — called out on it. Do not feign outrage or surprise. Do not plead ignorance.

I know that change is hard. I know that you probably feel picked on and misunderstood. I am sorry for that, but at the same time — welcome to my world, buttercup. Do not try to tell me how hard it is to wear blackface (yes, one of the performers actually said this to me). But when you try to hide racist questionable behaviour or racist questionable representations under a cloak of tradition, or when you try to pass it off as little more than a quaint custom, it makes you look callous. It makes you look like a coward. If you descend from such a brave and proud people — and I don’t doubt that you do — do them the honour of finding a way to celebrate their meaning in the same spirit, but without such a literal interpretation that will, without a doubt, be easily misunderstood.

But most of all, listen. Listen to me when I tell you that I never expected to have my spirit violated as I was innocently walking to the market. Listen to me when I tell you that as a highly educated person that I freely understand the intellectual and historical context of your art, but that those responses go out the window when emotion comes into play. Do not invalidate my pain. Do not try to shout me down. Do not tell me I am wrong. Simply listen.

Here is how you can listen: stop talking. Here is how you can acknowledge what you’ve heard: repeat back what the person has said. Here is how you can start dialogue: when the person has finished speaking, thank them for expressing their opinion and sincerely apologize for causing harm. Here is how you can affect change: take the time to develop an understanding of the hurt you have caused, and reflect upon it. To do otherwise leads me to believe that you just don’t give a shit about other people, and I for one don’t want to believe that you could have such an insensitive disregard for someone you have never met.

Because you’re not really like that, are you?

If you put in the work, if you listen, reflect, and seek to affect change, you may find that your audience will appreciate your traditions more. You’ll gain a perspective that will make you better artists, and will make you better people. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

(I’d like to send a huge thank you to Elaine Miller, who forwarded my tweet to a number of her activist friends. Thank you for helping to share my experience. I’d also like to thank everyone else who offered support, expressed outrage, and suggested solutions. I am feeling much better, much stronger because of you.)