2020 Has Been Absolutely Bat Shit Crazy So Far, Thanks For Asking

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written for this blog. I miss it, honestly. It was such a nice sounding board for the thoughts that piqued my attention. (Fun fact: I’ve probably only published about 50% of the drafts I’ve started writing for this blog. The other 50% are ideas that I thought were worth writing until I started writing them. Then I changed my mind. Haha!)

It’s been such a whirlwind of a year – for the world and for me personally. There was so much going on that I just didn’t have the time, energy, or mental fortitude to write about it. But!! I’ve been keeping a checklist of ideas that have crossed my mind that I want to throw up on this blog and my new goal is to write one post per week, Starting with this one. At the top of that checklist is a recap of my year so far. It’s been fucking crazy.

So I guess I’ll begin a little bit before the start of the year. Late December, 2019. I found out my then-partner was cheating on me. This was particularly devastating to me for 2 reasons: 1) We were very serious. We had met each other’s families, talked about marriage, co-parented dogs, and planned to move in together. 2) His response upon my confronting him was to gaslight me, calling me crazy and telling me I was overreacting and had no idea why I was so angry. I didn’t even get closure when the relationship ended. He couldn’t even own up to anything.

I was a wreck. It was around New Year’s that my ex-partner has persuaded me into giving him another chance. I started 2020 in tears, fighting with him over something stupid. We had a lot of underlying problems in our relationship, you see, and now they were all coming out.

For the better part of January, we tried to make it work. We even went to couple therapy. But, many, many buckets of tears later, it became clear there was no coming back (or moving forward – whichever phrase you prefer. Despite their having objectively opposite denotations, they amusingly are synonymous in this instance!) from this. I ended (really ended, this time) our relationship in late January.

I immediately launched into surrounding myself with people, both new and familiar, to help me cope with the pain of loss. I have such fond memories of Harry Potter movie nights at my friends’ place during this time. I also started seeing a therapist. She’s been fantastic.

In the midst of this, I still had to be a PhD student. It was the Spring Semester of my 2nd year and I was TAing a class and taking two courses myself. To be quite honest, I have never felt so detached from the classes I was taking – at least, not all of them, at the same time. The course I TA’ed was very much the same story. Detachment. There was one noteworthy point during the semester when I was having some problems with a student, but learned some great pedagogical lessons from the process. (I now think quite highly of this student.)

But my most important task – the sole thing I had the energy for that semester – was my Master’s thesis. It’s difficult for me to understate how difficult it was for me to slog through this project. Every single aspect of it – from assembling my committee to choosing a topic to trying to churn out a working draft to meeting with my advisor – was its own struggle. After crying to my advisor about it (yes, literally) I came to grips with the necessity of lowering my standards. With everything going on in my personal life, I just didn’t have the energy to make this paper good. I was aiming for passable. And I got that. My thesis was unanimously approved, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave more to be desired. Nonetheless, I did it. I defended (via Zoom) in early April.

During my spring break in March I went to go visit my sister in Hawai’i. I flew out just barely before real concern had started to set in about COVID. For the most part, we spent it working in cafes. Her spring break was the week after mine and she still had classes, and I had my Master’s thesis to work on. But it was so nice to spend time with her there – regardless of what we did. It was during my stay in Hawai’i that people had really started to panic about COVID. On one of my last days there, I received notice from my university that Spring Break would be extended another week so they could make decisions about how to proceed.

The shift to quarantine and social distancing was…hard. I lost motivation, had trouble focusing, regularly slept an average of 16 hours a day, and stopped working out. And I did basically zero work aside from my MA Thesis. (Not that I wasn’t already doing basically zero work on account of dealing with the aforementioned breakup and emotional abuse.) In fact, I’ve only just (“just” being early July) turned in my final term paper for one of my classes. The paper for my other class has yet to be completed. I’m about halfway done with it right now.

I was pretty depressed during the first couple months of quarantine. Not like mood-depressed, but action-depressed. I just…didn’t really do anything.

And then George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded onto the streets and the media. I feel like that was what woke me up. The monotonous days of quarantine had thrown me into a stupor and this finally made me feel something again. I was angry. And I started signing petitions and sharing articles and – probably most significantly for me – speaking up to my family.

The older generation of my extended family are total brainwashed Trump supporters. Like, Obama-lied-about-being-a-natural-born-citizen-and-global-warming-is-fake kind of Trump supporters. With BLM at the forefront of everyone’s minds, politics was inevitable. The family group chat got heated. I honestly think this is the most anger and tension that’s ever been outwardly expressed between us.

As much as I tried to be a black ally – to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and put a spotlight on black liberation without centering the narrative on me – these conversations with my family were personal for me because their sociopolitical views directly affected me too. At least in discussions with my family, it was difficult for me to completely separate the Black Lives Matter movement and my own feelings towards the subject. I was angry all the time. At certain points, I was even driven to tears.

I realized this wasn’t sustainable for me – let alone healthy. I needed to focus on something else. A change of pace. A change of scenery. A change of people. Eventually I came to a point where I just knew that going back home to be with my nuclear family was the right move for me. All of my siblings had left their respective universities (they’re all in college) to come stay with my parents already and I wanted to be there with them too. I flew back to California in mid-June and stayed with my parents for three weeks.

Being home was good for my heart. I got to spend time with my siblings and cook with my mom and see some friends, reunite with my childhood dog, and eat at a handful of the restaurants I’d missed so much (takeout, of course). My mom’s garden is flourishing (literally the envy of all my plant-parent friends) and my dad is slowly but surely making progress on remodeling our front yard. It’s looking good!

Throughout my stay with my family I did a lot of work on myself. I was still regularly meeting with my therapist (through video chat) and being around my family brought up a lot of emotions she helped me start sorting through. I’m actively and successfully working to improve my relationship with my mom. I wish I could say the same about my dad, but he’s a lot more stubborn and unreasonable. I flew back to the east coast just a bit after the 4th of July.

Unprecedentedly, I’ve been doing super great since I got back. I’m keeping my space clean, building my savings, consistently working out, staying on top of my work, and keeping the procrastination to a minimum. Like, I’m doing really good right now in pretty much every aspect of my life. Sure, the world is still a chaotic mess and I’m worried about the upcoming school year, COVID, and the November election, but everything I can control is controlled. And that’s really all I can ask for.

One of my quarantine goals now that everything is more manageable for me is to start writing for fun again (hence, this blog post). I have so many thoughts that have been half-baked or bottled up and I can’t wait to dive into them and share them here.

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

I don’t like meta-ethics.

Ethics is divided up into (at least) two parts: normative ethics, the goal of which is to provide action-guiding theories of right and wrong (or permissible, impermissible, and obligatory) action; and meta-ethics, the goal of which is to answer questions about morality itself (Is it something objective or subjective? What do we mean when we say something is wrong?).

I really don’t like meta-ethics.

Firstly, I don’t like meta-ethics because it’s really hard.

On a less petty note, I also don’t like it because I’ve consistently found it to be something that “the folk” (non-philosophers, the everyday person, whatever) fall back on to defend themselves when there isn’t really anything else going for them.

“That’s just your opinion! Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong?”

“Well I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what’s right.”

This tactic is especially troubling when deployed in political or social justice discussions, because it stops the conversation from going any further (like we’re supposed to answer one of the great meta-ethical questions succinctly and sufficiently in the context of a conversation?!) on matters that we really need to do something about.

I hate that people use meta-ethics as fallback and I hate that there’s not really anything you can do in response.

This has been my rant of the day.

Against White Fetishization of Non-violence: Justifying POC Aggression

I recently shared this screenshot of a tweet to my Instagram story with the caption “A WHOLE MOOD”:

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A friend of mine replied, “The lit base on this topic is huge, and many academics (of all sorts of backgrounds) think non-violence is the best strategy for defeating oppressive power structures. Not sure why you think these arguments are only made in bad faith by racist white people.”

I think the dangers of the “fetishization of non-violence”, as it is put, is something a lot of (white) people Just Don’t Get™, so in what follows I will recount my response to my friend and explain my stance. My aim is to facilitate a better understanding of why I and many other POC oppose the “always be kind and peaceful and respectful” ideology privileged and/or white people push.

So, the first thing to address is that “violence” here is vague. When we think of violence we often think of aggressive actions (rioting, use of weapons, fighting), but the concept of violence could also be expanded to include aggressive words (candidly expressing anger, blunt language, etc.). And indeed, it seems people often do consider this to be a form of violence – especially within this context: Whenever I see a POC angrily express a general statement about white supremacy or use the terms “YT”, “cracker”, or “wypipo”, there is inevitably a white person who will respond with something along the lines of, “This is a big too aggressive. No one is going to listen to you if you talk about them like that. You need to be more respectful if you actually want people to hear what you have to say.”

So if we’re talking about what sorts of things to include under the umbrella of “violence” in this context, it seems more than fair to include the blunt, harsh, or aggressive manner of speaking that POCs sometimes use when discussing white people, white supremacy, and white privilege. Lastly, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that Twitter user uses the term “non-violence” in response to a piece of paper with the heading “BE KIND”. To avoid confusion between the colloquial sense of violence and the sense of violence I am using here, I will hereafter refer to the latter as POC aggression.

With this in mind, we now turn to the second thing: The mistaken assumption that the only – or even the primary – goal of PoC aggression is to end oppressive power structures, namely, white supremacy and white privilege. There is, I suggest, another purpose for POC aggression: affirming self-worth.

In a society in which POC are systematically oppressed, we are constantly receiving (both implicit and explicit) messages that we are less valuable and less respected than our white counterparts. Our accents are mocked, we feel pressure to assimilate, our cultures are stripped or appropriated, and we do not see ourselves represented in the media, government, or other powerful institutions. I could go on at length about how POC are disrespected and mistreated in modern day American society, but this is not the place for that. The point is that we are.

Thus, POC aggression can also serve as a means of affirming one’s self-respect and self-worth. The idea here is that the transgressions POC face are not to be taken “sitting down”, that is, not to be passively tolerated. In responding aggressively, POC are sending the message, not only to others, but more importantly, to themselves, that they are valuable, and that the way they are viewed in society is unacceptable.

It was at this point that my friend admitted that he found a lot of what I said compelling, but nonetheless insisted that it doesn’t justify what is said in the tweet: that white people use the promotion of non-violence to attack POC.

My reply to this is simple: POC aggression is an important means – and sometimes, the only means – with which POC can affirm their self-worth in a society that systematically denies them that. Thus white insistence on non-violent expression is a form of attack because it denies POC these means.

Thus we can draw two conclusions. The first is that POC aggression is permissible and justifiable as it serves an important and necessary purpose for the aggressor. The second, probably more shocking, conclusion is that it is wrong for white people to attempt to suppress this aggression, as it is in effect an attack on the dignity of POC.

A potential objection which could be raised against the second conclusion is that white people are not intentionally attacking POC by denouncing and suppressing their aggression. Their intention in doing so, rather, is something else: perhaps to facilitate more peaceful and productive discussion, to defend themselves because they feel unfairly generalized – whatever the case may be, it is something else. They are ignorant that their actions are in effect attacking POC. Thus, they are not doing something wrong in pushing for non-violence.

This objection relies on ignorance as an exculpatory factor, but I do not see why we should accept this outright. Surely there are times when ignorance can function in this manner, but it seems just as clear to me that surely there are times when it does not. Take, for example, someone who leaves their infant in their car on a hot day while they go grocery shopping. The parent did not realize the car would be several degrees hotter than the air outside nor did they know this is a dangerous situation for the baby to be left in, but nonetheless this is wrong because they should have known.

The case of a white person pushing for non-violence, I argue, is also a case of such culpable ignorance. White people do not understand the anger of POC. They don’t understand it because they can’t; as white people they have never experienced systematic oppression due to their race. Furthermore they should recognize this fact. Just a man can never understand the fear of a woman walking alone at night, just as a person born into wealth can never understand the plight of the poor, a white person can never understand the societal and institutional harms that befall POC simply for being POC. And thus they also cannot understand their anger towards white privilege and white supremacy. The culpable ignorance comes in the form of criticizing something they cannot understand, and should know they cannot understand.

I stand by my conclusions, however uncomfortable they may be to stomach: POC aggression is justifiable. In most cases white people are wrong to attempt to stop it.


A note: I am considering expanding this into a paper. Please do not redistribute or circulate without permission.

Half-Assed Activism – A Rant

Something that bothers me so much and angers me to my core is people simultaneously calling for change and yet carrying out actions that directly go against their values.

For example, all of my friends claim to be anti-Trump and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights yet many continue to buy from Chick-Fil-A even though they know this company donates huge amounts of money to anti-LGBTQ+/homophobic and pro-Trump organizations.

Similarly, all of my friends claim to be concerned about the environment and climate change, yet are unwilling to adopt a vegan diet (and are financially within their means to) despite animal agriculture being the source of a huge chunk of environmental destruction and pollution – and certainly one of the easiest to change (as opposed to, say, transportation).

I feel like so many people are all talk and act only if it doesn’t limit them in any significant way. Otherwise, they’re unwilling to make sacrifices and find some excuse for not making them. It’s frustrating and infuriating to witness.

Themed Social Media Accounts: Who Should Be Allowed A Platform?

One thing I’ve been wondering, especially recently, is when it’s appropriate to allow people (or groups of people) a social media platform.

Lots of people (especially within the circles I associate with) support the idea of administrators deleting Nazi YouTube/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. accounts so as to deny them an easy way to propagate their ideas, strengthen their communities, and influence others. This seems permissible (even obligatory?) to me, especially given how many hate crimes, violence, and even deaths have been caused at least in part by white men becoming radicalized through such social media communities.

There are, however, instances where it is less clear what we should do. An example that immediately comes to mind is social media accounts which – either implicitly or explicitly – support starvation and extreme thinness, or “pro-ana” accounts.

It is easy to find reasons why we might not want to allow such accounts: anorexia is potentially life-threatening and we do not want it presented in a glamorous or desirable manner to impressionable young children, nor do we want those already suffering from the disease to find encouragement to “give in” to it. On the other hand, arguments have been made that it is important that those suffering from anorexia have an expressive outlet and community which understands them, and to take this away from them by forcibly deleting pro-ana accounts would harm them in a different way.

This puzzle can be generalized to other sorts of social media communities. Should we allow blogs which romanticize depression and suicide if they also serve as an outlet for such thoughts? Or subReddits for pedophiles, which provide a place for sharing disturbing and objectionable fantasies but also for the non-judgmental exchange of coping mechanisms and helpful therapeutic/psychological treatments?

When it is permissible to forcibly delete themed social media accounts or communities seems like an incredibly difficult and nuanced question. While there are some clear cases of when it is permissible (e.g. pro-Nazi accounts), there are a multitude of cases wherein the verdict is unclear. I wonder if a principled approach to this issue can ever be formulated such that when it is applied we can come to an intuitively correct answer in every scenario. I am doubtful. I think each case will have to be dealt with individually, with factors unique to each situation having to be taken into concern.

Being a Filipina in White Academia: Why Affirmative Action isn’t Enough

Recently Jennifer Morton gave a talk at my university on the undermining of representation at elite universities. She argued that merely enacting affirmative action practices in the admissions process (i.e., making sure a certain percentage of the incoming class comes from some underrepresented group) will not necessarily lead to an increase in diversity.

Morton’s focus was primarily on the divide between those from an upper middle class background versus those from a low income background, and she noted two phenomena within the group of low income students in elite universities: firstly, that they try not to draw attention to themselves as low income students, and secondly, that they try to assimilate their interests and perspectives to better match those of their upper middle class peers. Thus the result of affirmative action (in this case), rather than increase diversity, is the assimilation of students of an underrepresented group into a homogeneous, upper middle class culture.

This part of Morton’s talk really struck me, and I was shocked at how well this captured my own experiences. I’m not from a low income background, but I’m a Filipino who’s been attending predominantly white academic institutions since high school. My (public) middle school was comprised overwhelmingly of people of color, with white students making up only 10% of the student population. Instead of continuing to a public high school with roughly the same demographics, my parents instead placed me at a private high school in which the majority of students were white and came from families with a much (much) higher average income than those of my middle school. It was a huge culture shock for me – one I wasn’t at all equipped to deal with.

I ended up doing exactly as Morton described: assimilating. My friend group (for most of high school, at least) was almost exclusively white and my hobbies, tastes, and even mannerisms changed to more closely mirror those of my peers’. A lot of this I carried into college with me, especially the first few years, and now I think it’s just part of who I am. I’ve been forcing myself to “fit in” for so long that I really don’t know what it’s like to not be a white-washed Asian.

But the past three years or so I’ve been really working to accept my Filipino/Asian heritage instead of actively trying to hide it. And I’m doing a lot better – even if some of the changes are only noticeable to me.

So anyways, all this is to say, if Morton’s argument can be generalized to me, it can probably be generalized to lots of other underrepresented groups (it’s worth stating explicitly here that the experiences of people from different marginalized/underrepresented/minority groups aren’t so straightforwardly comparable, and just because you’re part of an underrepresented group doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be part of any underrepresented group), and that’s a big problem. More needs to be done to diversify academia; affirmative action in the admissions process isn’t enough. Beyond that, we need to be actively working to make sure that these students feel accepted as they are and comfortable using their unique experiences and backgrounds to enrich the educational experience for everyone.

I’m not really sure how to best go about doing that, but it’s something I promise to keep as one of my primary goals throughout my entire academic career.

The Supposed Merits of Open-mindedness (and a bonus bit of Virtue Ethics)

Yesternight I had a conversation with a friend who’s from Florida and now goes to school in California. In a critical tone he expressed that one of the things that shocked him most about Californians was our lack of open-mindedness.

When I asked him how he defines “open-minded”, he said it was “to be accepting of other groups or opinions that don’t match your own or the ones you grew up with/around.” I’m not so certain this definition is correct, but let’s assume that it is and use it for this discussion.

He seemed to think that being open-minded, in this sense, is a good thing – i.e., we ought to be accepting of out-groups or differing opinions, and there is a defect in our character we are not.

I’d like to push back against this idea. Open-mindedness, in itself, is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed I believe there are groups or ideas for which we ought not be accepting of. Take, for example, people who hold the view that gay people ought to be subjected to conversion therapy, or that white people are superior to non-white people. Such views ought not be accepted. Contrary to what my friend seems to think, a willingness to take an open-minded stance in such instances would, I submit, be the mark of a serious moral defect in an individual.

I suggest that we should not urge people merely to be open-minded, but rather to develop their critical thinking skills such that they become good judges of when and when not to be tolerant of different people or ideas.

And perhaps the thought behind the latter prescription may have been what my friend was trying to get at – while it is not so much a criticism to say that Californians are not open-minded, it is bad to have poor judgement about when to be open-minded. Certainly a phenomena I’ve witnessed time and time again is people immediately shutting down new ideas or dissenting opinions that truly deserve our serious consideration (an example that immediately comes to mind is the moral wrongs of consuming animal products), and I admit it’s incredibly frustrating.

• • •

When I was thinking about this yesternight/this morning, I came to the realization that this could very easily be tweaked to become an Aristotelian analysis of the virtue of open-mindedness: Open-mindedness is a mean between the two vices of being too accepting and being close-minded, and we need practical wisdom to help us “hit the mark”.

I find it amusing how perfectly in line with Aristotle’s ethics this could be when I wasn’t even purposely going for that – or even consciously thinking about Aristotle. I guess it’s because I’m taking a class on Aristotle right now and my instructor assigned a fuck ton of reading for the week (we’re talking hundreds of pages), so I’ve been balls-deep in this stuff for the past few days just trying to get this assignment done.