Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lurkers support us in email

I've been thinking about the Myspace suicide hounding and reading the discussion at Making Light. Oddly, no-one at ML knows of a similar case in the Nerd World.*

This is surprising, because the Nerd World *built* the Internet and includes most of the early adopters. The Nerd World went online earlier, spends more time here, and has a longer track record with most of the up- and down-sides.

And it's not because everyone in the Nerd World is so nice that they would never, ever do anything really horrible and nasty. Over the years Nerd historians have seen elaborate displays of sock-puppetry, emotional scamming, financial shenanigans, marriages being deliberately broken up, people's jobs being threatened or even lost, stalking both online and in the flesh, re-enactment of seventh grade only with more swear words, and every degree of drama, posturing, assholery, and sociopathology.

And it's not for lack of people who are emotionally vulnerable or clinically depressed, either. The rate of depression or psychiatric illness cannot be less in Nerd World than in the general population and may well be more, because Nerd World tilts toward people with unusual minds. Nerd World suicides are not common, but they do occur -- no-one is questioning that.

The question is, has anyone been hounded toward suicide? and if not, why not? What protective factors have operated in the Nerd World, and how can they be translated outside it?

I know of three suicides among online Nerd World inhabitants within the past 5 years (I'm sure the actual number is higher, these are just the people that I have some info about through word of pixel). It occurs to me that all these cases were pretty much the opposite of poor Megan Meier. Far from being hounded or isolated online, these people committed suicide despite considerable and even heroic efforts on the part of their online friends. This doesn't mean their efforts were pointless, just that there's a limit to how much you can help someone with life-threatening depression if you're not their doctor.

I think, then, that there's some evidence -- or at least a solid possibility -- that something in Nerd World culture is preventing the absolute worst sort of online bullying, or protecting people against it when it starts.

I can come up with a long list of factors, but I think the most important is: Lurkers support us in email. In Nerd World you're never totally cut off. Even if you're in the wrong, even if you're batshit insane, even if you're a plagiarist (though that one's really pushing it) there will be people on your side. And if you're hurt, if you're unhappy, if you've said something really stupid and don't know how to apologize, there will be people who will still communicate with you, who will tell you it's not the end of the world.

The other factors:

2. Separation from RL contacts & environments. The Nerd World tends to be organized by interest, not physical location, so it's easier to see that whatever part of your life is sucking right now isn't your whole life.

3. Pseudonymity. It's not just that the Nerd world has longer experience with RL/online conflcits and how useful a pseud can be, though there is that. It's also that one of the foundational elements in the Nerd World is *pretending*. This includes still loving to play dress-up -- the SCA is one of the older, core communities of the Nerd World.

4. Mixed-age. Compared to places like Facebook, and to many RL social groupings, the Nerd World is a place where teens, twenties, and older adults can interact freely. In my experience, this means that it's easier for a young, hormonally-challenged person to see that hir problems will not last forever. It's also easier for us crones & codgers to give advice that a kid will actually listen to, because we have no power over their lives.

Although the larger society is very concerned (even hysterical) about the possibility that youngsters will be seduced by creepy older people online, I haven't known that to happen in the Nerd World. This may be because --

5. Interactions tend to be many-to-many, so people monitor each other's behavior. I think this may be part of the reason Making Light is such a successful blog, and DailyKos such a powerful online community.

What do you think?


*For purposes of this discussion, the Nerd World is the set of people ranging (with much overlap) from mostly-male computer geeks through science fiction fandom to media fandom and mostly-female fanficdom.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Breasts and Evolution

Lightly edited from comments I left in a post by Amanda at Pandagon,
If only someone could make a nifty little program…. about whether men are really more "visual" than women, and some of the fallacies of "Evolutionary Psychology".

Puttin' on my Actual Evolutionary Biologist™ hat here.

Breasts are an example of how human anatomy & physiology have some unique and biologically bizarre features, features that contradict each other *and* contradict what evolutionary biology leads one to explect. Examples:

1) human males average larger than females -- as is expected if there is significant sexual selection on males (=females are picky, not all males reproduce)

2) human females have enlarged breasts, of a type found in no other mammal. This suggests that biologically unusual sexual selection on females is occurring. I don't think it can be to make nursing easier, Ailurophile, because my experience is that it *doesn't* -- it makes "latching on" a good deal harder than it is for droopy-chested chimps.

3) both human sexes (in most populations) have extremely exaggerated head hair, the longest hair of any mammal. This implies heavy, unbalanced sexual selection on at least one sex.

Look at it this way. You know how many other species of bird or mammals have males larger than females, but females more brightly-colored in *any* respect than males?[1]

*None*. Zip, zero. It does not compute. Far from being explicable by trivially easy "Evolutionary Psychology" reasoning (as practiced by sociologists, ferchrissakes), human reproductive biology is really problematic.

This is why I'm starting to think that self-domestication may be the missing link in human evolution. It's probable that for a long time (at least 100,000 years) humans have been attempting to control each other's reproduction, via arranged marriages and the like. No-one's done the math yet, so this is really just an educated guess on my part.

growth of the breast isn’t to encourage group survival, but is a result of sexual competition - females with bigger breasts had an advantage over their flatter sisters, suggesting (again) that males favoured them for whatever reason. Evo psych rears its ugly head again.
And again, this is why I talk about “evo-psycho”, because they don’t actually understand biology.

For female mammals to have elaborate, permanent display structures like breasts is *bizarre*, even unprecedented (the role & significance of the sexual swellings in female baboons is hotly debated). It’s particularly weird when you recall that a woman’s breasts swell while she’s nursing — *and thus infertile*.

Frankly, I don’t know why human females have “display breasts”. One thing I would definitely ask is, who are they displaying *to*? Potential mates, or potential in-laws? Or other females?

[1] In most warm-blooded animals males are larger and less camouflaged than females. There are some groups in which females are larger: baleen whales, birds of prey, and rabbits, for instance. In most of these, the males are still less camouflaged (e.g. Kestrels), so sexual selection is probably still acting on males, but ecological forces make them smaller.

There are a few birds in which females are larger and more brightly-colored than males (e.g. Phalaropes), and in these species females are polyandrous -- that is, sexual selection is for once acting more strongly on them than on the males.

There are *no* species in which males are larger and females are less camouflagued.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Gay-hatin' and Subtractive Masculinity

Fred Clark at Slacktivist has been asked to put in another post on the sources and support of the Gay-hatin' Gospel.. My comments got to be a bit long:

I'm surprised, Fred, because I think you're overlooking the point, again.

A big part of the issue is gender roles. And that means that a big part of the issue is *women*. Even though (as several people have pointed out) 99% of the vitriol & repugnance is directed against gay men specifically and anal sex even more specifically, I think the thing which is being talked about without being named is *women*.

Same-sex marriage is in fact a threat to traditional heterosexual marriage, because SSM is obviously between equals. Anal sex is a deep threat to masculinity because it involves a man -- a full human being, just like the default "me" of patriarchal society -- being penetrated. And if human beings (=men) can be penetrated and not scorned, then maybe the people who are traditionally penetrated (=women) ... are human beings.

The idea that women might be human beings threatens J. Matt Barber profoundly, because the view of masculinity that has developed over the past century (I'm not sure about earlier) is subtractive. That is, a Man is defined as someone who is Not A Woman. This worked OK when men could do a lot of things women can't. But if women can be smart, then men must be stupid; if women can be moral, men must be evil; if women love beauty, men must love ugliness. You can see this all too clearly in the link Brel found in Part.5: creativity itself (long a male prerogative) has become suspect.

And at the end, Barber and his ilk are faced with the horrific consequences of their subtractive masculinity: if women are human beings, men ... cease to exist. He's reacting like he's facing an existential threat because he *is* facing one: he's standing what used to be a glorious castle but which turned out to be a pile of sand, slipping away into the tide. His idea of masculinity is part of his *self*, and eroding the one is eroding the other.
(continued on next rock)

One of the best illustrations of how subtractive masculinity works is in a old, not all that good science fiction story, "The Last Man" (written by Wallace West in 1929, anthologized in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction). My copy seems to have disappeared (or crumbled into dust), but IIRC the narrator talks about how women's energy and ambition couldn't be suppressed forever, and they moved into one field after another until all that was left for men to consider important were sports and war. And then war became unthinkable, and women got into sports, and then all the men just died out, useless (our hero is a throwback in a zoo).

Subtractive masculinity isn't confined to the evangelical Right in America, by any means. After the 2004 election, religion journalist Jeff Sharlet admitted what he'd been reluctant to say before: that homophobia is the true unifying factor for strongly religious Americans of every stripe. The stresses currently in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality are largely coming from churches in the Southern Hemisphere, based in societies that don't have all that much in common with the US Bible Belt. But they *do* still face stresses from changing gender roles, just as traditional Muslim societies do, too.

Amanda has a post up at Pandagon about the anthology Choice and about how too many men react:

abuse and control is less an obsession for a lot of men and more the natural result of thinking of women as functional objects in your life. Like if she starts behaving in ways that are inconvenient (like getting pregnant or trying to prevent pregnancy), then it’s appropriate to treat her like a malfunctioning appliance. ...

... Anything outside of functional use is considered irrelevant at best, an infringement on functionality at worst. Not that all men are like this, by any stretch, but this way of viewing women as objects is endemic and honest men will admit that even if they resist it, they get messages that it’s an appropriate way to view women.
But with a subtractive model of masculinity, men *have* to think this way -- because if women are not objects, then there's no humanity left for men.

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