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Monday, October 28, 2013

Tweeting #SPEP13

 "SPEP is not a mini-APA."
--Anthony Steinbock, 25 October 2013

That quote is from a plenary address delivered this past weekend by Tony Steinbock, Executive Co-Director of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, entitled "SPEP and the Continental Divide."  SPEP is the second-largest organization for professional philosophers-- the largest is the American Philosophical Association (APA)-- and for reasons too many and varied to recount here, SPEP has always been a little hung-up on distinguishing itself as something more than a "mini-APA."  As one of about a dozen SPEPers who were live-tweeting not only Steinbock's address, but the entirety of this year's annual SPEP conference, I'm happy to report that, at least with regard to the integration of new technologies and social media into this year's proceedings, truer words were never spoken than Steinbock's above.

For the uninitiated, let me explain just how live-tweeting a conference works, before going on to say why I think this was (to borrow @AdrielTrott's formulation) such a "value-added" development for SPEP. 

First, the basics: Twitter is an online social networking site (some call it a "microblogging" site, and I hope you already know what a blog is since you're reading one now) that allows users to post "tweets"(short text messages, images, or weblinks) that can be read by anyone who "follows" the author/tweeter's "feed." Like any other medium for public communication, the content of Twitter's tweets range from the substantive, informative, even erudite, to the mundane, profane and pedestrian.  Unlike most other public media, though, Twitter has a unique restriction governing its content: all tweets must be composed in 140 characters or less (that includes spaces and punctuation).  As every Twitter user knows, tweeting demands an incredible-- at times, seemingly impossible-- economy of words.  And as everyone who has ever met a philosopher knows, economy of words is not our strong suit.  So, tweeting by philosophers or about philosophy is a frustrating and challenging enterprise, but also a uniquely rewarding and sometimes even genius one.

"Live-tweeting" is exactly what is sounds like, that is, posting tweets about an event in real-time synchronicity with that event. So, if you were live-tweeting a football game, for instance, you might tweet the score every quarter. However, live-tweeting a conference is different because, in its best form anyway, it is not simply reportage ("he said this and then she said that" or "this is the score") but more akin to having a conversation about the sessions/lectures/receptions/dinners/etc that you are attending as you are attending them.  Because the social norms governing academic lectures do not (thankfully!) permit audience members to chat amongst themselves while the speaker speaks, this sort of real-time response and interaction is usually verboten.  But because anyone can tweet from his or her smartphone, iPad or most any other mobile device while still sitting quietly as a well-behaved audience member ought, Twitter opens up a space for that otherwise missing real-time response and interaction to take place without interfering with the event.  Think of it like this: when you sit with your friends and watch a Presidential debate or address on television, you're all listening and paying attention, but it's also likely that you spend some of that time commenting to one another about the substance of what you're hearing ("I don't think he's considering x" or "how does he think that y follows from x?" or "that's an incredibly nuanced and important insight!"), which you wouldn't be able to do aloud, of course, if you were sitting right there in the room with the speaker.  That conversation, the one you would be having with your friends if you were watching an address on television and weren't restricted by the norms of audience behavior, is what we SPEP live-tweeters had with one another during the conference this past weekend.

We SPEP tweeters were all able to keep up with each other (and those who were not in attendance at the conference were able to keep up with us) via hashtags, which are the markers that Twitter users employ to "tag" the content/topic/issue of their tweets.  Chris Long from Penn State (@cplong on Twitter) collated all of the tweets with the hashtag #spep13 using Storify, and I encourage you to take a look at it here if you're not familiar with Twitter. Thanks to Chris' good work, in addition to whatever benefit the Tweeters may have experienced, there is now also the benefit of having an archive of audience reactions and responses beyond what was given voice in the (always-limited) Q & A sessions.

Above and beyond the added value of real-time conversations mentioned above, the #spep13 Twitter feed also allowed me to keep up with what was happening in sessions that I was unable to attend.  As SPEP has grown larger and as it has increased the number of concurrent sessions it runs, it has gotten harder and harder for attendees to see all of the papers that they really want to see.  This year in particular, there were at least three panels in every time slot that I wanted to attend... but, alas, space and time can be so limiting to a body.  At least once, I stepped out of a session I was in to drop in on another session down the hall as a consequence of what I was reading from my fellow SPEP-Tweeters.  And, in the several instances in which I found myself in a session with other live-Tweeters present, I felt like I had what can only be described as a "real sense" of the room, both as the presentations were delivered and during the Q&A.  Unbeknownst to many in that same room, I'm sure, there was a whole lot being said that wasn't being voiced, but which added no less value to the conversation.

My experience live-tweeting SPEP this year has made me a convert to the practice, for sure, and I genuinely hope that the Executive Committee of SPEP takes notice of how much value it added to our proceedings even with the small number, relatively speaking, of SPEP-Tweeters. Because those of us who were tweeting this year are (I hope) the vanguard, there were a few awkward moments.  (I'm not sure it was always clear to the ancien regime that we were, in fact, attentive and working and we weren't just playing on our tech devices.  And it was a little weird to have people come up to me between sessions or at the receptions and quote my own tweets back to me.)  Still, as far as I could tell, the number of SPEP-Tweeters at least doubled just between the first and last day of the conference, which goes to show that this idea may have legs. 

Or wings.  Whatevs.

Thanks to my fellow SPEP-Tweeters for making this work: Adriel Trott, Ammon Allred, Christopher Mayes, Andrew Dilts, Linda Alcoff, Robin James, Jane Bunker, Rick Elmore, Christopher Long, Bob Vallier, Falguni Sheth, Dylan Trigg, Tony Sanfillippo, and Dave Mesing. Next year in NOLA!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hate Crimes, Complicated: Or, Why It's So Hard To Do What's Right, Even When You're "Right"

I've never been in a fist-fight in my entire life  but, yesterday, I received my first black eye.

I got my black eye roughly 48 hours ago now, on what just so happened to be the last day of my College's Fall break, which ended Tuesday evening.  I spent the entire evening on Tuesday with a frozen bag of peas on my face-- a strategy that I learned, not from any prior experience with fists to my face, but only from some vague memory of black-eye remedies a la 80's sitcom TV-- and I felt very fortunate to see the evidence of injury go down to the point where the splitting headache and blinding swelling weren't, well, so noticeable by the time I woke up the next day.  This morning (Wednesday morning), when I had to return to work/classes, here's how I explained my obviously weird-looking face to my students and colleagues:  "I was reaching up to get something off of one of the top shelves in my pantry and-- because I'm short and clumsy-- I accidentally dislodged a can of beans in the process, which fell and hit me in the face."  For what it's worth, I am short, but not particularly clumsy, just for the record.

That story was a lie.  I knew it was a lie when I told it.  It was a lie almost as transparent as "I fell and hurt myself," which may be the most transparently dubious lie ever told by women to explain their black eyes.  But it was a lie that nobody-- not ONE SINGLE PERSON-- questioned when I told it.  I think that's at least in part due to the fact that I'm not what one would call a "passive" female, but I hope you will see, shortly, how that does not matter at all.

Some background is necessary in advance to fully appreciate this post:  my job-- what I've spent the last decade doing-- is to teach political and moral philosophy, including feminist, queer, race and gender theory.  That is to say, I have absolutely no excuse for what follows.

Contrary to the story I told, here's the true story of what happened:  I was in a gas station in North Memphis on Tuesday, where three older males (I'm guessing in their 20's) were harassing a kid (I'm guessing 14 or 15yrs old), calling him a "faggot" and saying that they would "beat his fairy ass down" if they ever caught him somewhere that there weren't cameras. All four of them were ahead of me, as I was last in the checkout line. I told the older guys to STFU and leave the kid alone, that they were just showing how ignorant and scared they were by picking on someone who they obviously outnumbered and were bigger than. Many words-- many of which can only generously be described as "unkind" words and probably more accurately described as "fighting" words-- were exchanged between us, ending up with one of the older guys saying: "Of course you'd say that, DYKE." (Fwiw, I don't care at all about being called a "dyke.") So, I waited until all of us checked out, the kid was kind of hanging out by the door, so I walked the kid to his bike, and I waited to watch him ride off. All the while we were in the parking lot, the older guys were threatening the kid and giving him sh*t as he rode off, so I shouted back at them that they were a bunch of "p*ssy bullies" who "couldn't possibly be as hard as they claimed since they were so afraid of a kid on a bike." (Full disclosure: I used more expletives  And, if I'm being completely honest, I consciously and intentionally tried to "bait" them in order to distract their attention from the kid.) When the kid was safely out of sight, the older guys cornered me up against my car and started in again with the "you must be a dyke" stuff, to which (in retrospect, stupidly) I said "so what if I am? does that scare you, babies?." Then the one guy delivered what can only very generically be described as a "punch"-- it was, strictly technically speaking, more like a "misdirected shove"-- but at any rate, I got hit in the face. Hence, my black eye. It was over after that.  I got in my car and left, as did they.

I want to say now that I feel really terrible about not telling this story initially and I apologize to everyone who I told the "oh I was clumsy and dropped something off the top shelf" explanation. I especially apologize to all the LGBT people I know for telling that story. Of all people, as someone who regularly teaches feminist and queer theory, I really should've known better. In my defense, and this is not even a legitimate defense by my own standards, I felt guilty for what I thought was "instigating violence" language/behavior on my part. Even now, looking back on it, I am convinced that my intention in the parking lot was to "bait" them, to redirect their aggression toward me and away from the kid, which is only excusable in a very reductive ends-justifies-means way.  In retrospect, I still wish I had not contributed to the escalation of this situation, which I could have (and probably should have) easily walked away from when danger was no longer really imminent, but I now realize that the very deep embarrassment I feel about my behavior in this whole situation is misdirected.  And, even more so, my willingness to lie about it the next day was wrong.  Deeply, morally wrong.

I'm going to have a hurt and (slightly more) ugly face for a couple of days. Whatever. Nbd, in the grand scheme of things, really.

In my own estimation as a philosopher and a moral agent, I should've used better judgment/language in this case.  I should've done my part to reduce the possibility for violence, rather than provoking the likelihood of it, and I think I clearly did the latter.  I want to take full responsibility for my part in this   But, more importantly, I want to apologize for lying about this story, for letting my pride get in the way of telling the true story that should have been told. I did a real disservice to LGBT people everywhere with my lie, and there is no excuse for that.  These situations happen every day, and people get hurt in situations like these every day, sans any justifiable fault.  That I did (a number of) things in this particular situation for which I am blameworthy does not diminish the fact that the situation itself only arose as a consequence of the deeply blameworthy, and deeply embedded, social structure of homophobia.  I should have known better and immediately recognized this situation as an instance of such, 

Why did I lie about my black eye? It's so hard to explain that, even to myself, even now, even with a PhD in Philosophy.  I'm no stranger to moral dilemmas, to be sure, but I've never encountered one like this.  I found myself embarrassed by right action, I felt (at least partially) responsible for wrong action, I did not want to be seen as weak, and so many other insufficient, inadequate, and fundamentally unprincipled reasons to defer good judgment. But more than anything else, I lied because I wanted to be able to give an account of my actions as a rational and independent moral agent, which I felt I could not do if I appealed to a set of conditions that did not obtain to all rational, moral agents.  These are the ties that bind, after all, and also which BIND.

Most importantly, they bind sufficiently-informed moral judgement in cases like the one I *should* have made when I chose to tell (or, in my case, not tell) the true story. 

Apologies always, by definition, come too late to mend the things they regret.  I register this apology  as a promise to do better next time.  And, believe me, my "physical" black eye will remind me every day that I have it that I have to reckon, beyond it, with my moral black eye in this case.