Facial Recognition, right or wrong?
I was one of many who watched the Apple keynote on Tuesday. It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us, and needless to say, ten years after the initial iPhone launch, we were more than curious to see what they’d come up with. Ten years ago, I was still 100% based in PC land, with an Ericsson phone (yeah, right? Seems forever ago…) in my pocket. But the iPhone, when I first saw one live in early 2008, had me convinced, and my husband and I bought the 3G version. We’ve upgraded every two years since. The iPhone X with facial recognition instead of fingerprint ID looks amazing, and as Apple fans, we’re excited. However, that same week, we’d read articles in the news about a Stanford study of an algorithm with an uncanny “gaydar”, with up to 81% chance of identifying gay men from a picture.
Countless people have suffered badly from the pseudoscience called phrenology. Including the Sami people of Scandinavia, as I’ve described in Last Winter’s Snow. Does this mean that Facial Recognition is going to be as bad? Photo credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) and Wikimedia Commons.
This morning, I read an article which draws parallels between facial recognition software and nazi-time phrenology, where people’s abilities were supposedly determined by the shape of their skull. Debunked fake science, for sure, but even I was taken aback by the Standford study. Do we have reason to worry? First of all, let me just say that I’m surprised that this hasn’t been in the news before since Samsung and many android powered phones have been using facial recognition for some time. I guess this shows just how powerful Apple still is perceived to this day with their decisions to adopt a technology or not. Maybe it’s true that they are better than the rest. With regards to the use by Apple and the iPhone, it’s a matter of trust. Do you trust that your face measurements stay within the phone and aren’t transmitted to Apple servers? I can only answer that question for myself, and my trust in Apple is greater than my trust in say Google, whose entire business idea is based on extracting money from “data collection”…
But what about Facial Recognition per se? Well, I see it primarily as a tool, and just as any tool, it can be used to do good (protect my data, make my purchases more secure, allow me entry to another country etc.) or evil (the Stanford algorithm in the hands of evangelicals or Putin for instance). in the U.S. questions have been raised about forcing people to look at their phones by law enforcement to unlock their phones. Well, yes, that is obviously a threat, and legally, this isn’t resolved. Not there, not anywhere really. The technology is too new. However, law enforcement, if they have probable cause, can already search our devices, and the San Bernardino case shows that it is possible to even hack a relatively secure iPhone to get the data they want, even if the supplier (in that case Apple) doesn’t co-operate with the authorities for reasons of principle (which again goes to the whole trust issue).
Retina scans, facial recognition and other biometric features in e.g. passports have been in use for years. We don’t even flinch when we have our picture taken and our fingerprints scanned for our new passports, and when you use a kiosk to e.g. enter the U.S. or the EU, that data is scanned from live pictures and compared to the data stored in your passport, making it less likely that a passport is used by the wrong person. As the Stanford study shows, algorithms are better at comparing data than humans are. Changes in facial hair, hairdo, glasses etc. all have an impact on how we visually appear to an immigrations officer. Algorithms are less gullible.
As bad as nuclear weapons are, this is a photo of the planet’s first nuclear explosion, we also use nuclear power to power our Teslas… Just saying. Photo credit: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project.
But as easily as algorithms can be used for good, so is their potential for use for nefarious purposes. The Manhattan Project is just one example for that. As a member of the LGBT community, I worry, of course, that countries, where we are persecuted, are going to use such technology against us. Ethics should always be discussed. However, using facial recognition in a phone won’t change that, either way. We don’t stop using knives to cut our food even though that same tool can be used to cause terrible harm to others. It’s illegal, period.
The problem with facial recognition or the Stanford algorithm isn’t the algorithm (which quite to the contrary actually proves that the gaydar is a real thing…) per se, it’s the fact that homosexuality and members of the LGBT community are still illegal and persecuted. It’s the legislation that is problematic, not a tool to identify us. Throughout history, nefarious groups have always found ways to “identify” us, even without technology, through e.g. infiltration etc., while we’ve found ways to try and hide, e.g. through marriage.
I welcome the advent of facial recognition and the applications it offers to us. Immigration kiosks shave valuable time off my entry to other countries, and the new iPhone technology will allow me to pay in stores, log into my bank account and other secure applications much more easily and securely (according to Apple, facial recognition is 20 times less likely to be fooled than a fingerprint). It makes my life easier and simpler. I welcome that. As for the threats, and I don’t deny their existence, they haven’t become any worse because of Apple’s adoption of the technology. We need to call out bigotry, homophobia, transphobia etc. wherever we see it.
What is your take? Curse or blessing?
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Humans are never perfect. To put them on a pedestal as statues risks whitewashing their less than clean traits as well
Statutes, flags, historical monuments. We’re talking a lot about statues these days, or to use the great bard’s words (this is a literary blog after all): “to be, or not to be…” Statues, currently those raised after Confederate combatants and leaders in the U.S. have already caused the death of three people and several injured. So why are statues so controversial? Why do people care about a bronze statue of people long dead? Allow me an attempt to explain.
Humans are complex, statues aren’t
In order to understand a statue, we need to understand humanity. A human being is a complex creature. Few humans are perfect; if any. We have good sides, we have our bad sides. Allow me to exemplify: George Washington, first president of the United States, a war hero and a successful general. So far so good. But he was also a slave owner, and yeah, today, we don’t see that as a positive trait. Something the current president tried to exploit in one of his asinine press appearances. I’ll get back to that later. Most of us still see Washington as worthy of being a statue, name-giver to the capital, an entire state etc. Adolf Hitler on the other hand, the greatest villain of our times, he will never be cast as a statue, even though the man loved dogs and animals in general. Why wouldn’t you name a kennel after him or a dog shelter? The Adolf Hitler Dog Rescue Society? Nah, right? His name is just too tainted by the bad he’s done.
So what about good people?
One of my heroes, or idols, Nelson Mandela, serves as a beacon of light in this book. But in general, I’m wary of using real people as symbols. You never know when it comes back to haunt you…
I have very few idols, if any, but Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. I don’t know much about Mr. Mandela’s life before Robben Island except what you read in articles like the one quoted above, but I guess there was a reason he ended up there. His life in older years is well known to me though, and I’m sure there are plenty of schools named after the first freely elected president by all South Africans, and probably some statues, too. I even enshrined his nick name “Madiba” in one of my books (Willem of the Tafel). But it is not the human Mandela we praise. It’s the public persona, the president, the leader of a crucial time in South Africa’s history. And we do that not only against the backdrop of history but – much more importantly – in the context of how we interpret the present times. And while Mandela symbolizes South African freedom and democracy, Frederik Willem De Klerk, his predecessor as president, and also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate probably won’t get many statues, simply because he represents the old South Africa, the oppressor.
What about General Lee?
The big question here is why people created statues of General Lee (et al) in the first place. And why are statues of him criticized while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who even had illegitimate kids with his slaves) are okay? Again, history, and historical context. When Jefferson and Washington were active in society, Americans by large had no qualms about slavery. Remember, this is almost a century prior to the civil war. So while the vast majority today condemns slavery, nobody did so during the first years of the new republic. It was normal, just like women didn’t have the right to vote and gays couldn’t get married. That’s why it’s not really a factor in the equation. You can deplore that, but that doesn’t change things.
As a member of the LGBT community, I could decry every statue on Mount Rushmore, any statue anywhere really, because of their stance toward LGBT rights, but the general consensus back when they lived was another one. You could say the same about women’s rights. Which is why it’s so important that the constitution of a nation, particularly one as old as the U.S. one, is always re-interpreted and read against the backdrop of the current times (or it becomes as useless as reading the bible literally, and who does that?)
General Lee is THE figurehead of the Confederate States, more so even than their president. He symbolizes slavery because that was the #1 reason the southern states tried to leave the U.S. He is pretty much the poster boy for slavery, as the oppressor, just as Uncle Tom et al are poster boys for the victims. To erect a statue of General Lee (or defend it today) is therefore equivalent to condoning his stance on slavery, which basically means that you do not afford all humans the same value. That makes you a racist, a white supremacist (in U.S. terms), at least in today’s views. Was General Lee a good man? I’m sure. I’m sure he was a great husband and a devoted father, but that’s not why he stands as a statue, at least not today. So why did they erect statues of him? That’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I have the correct answer (in fact I know I don’t), but I would guess that – again – the answer lies somewhere in the historical context of a nascent civil rights movement. While blacks had been freed all across the Union in 1865, they had few civil rights, and in real terms, few things changed for them in the South. As the African American community began to voice their concerns and their claims to equal civil rights, this must’ve alarmed those who opposed equal rights. And therefore, symbols like General Lee or the Confederate flag resurfaces, even though, after 1865 they’d disappeared, symbols for loss and capitulation. Statues may have been raised to honor his valor, his strength, the loyalty to the state, etc. Sadly, it’s difficult to see such nuances in historical people. Even a statue of Hitler kneeling next to his dogs would do little to redeem him in the eyes of the public.
How statues and their perception changes
To the common people of the Soviet Union, statues of Stalin and Lenin were probably always seen as symbols of oppression. When the Stalinist era had ended, the Stalin statues vanished, by government order. After communism had collapsed, statues of Lenin disappeared almost throughout the entire empire, a symbol of the oppression of the past 60 years. Which is odd, because they had once been raised to honor the man who’d freed the Russian people from the Tzarevich oppression… The irony of history.
I’m convinced that statues, buildings, streets etc named after Confederate fighters were always a blight in the eye of the oppressed, but they didn’t have the means to do anything about it. Imagine how it must feel for a black student to attend Robert E. Lee High (exactly the same way it would feel for a Jew to attend Adolf Hitler High), and while I’m not comparing the two on equal footing, the analogy serves to drive home a point: history and our perception thereof changes, and it is interesting to see that while the civil war freed slaves on paper, the United States as a country didn’t begin to address its racist underbelly until the civil rights movement, and even then only reluctantly. Which is why racism in that country is so deeply rooted and institutionalized. Far too many people still believe that while slaves may have been freed, they’re still not treated/seen as equals, but that’s an entirely different post.
Yeah, Henri Guisan has statues of himself. Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Roland Zumbühl (CC 3.0)
As new documents come to light, and we learn new things about historic people, our view of them might change. Let me exemplify with an example from my birth country, Switzerland. During WWII, our armed forces were led by General Guisan, a four-star general who was specifically appointed to lead the country’s defenses. Normally, Switzerland only has three-star generals. Anyway, about fifteen years ago, new research into General Guisan revealed him to be an anti-Semite. This led to a huge outcry and many in the older generations were deeply offended by how these young “socialist historians” soiled the memory of the greatest soldier in recent Swiss history. Well, here’s my take. When Hitler took power in Germany, most Europeans and Americans held anti-semitic views. It’s been that way since the beginning of the church. It was after all the Jews who were responsible for killing the founder of their church. Hardly an endearing act. However, Guisan, while probably sympathetic to some of Hitler’s views, was also first and foremost Swiss, and just because he (and most likely Lenin, and many other leaders of the time) felt the same way about Jews, there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and eradicating them. And there’s a huge difference in defending your country against a foreign oppressor, no matter what his views. And the Swiss have always been wary of Germany and the power it wields. Not to mention the fact that Guisan was French speaking. This doesn’t “excuse” his views, but explains them in a historical context. His actions speak for themselves, just as General Lee’s (despite privately opposing the secession) chose to actively fight for a losing cause.
Yet when it comes to statues and monuments, we must also see them in the light of when they were erected, and why. Which is why the men on Mt. Rushmore rest safely, even from BLM, feminist or LGBT activism, while the statues of southern fighters do not. Because what they stand for was disputed even when they were alive, not just today.
Echnaton, displayed at a Cairo Museum, not in public. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Néfermaât
Why weren’t they removed before? And why the fights now?
America is undergoing a rough patch in its history, having for the first time elected a racist and white supremacist to the presidency. While few people who voted for Trump share his vile views, racism is a red thread throughout his entire life, from the earliest days when he learned from his father not to rent to African Americans in New York, to his remarks about Mexicans “they don’t send their best people…” and finally to the comments (or lack thereof) last weekend. Suddenly, race is an issue on every news show, something that began with the Obama presidency, only now, we see the backlash, we see the ugly head rearing itself. For decades, white southerners walked by those statues not even thinking about what they meant. The Confederate flag was seen as a symbol or rebellion, of being an outcast, a southerner. All the while the black community didn’t have the voice to speak up, because they always felt the same way, and they still do, of course. Imagine seeing a police patrol. As a white person, you see them as a protector, no matter who sits behind the wheel. As a black person, you see the potential for being abused. Sometimes, you have to see things from the perspective of the minority, because the minority has always been told how the majority views things. The most interesting aspect though is that what we see in America now, is the majority becoming a minority. But, as was the case in South Africa, the minority is still in possession of the majority of power and money which enables them to hold on to power longer than they rightly deserve. What happens in the U.S. now is the white race’s final struggle as the “dominant” power. And unless they somehow manage to completely disenfranchise colored voters, this will resolve itself within a generation. Thank gods for natural selection…
But surely, every statue represents history? Mustn’t they be preserved?
I hear that argument from time to time from racists (45 using particularly loathsome “esthetic” arguments) and others, although I haven’t seen any blacks using that argument (yet). Two things: first of all, that’s not been the case, historically. In ancient Egypt and many other similar cultures, a new ruler might destroy any traces of his predecessor. Sometimes because they tried to revolutionize something, Echnaton is a great example, sometimes because they were defeated by another country etc. This has always been how humans have done things. New rulers, new statues, old statues destroyed. It’s only in very recent decades (and in democracies) that we’ve seemed to have changed our approach and somehow attribute statues artistic and historic value, rather than symbolic. And the answer is yes, absolutely, any statue represents history, but you won’t see statues of Hitler on display in German squares or statues of Pol Pot in Cambodia, but you’ll find them in museums, where their historical context is discussed. And that goes for a couple of artistically or historically valuable exhibits, but you can’t exhibit all of them. Some will forever be stored in warehouses, some melted down.
Statues, flags and historical symbols are a complex issue, for sure, and most certainly something I wish I could revisit the “outcome” of the current U.S. struggle in retrospect. It’s difficult to see all the complexities and all the finer nuances when you’re living in such times. The present serves badly as history commentator. No wonder they say “hindsight is the wiser”… What is your take on this? I’m curious to hear what your insights are. Anything I’ve missed? Interesting points of view? Particularly from the oppressed and I don’t mean white supremacists, because you’re NOT oppressed. You may see your privilege vain, but that’s hardly considered oppression. While other people gaining equal footage may hurt you emotionally, you don’t lose anything physical, no rights, nothing. So stop whining and grow a couple…
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Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
I am who I am, and I expect people to accept me as such. Why can’t we grant each other that same courtesy? Photo: Alina Oswald
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
In this book, there is an entire chapter dedicated to change management, what works, what doesn’t and why. Have a look if you’re interested. Lots of other smart tips included, too.
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.
I just one year’s time, our reality, or at least our perception thereof has been altered (forever?) What does this mean for authors?
Reality v fiction: my husband and I greatly enjoy watching TV shows on Netflix. After long days of work, to just turn off your brain and binge watch a Marvel series or something else is liberating. Sometimes we end up talking more about what we see on the screen than actually paying attention to the action. We watch “The Arrow” and talk about how violence on the screen is depicted so much more graphically than it was just a few years ago, or – as we’re currently watching “Madam Secretary”, how this show about an American Secretary of State feels more like fantasy than reality, given that all the “awful”, “horrible”, and “reprehensible” acts the show lets various other countries unleash upon the U.S. are now coming directly from DC itself. Maybe Secretary McCord could take on the real White House and State Dept for a change?
All around us, our perception of reality (and what does as honesty) is changing and I keep getting the sense that it is changing in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. An American president who is boasting about his sexual assault on women, whose constant lying and conniving has us… No, wait! Let’s go back to the sexual assault part. I need no more examples. Would Obama have been elected after boasting how he’d grab women by their pussies? Of course not. Neither would Senator McCain or anyone before them. President Clinton was almost impeached for having consensual sex with an intern! Just as a perspective. Yet we seem to have accepted that it’s okay today, for the U.S. President to behave that way (and then some).
It’s not just in the U.S. I just listened to a press conference by our own PM about an IT outsourcing scandal where, much like the Russian debacle in the U.S., new meetings and details have come to light almost every day. Just today we learned that four government departments had been in the know about this for over a year, yet no one informed the minister in charge. And we’re not talking junior ministers nobody cares about: defense, interior, justice & economy. All four knew, knew that secrets of state and super sensitive data could be adrift, yet no one cared to act until a few months ago. And they all blame their underlings, others and each other. As a citizen it makes you wonder. Why does no one come clean and tell it all?
In another really warped world, our sense of justice has become so dominated by this sense of “me, me, me” to the last millimeter, that people are capable of unleashing all hell about literally nothing, as this scary article in the Washington Times demonstrates. I’ve always felt that political correctness can be pushed too far. And we wonder why the “silent majority” (which doesn’t really exist as such) votes for people like Trump who promise them a return to the good old days of the e.g. the fifties or medieval times. I attended an author-writer conference two years ago where we discussed “triggers” in great detail, and I was flabbergasted at the claims and demands from readers that we trigger-warn about literally everything and anything. In the end, we’d have books with more trigger warnings than text, because, let’s face it, even Corn Flakes could trigger someone to have a mental breakdown. We’re not just talking rapes or cold-blooded murder with a tea spoon… Trust me, some people really are going ALL the way in their demands for things, and in their radicalism, they don’t take prisoners and have no room for compromise. Common sense? R.I.P.!
What does that mean for our societies? Well, two things. People lie more openly, more brazenly and with less risk of being caught. I mean if Trump lies on a daily basis, why shouldn’t I (be allowed to)? Raising kids, to be honest people, is about to become really challenging… Fiction and fantasy are finding themselves in a space where the lines between what’s real and what’s not get blurred, not to mention that our fear of offending anyone scares us into writing what’s on our mind. Already, writers for U.S. comedy shows find it hard to caricaturize their own regime, as the reality is so warped. And looking at a show like Madam Secretary, where the U.S. is portrayed in the light we were all brought up under, a beacon of light, a fighter for freedom, democracy, and civil liberty, becomes almost painful to watch, as it’s so unrealistic. Almost a joke, but the laughter gets stuck in our throats. Six months, that’s all it took!
For authors, the impact might be felt the most in genres that deal with politics: thrillers, or books dealing with current affairs, but I think there is a risk that even other books, looking at social issues, family relationships etc. will face increased scrutiny and criticism from readers. Is the storyline graphic enough? Is what is credible, believable changing, do we (now) get away with unworldly claims in our books? I just edited a short story with several sensitivity comments. Yes, I get it, but what about realism? What about that certain people talk a certain way? Do I really have to choose between being untrue to my characters and my story or being bashed by sensitivity Taliban? I don’t know, but I wonder how writing is affected by the Trump era, beyond cheesy erotica poking fun at the president’s lack of substance. What is your take? Do you feel your sense of “reality” being challenged? Do you feel that your sense of justice has been affected? I’d like to hear from you on how you feel that the writing community is reacting to the changes in our world. Are we still writing about the big issues or are we bogged down by debates around the shape of the dot on the i? I for one am confused…
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Doctor Who? How a TV show highlights the world’s problem with equality
Do you watch or follow the English Sci-Fi series Doctor Who? I don’t. I’ll be honest. Never seen it, never watched a single episode. But I understand that it’s to the English what Star Trek is to the rest of us (sort of). Like I said, I haven’t seen it. But apparently, they announce new doctors every now and then, and this week, the BBC announced that the thirteenth doctor (anyone superstitious?) would be a woman, for the first time. In a healthy society, this would’ve been met with shrugs all around, because this would only matter to the aficionados. Some would love it (because they like the actor), some would hate it (because they dislike the actress). However, our planet is not a healthy society and before long, the Internet was overflowing with hatred, “too little, too lates” and then some… But it was this article in a Scottish newspaper that had my head spinning. Here was a “feminist” decrying the move as hurtful to equality. He makes some interesting points, which is why it took me a long time to wrap my head around it. Particularly since I don’t watch the show.
Captain Chris Pike and his female Number One (in the pilot of Star Trek) Pike was replaced by Kirk and Number One wasn’t cast again until the Next Generation in the eighties when it was – of course – a guy… The first female captain was seen in the first Star Trek Movie in 1979, in a small role. Source: Tumblr
Here’s the thing. I agree with Mark Smith initial statement: to cast a woman in the lead role of a sci-fi show in 2017 is hardly “edgy”. Had they done it in the 1970ies, yes, but even an “edgy” show like Star Trek couldn’t (wouldn’t? dare not?) cast a woman as First Officer aboard the Enterprise in the sixties. See the interesting pilot with Eugene Roddenberry’s wife as First Officer, aka Number One. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was later cast as a nurse (how female, right?) and as the computer voice. Eventually, in the movies, she advanced to Doctor (1980s). Here’s the problem: women are still universally seen as lesser beings than men. In every aspect of society with the exception of child rearing and ‘care’, where the opposite is the case. Naturally, both views are utterly wrong. Men can be as caring as women and men can be as “worthless” as women are seen.
Yet when a woman replaces a man after twelve instances, people are still either outraged or bored. Let’s assume the opposite. What about Doctor 14? 15? 27? What if the next thirteen doctors were all female? Imagine the outrage! Most major countries in the world have still not had female leaders, and once a woman has had the position, she’s replaced – almost assuredly – by a man. Because “they’ve had their turn, can we return to normalcy now?” NO, we can’t and we shouldn’t. Normalcy won’t be until we don’t even notice what gender, sex or sexuality a person has when it’s equally “normal” aka boring for a superhero to be trans as it is for them to be a man. But for now, we can assume that doctor #14 will be a guy again, that the next English PM is a guy again, that the next German PM is a man again etc. We could, of course, say the same about other countries and “occurrences”. While we applaud the fact that Ireland has a PM who’s gay, you can rest assured this won’t happen again (anytime soon), or that Iceland had a female AND Lesbian PM (her successor was straight, corrupt and yeah, a straight guy). It’s how our society works. For a while (2010-2012), Switzerland had FOUR female ministers in its seven head government (plus a female federal chancellor), a majority, for the first time, ever. Now? We’re down to two. And that’s what most people, even women, consider “normal”.
The “kiss” that rocked the south… Source: Wikipedia
It’s not just gender though, is it? When Star Trek “featured” their first Lesbian kiss it was only acceptable because one of the women was a man in a previous life, and the worms they carry inside their humanoid bodies are basically sexless (gods know how they procreate). And even though there was an outrage when Kirk kissed Uhura in the original show (she was black!) it was under “duress”, not because they wanted to. Imagine if Kirk had been of sound mind, wanting to kiss a black woman! The outrage! The show would never have aired. Even as recently as the 1980s, when Stephen Carrington came out as gay and had an (ex) boyfriend (subsequently murdered (!!!) by the show’s main character and Stephen’s dad), Stephen was almost instantly recast as “bisexual” to soften the blow and later married Sammy Jo. No wonder bisexuals have a bad rap… Bisexuals DO exist, trust me, but bisexuality is not to meant to be a tool to ease heterosexual discomfort… facepalm But yeah, I could go on and on and on, but just stay with Blake Carrington killing his son’s boyfriend and getting away with it, and his son forgiving him for it… Yeah, that’s what my youth looked like! And we complain about a TV show in 2017 casting a woman in the lead… If I have one complaint is that it’s at least fifty years too late (the show first aired in 1963, three years before Star Trek premiered).
Allow me to make it worse, if possible. On Facebook, some of the people I follow, decried the Doctor Who thing as “robbing boys of their last male role models” and it made me wonder: how did girls survive the past millennia with ONLY male role models? Utter rubbish, and utterly sexist, and yes, sadly women are as sexist as men and often step on their own feet of potential advancement. Why, please tell me why, shouldn’t a boy be able to see a girl as a role model? A hero? WHY? Am I missing something? Are girls so much smarter? Because they’ve had no problems seeing Spiderman, Superman, Aquaman, or Batman as role models. But I’m only a gay man, what do I know. We all know that I’m possibly located even lower on the scale than women, just above Lesbians and trans people… frown I do my best to let my son watch the movies/shows he wants, and he loves Elsa as much as he loves Merida or Moana/Vaiana, strong characters, “despite” being girls. And yes, he likes Spiderman, too, or his other cartoon characters in the shapes of trains, little buses, ambulances or what not. Oddly, he is still young enough to not have his mind polluted by the construct of gender. I cherish every moment it stays that way, although I know it’s a battle I’ll lose. Just the other week someone said that Sascha “looked more masculine with his hair short”. Needless to say, I’ll let it grow out again if he wants to. What an insolent comment. As if manliness resides in short hair! But yeah, that’s where we are in real life, in 2017! facepalm
Because in the end, that’s really what matters, right? REAL LIFE. How we educate our kids to be good citizens, respectful of everybody, no matter what, and I for one will do whatever I can so that my son has role models based on their actions, not their gender, sex, sexuality, age, skin color, ethnicity, faith, culture etc.
Notice the representation on this stock image I once bought for my company? Yeah, no blacks and no Asians, but at least we have gender equality…
So how do we move forward? I’m a liberal (in the European, original, sense of the word), I don’t really (want to) believe in quotas or affirmative action, but I’ve also seen how we (in Sweden) have achieved a considerable level of equality, due to quotas. Here it’s a given that approx. half of our parliament is female, that half our government ministers are female. Sweden is far from perfect (re pay gaps), but we constantly talk about it and make slow and constant improvements. The current Canadian government is also a great example of inclusion, but look at how Trump rules in the U.S. and note the not so subtle difference.
So yes, quotas can help. When the Swedish government threatened publicly traded companies with legislation about a 40% female quota on their boards, companies began to look for women for their boards. Sadly, before that, they were mostly complaining about quotas and how they were looking for the right people, not their sex. Suddenly, they found women who were competent. Odd, eh? It’s getting better, slowly, way too slowly. In TV and film, various ratings (e.g. F on IMDB or the Bechdel test) guide viewers to movies with a healthy representation of sexes. And while I can frown upon commercial stock photos with your Asian, your black person, your brown person and a white one, perfect representation of the sexes, I also realize how important it is, and that companies have realized that. Problem is, we’d (as a western society) not accept a commercial with an all black cast or an all Asian cast, as we just wouldn’t see “ourselves” in it, which is problematic at best (I spoke about that with regards to love in my review last week.) This is something we all need to work on, and I believe literature has an important role to play, as our characters don’t have skin colors, don’t have ethnicities unless we give it to them. Why not let them be secrets until after a book is released and then tell people? Yeah, I know, most will assume an all white cast, and that’s at the core of this debate, right? But what if you had a character named Chris who turns out to be a black, Muslim, trans woman? Gotcha! You thought Chris was a straight, white guy… Yeah…
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this conundrum, but I know one thing: blaming a TV show for being too late won’t help. Instead, make sure they stick with it, not by being representative to the dot, but by being inclusive in all things, and that means not just adequate representation, but seeing beyond all that, to go beyond skin-deep, to the human core of us all, until we get to the point where “what” we are isn’t as important as “who” we are, our character. What’s your take on all this? Do you have any ideas on how to fix this?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Authors participate in political debates on the same basis as everyone else, but our tools may be different
I’ve been reading articles in papers recommending books to read for the summer, and I find them to be all over the place. There’s the light read, a crime novel or a thriller, suitable to drag along when you’re going to the beach, there’s the biography of this or that accomplished man (usually), then there are the heavy reads about precarious life journeys usually based on reality: difficult childhoods, substance abuse, sexual abuse and what not, and an interesting category: political essays about this or that.
This book isn’t about politics per se, but it’s political nonetheless, as issues like child abuse, trafficking and slavery are debated. I’m shining a light on issues the LGBT community usually doesn’t.
Authors have always written about society in one way or another. We comment, we reflect, but most importantly, we put up this mirror, for people to see themselves in. This weekend, I’ll be in Berlin, attending an author-reader conference, and the one panel I’m doing is about how politics influences writing. Mind you, most of the authors who attend the con are romance writers, and that is maybe the one genre where politics is absent from, probably by design. Romances are about escapism, to make you feel good, and politics, well, is almost an antidote to feeling good these days.
Which is odd. Half a century into my life, I have seen six decades and seen a great deal of stability. When I was born, the war between the west and the east was cold, but things were stable. We did well, economically, as I grew up. Politicians were boring men who mostly seemed to actually care about the well-being of their countries. They seemed to work, honestly for the betterment of society and humanity. Or maybe I was just naïve? When I turned eighteen, the cold war suddenly ended and Reagan and Gorbachev almost did away with nuclear arms after that summit in Reykjavík. When I was twenty-two, the Berlin Wall came down and suddenly, it seemed as if wars were going out of fashion. The Kuwait war seemed to prove that theory. The world, united, fought against a tyrant and defeated him. Then came the wars in Yugoslavia and we began to wonder, is this just the way things are slowly settling down into this new world order? But alas, we quickly began to realize that we’d indeed been short-sighted, naïve. All over the world, war was still raging, people still fighting, and ever new fronts were opening up, from Sudan to Eritrea, the Philippines, all across the Middle East and finally, in 2001, hitting at the heart of the western world, with the attacks on 9/11.
Through all this, the “West”, reunited with Eastern Europe and a more benign Russia, seemed to be stable. The “enemy” was suddenly Islamic terror, and warlords in faraway lands, no longer the evil empire to the east. How wrong we were, and how little we understood just how fragile this bright, new world order was. Suddenly people are questioning the “raison d’être” of the EU, who’s kept the peace in Europe for six decades and running, Poland and Hungary are run by fascistoid governments, France’s historical political parties are all but extinguished after the recent parliamentary election, the U.K. is in turmoil about which way it wants to go, and the heart of the western world has ceased to beat, with a regime combining one man’s sociopathic need for self-praise with a fascist slogan from WWII (America First), while society is so deeply divided that most people cease to even watch/read the news. I look at the past few years in politics and wonder: WTF?
Family Ties depicts a family in crisis, one gay, one straight. Highly political as it showcases just how normal, the unusual can be.
As a minority author, I could, of course, depict this grand picture. I could write political thrillers about the state of the world. But I leave that to others. I find reality exciting enough. My mission is still a political one though. Who I am is still not fully embraced by our societies, not even one as liberal as my own. I might not get a job because of who I am. Never mind that it’s illegal to discriminate, but how do you know? And even if you were to know, how do you prove it? My husband and I may be the legal parents and guardians of our son, but every day we see how society (papers, TV, radio, etc.) refers to parenting as a function of primarily motherhood, trying to engage fathers more. Whenever, wherever my husband, my son and I go, we see the glances, the stares. Yes, we’re not a common occurrence. Neither are red heads, but people rarely stare at them.
And for as long as we are somehow “special”, “unusual”, and “uncommon”, that’s how long I’ll be writing about us, and my point isn’t to make us something else. Quite the contrary, our struggles, our fears, our fights, our vacations, our everyday lives are just as exciting, just as mundane as everyone else’s. That’s what I aim to show society. To my own LGBT siblings, my gay brethren, particularly the young ones, I aim to show that we are everybody, that we can be anything we want, do anything we want. We can be successful, we can fail. Most importantly, our intrinsic human value will always be the same as everyone else’s. This may not be politically opportune, but it’s my ongoing contribution to make my society, my world, a better place. In this, I am like most other authors, don’t you think?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due this Thursday. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week. This Friday will mark the final post before my summer break. I don’t know when or how I’ll be able to blog. Maybe I’ll write something about our vacation. We’ll see. On Friday, I’ll talk more about the upcoming convention in Berlin.