Mean Behind The Screen

I was an amateur ballerina for eight years. I did not have a bright future as a dancer, but I did know the rules of the classroom. At the beginnings and ends of lessons, we had to acknowledge our teacher with a curtsy. Why an open-legged squat is a sign of respect remains a mystery to me. The rule, however, makes sense: in every interaction, we must begin and end with respect.

Outside of the mirrored walls of the ballet class, we see a handful of ways we show courtesy for one another in our communication even before we start: handshakes at meetings, warm greetings to start conversations, using formal prefixes for people we are just meeting. These symbols of courtesy have evolved alongside our communication and are practically intrinsic in any exchange- unless we are speaking through screens.

Chatting changed with the advent of e-mail, followed quickly by messaging, texting, then posting. We are less formal, we are more expedient. “You” becomes “u”, we omit punctuation entirely, we abbreviate “in my opinion” to IMO. We want to hurry-up and say our piece. Our fast-tracked communication has lost more than just grammar, spelling and full words. Somewhere along the line, we dropped basic courtesy.

Courtesy, at its plainest, is defined as behaviour marked by respect for others. In our community, it is on regular display outside.  A grocery line is not complete without a routine battle of the “sorries” between kind customers (“Were you here? I’m sorry, you go ahead” “No I’m sorry, you first, please”). Even a brief conversation downtown starts with a quick inquiry about our health (“How’re ya now?”) These exchanges, like a curtsey or a handshake, show our general respect for each other that transcends whatever the eventual conversation subject may be.

When we move behind our screens, our small-town familiarity and mutual respect is lost. Instead of assuming the best of people, we can assume the worst. Instead of looking out for one another, we can fall into the trap of throwing each other under the bus. Whether it be a garbage debate, the firefighter debate, or even a Tim Hortons debate, online conversations about “hot topics” can divide even the tightest of little communities.

In recent community discussions on several social media pages, a “thread” (group of typed posts) begins with one neighbour’s take on a hot topic. People respond by posting their own hot takes on the topic: usually brief, rarely without typos. In too many cases, the conversation devolves into mockery, name-calling, blocking and sometimes even aggression. On both sides of the battle: upstanding and kind members of our community.

How can we be so kind on the streets but so mean behind a screen?

On the streets in Deep River, we are not anonymous: we are recognizable, we are public. When we are behind a screen, it gives us the illusion of anonymity and privacy. We can say things we otherwise would not say. We behave as though our online personalities exist in a bubble. We have forgotten that we are still accountable for the things we say from the privacy of our smartphones. We ignore that the people receiving our words are our neighbours, colleagues and friends.

The benefits of aggressive posting cannot outweigh its problems. It is foolish to think that a single post or reply to a post will drastically change a complex issue on its own. It is very unlikely that a post can even change one person’s mind. However, an aggressive threat or mean-spirited joke can certainly have a detrimental effect on the typist’s own reputation, on the recipient’s sense of well-being, and on the general feeling of inclusivity and respect in a community.

In a community where we thrive on our mutual support, our reputations for kindness, and our heightened respect for one another, we must keep courtesy at the forefront of every interaction we have. The upside to the internet is that we have a moment at the end of a typed rant to reflect before we click “post” or “send”. We can choose to edit and amend to ensure we have shown respect to one another throughout the post. Online communication may not have a shortcut to show respect, it does not mean that we should forget about courtesy altogether.

In Deep River, our community members are too nice on the streets to be mean behind the screen. We need to hold our online communication to the same kindness standards we have in public exchanges.  Whether it be a ballet class, a Town Hall meeting, or an online exchange, we must begin and end with courtesy.

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Crybaby

“Are you worried you will regret not having babies?” a woman who does not know me well enough to have this conversation, asks me anyway. I take a quick panorama. Her runny-nosed seven-year-old is sinking his teeth into the shoulder of her screaming and full-diapered toddler. “Are YOU worried YOU regr—“. I cut myself off. Reproduction sensitivity is a one way street. Singles: Yield.
Alright, alright. Let me step away from my cats and turn down the crazy. To be perfectly honest, I love my mom friends and their kids. I love their kids… in doses. I enjoy hanging-out with and imparting my feminism on their progeny. I also like when I get to hand the kids back to moms for tantrum time. My dose of baby is a perfect one for me. I recognize that, for many, popping out minis then chasing them is super important. Canada, and Canadian Moms, must similarly recognize that for some, kid-free living is just as valid a choice.

We have lots of people on this little planet. A few too many, in fact. We get to choose to be a lone wolf or create our own wolf pack. As a non-birther, I support adding a cute little Mimi to the human race, who very well may grow-up to cure cancer. I am even happy to meet kind-of-ugly little Fred who may grow-up to watch lots of movies and not do much else. I am not the only one who supports baby-making. In Canada, employers allow for parental leave, our government gives baby bonuses and tax breaks, our social circles band together for baby showers, birthday parties, Halloween, parades, etc. If you want to have a child or if you want to have five you are financially, socially and fiscally encouraged to do so. Heck, I encourage you. Make some more Deep Riverites!

In the unspoken reproduction debate, nobody grinds my gears quite like SmugMom. SmugMom is the term I use for any parent, male or female, who has decided that their life has become more valuable than anyone else’s by virtue of procreation. I cringe when SmugMom waxes on about how smart/wise/mindful/psychic they have become since their little Whatshisname entered the picture. SmugMom loves to talk about other parents behind their back, rolling their eyes dramatically as they critique someone’s bottle-use. SmugMom hates any suggestion that their kid is anything but a prodigy. SmugMom loves to critique Cup of Jo articles (see what I did there?).

Families with kids have lots to deal with, of course. However, it would be nice for anyone who chooses not to have kids, who cannot have kids, or who are waiting to have kids, to have a few societal no-kid-boosts. I would love to get a one person “family discount” on anything. It would be great if I got time off to NOT take kids to the dentist. I’ll leave work for a couple of hours to enjoy the choice I made not to populate. I could even go to the dentist’s office, enjoy the laughing gas and play with the toys in the waiting room. I want to get a “thanks for not having a baby” bonus. A solid $50 a month for not putting a little junior feminist loudmouth into grades 1-12. You’re welcome, teachers of the future.

Have I offended everyone yet? Ok let me take it back a bit. Your kids are cool and we are all genuinely happy you had them. Even the loudest one. None of you guys are SmugMom. I am clearly referring to that other parent we were gossiping about over wine the other day. If I have offended you, let me make it up to you with a dinner at Kelsey’s – bring your kids for the discount.

 

The “Easy” Button

Like many 7-year-olds, I often wondered what the heck my belly-button was. What did it do? Where did it come from? Why was it mysteriously absent from my pet, MC Hamster? I had a myriad of other, even more embarrassing, questions about this apparent anomaly.

There were some questions I did not have as a 7-year-old girl. Was my belly-button sexy? Did showing my belly-button make me more susceptible to sexual assault? Would I be blamed for voyeurs watching me if I showed my belly-button?

Of course I didn’t have these sexist, sexualized, and shaming questions about my body. I did not have those questions about my girl friends’ bodies, I did not have those questions about my boy friends’ bodies.

I was seven, for Pete’s sakes.

The belief that my body parts could be objects

  • to be ashamed of,
  • whose appearance would invite sexualized violence,
  • that were distractions for voyeuristic males

was gradually bestowed upon me as I continued to live in a world that perpetuated sexism.

As a female adult, I wholly reject that belief.

When that belief informs dress-codes for 7 year-olds, I’m shocked.

My friend is a proud mom of a confident little 7-year-old girl who goes to a local school. At the end of the school year, the school goes on a super fun trip to the waterpark at Logos Land.

Like with any school trip, paperwork ensues.

Amongst the paperwork, she received a note with your standard directives as well as a to-pack list. In the list: bathing suit, towel, sunscreen, etc., and one infuriating item:

FOR GIRLS, an appropriate bathing suit (one piece or tankini;
if they have a bikini, they will be asked to wear a shirt over top).”
(my emphasis)

WHAT the WHAT?!

Instead of going on a fairly expletive-driven rant, let us make at least SOME part of this school letter educational. For three marks, identify the incredibly sexist and demeaning issues in this advisory.

  1. New rules for girls.
    In case this wasn’t blatantly sexist enough, these two words make very clear that the school’s made-up dress-code for Logo’s Land explicitly only applies to girls. Boys: do whatever you want.
  1. Girl belly-buttons are NOT appropriate.
    What differentiates a bikini from a one-piece or tankini? That’s right. The belly-button. Whose belly buttons are not “appropriate”? Girls’! Boys, however, have much more appropriate belly-buttons that deserve to be shown.
  1. Public punishment and humiliation is still an in-thing.
    Little girls who offend this code will be doomed to wear the Scarlet T-shirt. Public humiliation here will either deter the little offenders or make them into examples for the others.

This rule breaks the real rules. With a policy only for girls, the dress code does not treat students fairly regardless of gender and sex. It offends 5.1.5 of the Renfrew County Catholic School Board Code of Conduct and our right to be free from discrimination: a basic Human Right.

Let’s talk practicality. Let’s talk about little Suzie who left her letter at her dad’s house. Or watch Jane, whose parents did not read the eight millionth piece of paper coming back in their kid’s backpack. What happens to Prim who had the gall to wear something still less revealing than her brother but happens to be a bikini?

Girls who dress slutty get punished. This the hard and ugly rule that lies beneath this policy: intentional or not. There are all kinds of rationales for sexist dress codes: the boys will be distracted, girls invite trouble by showing too much, girls’ belly buttons are just sexier than boys’.

These little 7-year-old delinquents will learn a hard lesson very early. They will learn that parts of their bodies, only because they happen to be women, are something to be ashamed of. They will learn that women’s bodies are sexualized by others, and the body-owner (not the gawker/assaulter) is the one to hold accountable. They will learn that, slut-shaming happens regardless of whether you are sexually active.

I have no issue with dress codes. Heck, if the dress code was “all kids must wear a t-shirt”, I would have no issues. It’s hot out; the sun is dangerous. If the dress code was a more conservative “all kids must wear a snowsuit”, it would be ridiculous, but at least it would not be sexist.

I’m sure the folks at our schools are not a bunch of sexists. These policies are rotten ideas that cling to our modern world through tradition and absent mindedness. Full-on misogyny is close enough in our history that it can leak through unnoticed.

Now that the school knows, I hope the school will reconsider.

To my seven-year-old self: I’ve figured it out. Belly-buttons are for body shaming.

Hella Blogs

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Sometimes, a tweet is not enough. A long Facebook post is too intrusive.

To question, quarrel and quote, this blog aims to spark discussion about all things in and around Deep River. Check out my Cup Of Jo columns as well as my extra (sometimes more controversial) rants at my site, Hella Ella.