Confessions of a She-Geek

September 19, 2015

It’s a Fan’s World

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 5:35 pm
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Given my on-screen name, it should come as no surprise that I am, and have been for most of my life, a lover of sci-fi, fantasy, and (to a somewhat lesser degree) comics. When I was a kid, the word most frequently used to describe my main focus/interest (aside from “geek” or “nerd”) was Trekkie – although I was into other things, as well. These days my genre-based enthusiasms would likely have me labeled more as a fangirl (which is fine by me).

The advent of social media has brought with it a fairly standard set of fandom… traits? Tools? Avenues? These aren’t all new things by any means, but the scope has expanded. These traits/tools/avenues include on-line discussions hosted on pop-culture sites like The AV Club and Previously.TV; Twitter feeds, fan art/blogs/crafts/fiction/pages/videos, and fan conventions. People who share interest in the same things, can find one another and build a community virtually overnight. And these communities can be amazingly well-organized. As a fangirl (and borderline-Type A), I approve.

I also approve of the emerging trend that channels all this creative energy and enthusiasm into a force for positive change in the world. In an earlier post I mentioned how actor Misha Collins co-founded a charity called RandomActs.org, which is accomplishing some very impressive things, both large and small. What I didn’t mention is that this charity’s growing visibility is largely thanks to the fan base of a tv show on the CW network, called Supernatural. If the stories are to be believed, Mr. Collins started a Twitter account several years ago at the behest of the network executives, as a way of connecting to and increasing the fan base. He realized fairly quickly that the fandom was a huge, but largely-untapped, resource – and (if you’ll pardon the expression), tapped it.

He’s far from the only celebrity to do this. YouTube vloggers John and Hank Green created DFTBA out of the fan community that sprung up around their YouTube channel. Actor Zachary Levi (from genre shows Chuck and the Heroes reboot) donates the proceeds from the annual fan event, Nerd HQ, to such causes as Operation Smile, and there are many, many other examples out there.

I know this isn’t a new thing: celebrities like Paul Newman have used their fame to found and support charities for a very long time. But those activities are based on the actor; not any specific fandom. I’m talking more about the trend for fandoms to unite not only in their love for a tv show/film franchise/comic book title/book series, but also in their desire to make a positive change in the world. This is a new thing, and one that I absolutely endorse.

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September 13, 2015

More Than a Feeling…

Filed under: Daily life — Teresa @ 11:43 pm
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I’ve heard it said that suffering builds compassion. In suffering, conventional wisdom tells us, we find common ground on which we can build connections and help to raise each other up. It does seem that many people choose to turn their pain into something positive, building up from what was burned down much in the way that forest fires can lead to new growth.

A couple weeks ago the Twitterverse blew up when actor Misha Collins was mugged in Minneapolis. Fortunately he wasn’t seriously injured and has fully recovered since then. Rumor has it that he refused to press charges against his attackers, and despite the attack he still participated in the fan convention that he flew in to attend. He chose to put aside whatever he was going through to do what he thought was most beneficial.

Now, this actor uses his celebrity to do some impressive things, including establishing a charity called Random Acts. Mr. Collins’ actions suggest that he is deeply compassionate and committed to helping others wherever he can. At various Q and A sessions with fans, he has alluded to a less-than-ideal childhood, marked by poverty (he was homeless for a time) and a fair amount of adversity. Yet he emerged from these experiences with a heart for helping people who are struggling. Was it his own experiences that made him so determined to lighten other people’s loads?

On the flip side, is it possible for a person who has never faced adversity to understand what it is to struggle? Does someone born in the lap of luxury have the capacity to empathize with someone who has to choose between keeping a roof overhead and food in his belly? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the pampered rich may not be able to grasp something so far outside their own experience **coughdonaldtrumpcough**. If you’ve never been hurt, or hungry, or cold, you won’t be as inclined to help someone who is hurt/hungry/cold.

Yet recent scientific studies suggest otherwise. Just Google “toddlers and empathy” and see for yourself. Human beings seem to be hard-wired for compassion toward one another. So what happens? How do we go from being naturally predisposed to kindness, to the merciless nastiness that is far too prominent in the world? Why does pain lead some people to greater kindness and others to cruelty?

Maybe it’s not the pain itself, but our response to the pain that makes us bitter. I’m happy to say that I’ve rarely been seriously injured, but have on occasion needed to take heavy-duty (prescription!) painkillers. I’ve noted that while under their influence, I may still feel pain, but I don’t mind that it hurts. And if I don’t mind the pain, I can ignore it and get on with things. So is that the answer? Is holding on to our natural compassion more a matter of just accepting that potential pain, and if it hurts, then it hurts?

Maybe so.

September 6, 2015

Rules of (Online) Engagement

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 4:04 pm
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Or, You Might As Well Face It (You’re Addicted to Outrage)

Over the past couple months I’ve participated in a handful of Facebook discussions/debates over some pretty weighty topics, including (but not limited to) abortion, gun control, the welfare state, and censorship. They’ve been equal parts enlightening and frustrating, because at some point it becomes less about exchanging ideas and promoting understanding, and more about sweeping generalizations and hurt feelings. This is not good.

A recent vlog entry by Hank Green does a pretty good job of putting my growing dismay into words. You can view it in its entirety here, but for those who’d rather skip that step, I’ll do my best to summarize.  At one time Hank truly believed that stirring the pot was a necessary first step in spurring people to make positive changes, but over time he’s come to change his mind. As Hank puts it, the state of online discourse suggests that overall, people tend to be more interested in disagreeing (and fueling one another’s sense of outrage) than problem-solving. We allow our own cognitive biases to interfere with our ability to discuss issues in a rational manner.

Based on my own experience, I think Hank is probably right. Too many times I’ve seen people accuse one another of “ignorance” as a substitute for explaining why they believe what they do. This strikes me as a pretty effective show-stopper, based on the assumption that if Person A truly understood Person B’s point of view, then there’s no way that Person B would continue to disagree with Person A. I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s possible to understand another person’s perspective and still not agree with it.

Case in point: capital punishment. I do not support it, but I understand how someone else might. I understand, but I do not agree. I am willing to listen to someone else’s reasons, and consider a different point of view, but if the other point of view boils down to, “Nope. You clearly don’t get what I’m saying, because if you did, you wouldn’t keep arguing”, there’s nowhere the discussion can go. It becomes a battle of wills, in which the “winner” convinces the “loser” that they are wrong.

I think the “I’m right; you’re wrong” mindset is a dangerous one to fall into, because it becomes an exercise in venting and name-calling, rather than a cooperative effort to open a discourse that can lead to positive change. People fall back on cut-and-dried responses which essentially reinforce the status quo, and no progress is actually made.

I realize that at some point the discussion may lead to a dead end due to some fundamental differences of opinion, but if you want to explore a topic, then truly explore it, rather than pulling out well-known arguments that don’t leave room for progress. Maybe a starting point is to develop and adhere to some basic principles of conduct; online rules of engagement, if you will. Here’s my first whack at such a code.

  • State your purpose. Are you there to discuss ideas, or just to vent? If it’s venting, that doesn’t really have a place in a debate beyond, “this really ticks me off”. Stating subjective opinions as objective facts is a discussion-killer.
  • No sweeping generalizations. “Members of group X are always Y” is useless as a point of debate. It brings things to a screeching halt, because the only possible responses are, “Yes, you’re right” or “No, you’re wrong”. It doesn’t further the discourse.
  • Cite your sources. If you’re going to say that studies show/suggest that a statement is true (or false), cite your source with a link to that source. If you can’t find the source, then remember to frame what you’re saying as an opinion; not an objective fact.
  • Stay in your lane. By that, I mean keep the focus of the discussion. This one’s pretty subjective, because by definition discussions can meander pretty far afield. But if the original post is about a specific topic, then the discussion itself should be about that topic. If the discussion veers off into a side discussion, then it’s time to start a separate one.
  • Take things at face value. This is tricky, too, because people tend to interpret things through mental filters. That’s a dangerous precedent, because if you read into someone’s statements things they don’t intend, it will get in the way of understanding what the other person really meant. If you’re not sure, ask.

So, there it is (such as it is). My whack at how to keep online discussions moving forward in a positive manner. Now let’s see how well I can do at actually following it.

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