Tag Archives: technology

Neural Pathways and the Patriarchy

9 Apr

In case you didn’t already know this, I am the co-host of an almost famous podcast called Welcome To My Vagina with my good friend Jessy Caron. You should listen to it. It’s great. And Jessy and I aren’t the only ones who think so. My brother and sister-in-law agree. And a bunch of our friends. And some people we don’t even know. So, you know, we’re basically crushing it. The reason for informing you of this is that I have been trying to up my feminist game by doing some more focused reading so I can speak from a place informed by more than my personal experience. And so as part of this project I recently bought the following books (and am open to suggestions if you have any):

  1. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
  2. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  3. Headscarfs and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
  4. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
  5. Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti

I decided the best plan of attack was to start closest to home and read Jessica Valenti’s book. I have been reading her writing since its early days on Feministing, the website she cofounded with her sister, and then followed her over to Jezebel and now read her at The Guardian. I like her. I relate to her. We are both white women who grew up on the East Coast at roughly the same time. We both write (although she far more successfully than me.) We both hate the patriarchy. Also, the other books on my list haven’t arrived at my house yet. (Shoulder shrug.) Anyway, the strangest thing happened. So yesterday during the afternoon I was casually thinking to myself about the possible connection between female victimhood and neural pathways. I have always been of the understanding that neural pathways are created as we gain knowledge and that

(a) those pathways are part of what allows us to retain that knowledge and then                       build upon it and
(b) that then allows us to learn how to interact with the world in which we live.

So then I started thinking about this article I read a while back about trauma. The article basically summarized a study that had been done involving veterans of the Vietnam War. Scientists interviewed the soldiers upon returning home from the war, and then interviewed them again a number of decades later. They found that for the men who suffered from PTSD, their memories of their experience in combat did not change over time. They still remembered all of the events in the same detail and had similar feelings about them. The men who did not suffer from PTSD had a change in feeling between the initial interview and the one carried out later. In the first interview they might have had complicated feelings about their time in combat and in the army, but decades later they remembered it mostly positively, as a time of camaraderie amongst buddies. (Obviously I am over simplifying this in a HUGE way.) I have thought about this article a lot. I’ve thought a lot about the memory of events in my life that have changed or grown muddy over time and those that I remember in intense, unchanging detail. I wouldn’t say that I have PTSD relating to the latter events, but that perhaps they qualify as trauma. Perhaps those memories have been burned deeply enough into my brain that they cannot be altered.

What does this have to do with Jessica Valenti? Well, while I was on this little adventure of mine, I began thinking about women’s experiences. I started thinking about the ways we are treated in our day-to-day lives and how we internalize those experiences, how they shape who we are, how we behave and the ways in which we live in, and relate to, the world around us. I started thinking about how our subconscious understanding of our status as women limits us and causes us to limit ourselves. I wondered when those neural pathways are initially formed and who we could be if we weren’t constantly living in fear for our safety and under the ever-looming presence of the patriarchy. I wondered about how much this world has missed out on because of the way women (and POC and the LGBTQ community and Jews and Muslims and, and, and) are disenfranchised. And then, a few hours later, I read this passage on page 15 of Sex Object:

“We know that direct violence causes trauma — we have shelters for it, counselors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know people who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide.

“Yet despite all these things we know to be true — despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments — we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.”

And if we wonder why it is that we have no name for it then let me put forward an idea. It is because we cannot name what we cannot separate out and study. Not all children grow up in the midst of violence; not all veterans develop PTSD. We can study the difference amongst people in society but we cannot, not even with all that we know, study something which is all-pervasive, something that exists everywhere and is so instrumental to every single aspect of our culture that it cannot be separated out. We cannot create a control group and a test group because we are all part of the same group. Our personal experiences might vary by degree but the over-arching system that makes those experiences possible is shared by all of us. And perhaps this is what makes it so difficult for many people, men and women alike, to acknowledge the existence of the patriarchy. We know what water is, but we cannot separate the elements – the hydrogens from the oxygen – that make it what it is. It would cease to be water and we would no longer have a context in which to understand it.

In our 7th episode of the WTMV podcast Jessy asked me what I would change using science if I could choose one thing. And I said I would like to somehow create an environment free from the patriarchy. Not the environment in which we live now, where we try to figure out and unravel one aspect of it at a time, finding lined up behind that partially solved issue a never-ending cavalcade of injustices. I wanted to see what women would be like, what women could do and achieve and dream and be, without the shroud of patriarchal culture that we live wrapped up in. Because let me tell you right now that I have absolutely no idea what that would look like. Every time I try to conjure it, I realize that the pathways in my brain are burned too deeply to be able to even imagine that world. The pathways in all of our brains are etched beyond repair.

We all have our own experiences and we all react to them, and handle them, in profoundly different and personal ways. We as women spend a lot of time being afraid, even when we don’t actively realize that we are. We spend a lot of time wondering what might happen if we walk down this block instead of that one; what we might encounter if we comment on that Tweet; what house we are walking into when we go home with a new partner; what ways our bodies and minds might be used against us. It is a hard world to navigate, some of us managing it seemingly more easily than others. But I believe it is true that we are all traumatized by the patriarchy and I think that Jessica Valenti agrees with me.

There is a Monster in my Computer

23 May

Okay so you guys.  Today I handed in my thesis.  I printed it on (the required) fancy paper, I ran all around getting signatures, and then I deposited the $40 worth of paper* (sorry, world) on the desk of the person who was tasked with receiving theses.  So, this means three things.  One, I have finally completed my graduate program thus bringing an end to our (AKA my) long national nightmare.  Two, I have more time to read things that are not school related.  And three, I can then write about them here.  So, hooray for you if you like reading my blog!  Anyway, not the point.  The point is that I am fairly certain there is a monster in my computer.

So, here’s what happened.  Today while I was riding the train into the city to get my thesis printed and signed (did I mention that I handed in my thesis today?!) I was reading this article in The New Yorker by John Seabrook called “Network Insecurity:  Are we losing the battle against cyber crime?”  The article is all about these groups of hackers all over the world, that are sometimes associated with a government, that are hacking into computers and stealing all the information!  I know, I know, you are wondering whether I have been living under a rock for the past like, 15 years.  Well, the answer is yes and no.  I remember those scams where that guy in Africa would say he was a prince or something and if you sent him money now you would get all the money later but actually there was no later and you were just a fool.  I also know about Aaron Swartz.  I also know that there have been some articles about how maybe the Chinese government was cyber-spying (which totally makes me think  of creepy chat rooms).  What I did not know is that there might be people hacking into my computer right now!  Like, as I am typing this!  And they might be seeing me type from the “other side!”  And when I think about the “other side” I think that they are reading everything backwards, but then of course if they are tech-y enough to get into my computer in the first place then they can probably read things forwards.  Also, they probably don’t really care about reading my blog while I am writing it because it isn’t that good and they might as well just wait until I officially publish it. (I understand that none of these thoughts are even close to reasonable, but technology totally blows my mind.  3-D printing? What?!)

Sorry, I got off track.  So, anyway, I was reading this article during which Seabrook interviewed all these different FBI guys, and private security firm guys, and NSA guys (they were all guys) about the cyber threat and it seems as though it is actually really big.  Not only is it really big, but it could affect any of us!  Even me!  So this is what really made me nervous.  These hacking people send out these spear-phishing emails that they tailor specifically for you using information they glean from social networking.  Then, when you open the email they attach malicious code, or “malware” (not mall-ware, I learned after I embarrassed myself by mispronouncing it to my adviser) onto your computer.  “Downloading the attachment,” Seabrook says, “silently installs the malware, without your noticing.”  And then this is the really scary part: “later, you may wonder why your computer’s fan is always on (it’s because the hacker is using your machine’s extra computing power).” (!!!!!)  When I got home today my fan was on!

Okay, so this might be due to a few things.  I have been using my computer a lot the last few weeks.  I just finished watching two episodes of Awkward (so funny!).  I am running an outdated version of Firefox because my computer is geriatric and I was afraid to get it updated while I was working on my thesis because what if it crashed and also my backup unit caught on fire or something and then I lost everything.  But this also could mean that there is a hacker inside my computer.  So when I imagine a hacker inside my computer what I imagine is that scene from Space Balls where that guy is eating some food and all of a sudden an alien pops out of his stomach and starts singing “Hello! Ma Baby.” It’s like I would be working on something “very serious” and then some weird mutant would pop out of the screen and it would be horrifying and then maybe my cats would kill it.  But that’s not what the hackers do!  They don’t pop out of things with tiny canes and hats!   They can steal your passcodes and take your money.  Or they can see you through your own computer camera and hear you through your own computer microphone!  That’s scary!

So, in summation, in order to protect myself from the hacker that I am convinced is living inside my computer, I have covered my camera with a small sliver of blue post-it.  Now I can sleep easy.

(I am actually really nervous about this.  Don’t mock me.)

*Shouldn’t the price of that paper just be included in my astronomically high tuition that I will be paying off for the rest of my life because 6.8%!