Sanitized Language

(Trigger warning for mentions of rape, use of the R-slur, and discussion of slurs generally.)

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of the work we do at the LGBTQ center at NYU revolves around the idea of teaching students and faculties about LGBTQ issues, but for me, one of the most interesting side-projects is the idea of sanitized language — removing words and phrases that don’t fit inclusive and neutral ideals.

There are a myriad examples of language we’re trying to avoid. No one word or phrase is inherently bad in and of itself, but I think they perpetuate some idea or a stereotype that we’re trying to undo. Take, for instance, the use of the word “gay” as an insult. Sure, you can potentially argue that you’re not referring to the sexuality but instead using it as a catch-all term for something bad or stupid, but there’s still an undeniable association being drawn there — an inescusable negative link between some bad thing and queerness. “He throws like a girl” is another example, since it perpetuates the idea that women are inherently weak. Those are the overt examples, but I can think of a couple that fly under the radar. The phrase “opposite sex” (as in, attracted to members of the opposite sex) reinforces a binary system and the stereotypes therein. If you’re not a man, you’re a woman, and if strength and stoniness are traits traditionally ascribed to men, then by definition women must be weak and overly-emotional. It’s the same with the slur “retard” — I grew up surrounded by people who’d say things like “god, that piece of homework was so retarded,” meaning that it was stupid or useless or hard or whatever.

During one of our practice sessions at the LGBTQ center, I was at the top of the room, talking through some of the definitions we bring up in the trainings. Casually, I addressed the group by saying “As you guys know,” and then caught myself. Why had I addressed a group that was not all-male with a masculine pronoun? Afterwards, I chatted about it with one of the program coordinators — he explained that he made a very particular effort to use neutral language (y’all, or “you guys”). Some people call it political correctness gone crazy, but I’m more of a view that it’s a low-effort mark of recognition: not erasing the female or gender non-conforming individuals in the room. In terms of muscle memory, it didn’t take me too long to start saying things like “super long” in place of “insanely long.” I view most of these linguistic changes as low-hanging fruit — you don’t have to be a tireless activist for gender equality, but you’ve no excuse to casually use sexist language in everyday life. To be sure, my language has become more artificial having made these changes. I grew up saying “hey man, what’s up?”, and there was definitely a learning curve involved in switching to “hey, what’s up?”, and I barely have to think of it now.

The question I’m often asked is simply why — what’s to be gained by such sensitization? The best answer I can think of is to point to rape jokes. If someone says “Wow, that test raped me” (implying that it was particularly difficult), it’s demeaning to victims of sexual assault, because it’s obviously such a wildly hyperbolic metaphor. Even if such jokes aren’t explicitly making fun of rape, it’s not affording a whole lot of respect to potential victims in the room. I don’t want to make anyone feel that way, so I refuse to use gendered language or make such jokes.

This hyper-sensitivity comes from the same place as trigger warnings — warnings at the beginnings of some articles, e.g. accounts describing a sexual assult, which warn readers that may trigger traumatic memories for some readers. They’re designed with those who may have post-traumatic stress reactions. Trigger warnings are currently the subject of debate on college campuses, as professors debate whether they should be required to include them on syllabuses. Critics of trigger warnings have pointed out that it places the onus on the content creators, but I look at it this way: it took me only a few seconds to tap out the trigger warning at the top of this post, but it can take 45 minutes to an hour for someone to recover from an anxiety attack. Once again, it’s low-hanging fruit.

Ultimately, the world isn’t a particularly nice or fair place. Once people leave the LGBTQ center and emerge out onto the street in NYC, they’re liable to hear slurs and be harassed on the street and be unfairly judged based on their gender. We’re not negating that experience, but by trying to create a safer space, a respite from all that, we’re doing our bit to make the world more pleasant.

The Blot: U.S. Government Flip-Flops On Civil Liberties, Privacy

Matthew Keys, writing for The Blot Magazine:

Through its criticism of Apple and Google, the government has shown its hand: There is no interest in striking a balance between civil liberties and national security if such balance interferes with the government’s ability to collect any data it wants for any reason at any time. And unless a company does something that runs contrary to the government’s mission of “collecting it all,” the topic is not up for discussion.

Succinct summation of the current landscape. The sooner you grok that the US government only nominally cares about civil liberties, the sooner we can all go home.

This summer, at HOPEX in NYC, I gave a short talk that was informally titled “The Next Lawyers, the Next Jake Appelbaums,” referring to the computer security researcher who’s known for being the American face on Wikileaks and for contributing extensively to the TOR Project. I was talking about the growth of student activism in response to the NSA leaks, about how the students of today are simultaneously the lawyers and the TOR activists of tomorrow. In part, I was referencing Julian Assange’s quote that there are two approaches to dealing with mass state surveillance: the laws of physics; and the laws of man, the idea that crypto tools will stymy mass surveillance while we wait for the legal system to come around.

Except that when you have Eric Holder invoking hysteria around pedophiles and terrorists, you get the impression that we’re going to be waiting a while.

Related reading: Apple’s efforts strengthen personal privacy.

#GamerGate highlights industry misogyny

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper.

#Bendghazi. #StopTheGOP. #CDNPoli. It is tough to keep up with Twitter’s always changing trends, but some hashtags are worth paying attention to. Lately, users may have noticed a new hashtag — #GamerGate — popping up on their screens. Given its title, it is fair to think that the story behind the hashtag affects only video gamers. #GamerGate is a movement aimed at addressing the gender inequality in the video game industry, though it is sometimes presented as nothing more than a question of fairness in online video game reviews. In reality, however, this is not the case. The hashtag’s short history is rooted in misogyny and online harassment. Any alternative explanations for the controversy surrounding the hashtag are a subversion of the industry’s sexism problem. Gamers and non-gamers alike have a responsibility to address the issue at hand.

The #GamerGate campaign began in earnest on the heels of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” YouTube series. She funded the clips through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that attracted some attention, though not as much as the videos later would. In her seven videos, she calmly lays out the case that video gaming exists in an inherently misogynistic realm, one in which female characters either need to be saved or killed. If gaming were to diversify, she argued, all players would benefit. Response from the gaming community was swift. Sarkeesian received graphic rape and death threats, her home address was posted online and she was ultimately forced to flee. Last week, she canceled an appearance at Utah State University after someone threatened “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she went ahead with the lecture. Harassment of women who stick their head above the parapet in traditionally male-dominated spheres is nothing new, especially for Sarkeesian. In 2012, a Twitter user created an online game in which players could virtually punch Sarkeesian in the face, leaving her avatar bloodied and bruised.

Some gamers are quick to point out that they do not condone the threats and abuse that women who speak out against sexism in the gaming industry are receiving. They do believe that video game journalism is to blame for the industry’s sexism, however, referencing a recent incident with controversial designer Zoe Quinn. Quinn’s ex-boyfriend posted blog posts in August claiming that the reason Quinn’s game was successful was because she slept with several video game critics. Gamers were enraged at the apparent journalistic dishonesty, and subsequently attacked Quinn for being a woman, among other things. Like Sarkeesian, Quinn was forced to flee.

Women are coming forward to speak against this abuse at the expense of their personal safety. Gamers attempting to shift the discussion about the causes of #GamerGate away from misogyny and toward the ethics of video game reviews must stop implicitly condoning the abuse women are subject to. Trying to steer the conversation away from women within the industry fearing for their lives and to journalistic integrity draws attention away from the real issues at hand.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.

Digital Rights Q&A

10615509_1552831074947201_6669117917728540060_n(Excuse the incorrect date.)

Quick update before class: Student Net Alliance held a policy call with EFF’s April Glaser earlier this week, discussing tools and strategies relevant to students and activists who are looking to advocate for change. April’s been an enormous help to us at SNA and has covered previous campaigns we’ve run.

I’ll announce another SNA upcoming event in a little bit, but one of the things I’ll do over the weekend is start putting together an informal activist’s toolkit — stuff that came up on the call and stuff that’s been useful to me and my friends over the last few months.


“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
—8:42pm, September 22, 2010.

Two weeks ago, I traveled upstate with a bunch of volunteers and employees of NYU’s LGBTQ center for a weekend. We crashed in a YMCA lodge and got to spend time away from the city, other commitments, and cell signal. I’ve been working with these folks for about 6 weeks now, doing trainings and running events about equality on campus. Upstate, we got to discuss those trainings and what we felt the role of campus diversity groups should be.

It was also an opportunity to spend time away from everything, and to think about the circumstances that had led us down a life-path that had wound up with us standing on the edge of a lake in upstate New York on an LGBTQ trip.


Across the board, this year has involved me getting more involved with the things I always cared about — I was always interested and invested in equality, digital freedoms, and sexual assault prevention. Now, I get to work with the LGBTQ center, the Student Net Alliance (where I’m lucky enough to be a board-member), and the New School in NYC, where I’m one of 6 or 7 volunteers helping to develop and present a 3-hour sexual assault prevention workshop aimed at college freshmen. As I wrote way back in the spring, I felt bad being what I saw as the stereotypical college student, spending his days working on whatever social causes catch his eye:

I often worry that I’m only interested in advocacy because I’m a freshman at college and these are the years when you’re most likely to be “edgy” and “counter-cultural.”

I think I was unnecessarily hard on myself when I wrote that, not least because these are very much the years you’re supposed to try new things and dip your ten toes in ten different pools.

When I’m standing up in front of a group of 40 students and faculty, talking about LGBTQ issues and trying to impart some sense of good ally-ship, you only get a vague sense of where everyone’s coming from. You could be presenting to someone who grew up with two moms and attending Pride parades around the country, or you could be talking to a freshmen who grew up somewhere where her family hated her for who she was. She might be very religious and think she’s going to hell, and it’s your job, at the top of that room, to assure her that there’s nothing wrong with her. You have provide a loving and accepting community at New York University, especially for those who didn’t get one at home.

When we were going upstate this weekend, we crossed the George Washington Bridge leaving Manhattan. My NYC geography is still patchy in places, and I haven’t spent much time in the area. I only know the bridge because, in 2010, an 18-year-old Rutgers college student called Tyler Clementi threw himself off it, falling to his death in the Hudson River below. I was in Minnesota for a time when that happened, and it was part of a string of suicides among LGBTQ youth. We were all familiar with names like Raymond Chase, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh — people bullied for being LGBTQ+ or even just being perceived to be queer. They were bullied and pushed to suicide.

I thought of Clementi as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, and I thought hard about why I had taken a job with NYU’s LGBTQ center. I took it because of Tyler Clementi. I took it because this happened in 2010 in a city that’s supposedly known as one of the most accepting places on earth. I took it because as a volunteer at the center I come into contact with a ton of freshmen I’d never have gotten to meet otherwise. I took it because I inhabit a space in the world and I want to improve it, in however small a way. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.

Source Protection in the Information Age

SPI had a lot of fun teaching journalists and students about PGP e-mail encryption at Columbia’s journalism school yesterday. I was giving workshops as part of a larger event on journalistic source protection in the information age. I was there as an an individual and not as a board-member of the Student Net Alliance, but I can’t imagine they disagreed with much of what I have to say.

Big leaks like the Pentagon Papers and the Snowden disclosures are in the minority. Most stories require a significant amount of gumshoe reporting and don’t involve your source going into hiding after the big reveal. That said, journalists should have a baseline knowledge of computers and their limitations since more and more journalism happens digitally — emails replacing phone calls, MS Word replacing the typewriter, etc.

And so a technologist, I feel a responsibility to teach people who didn’t grow up with computers about privacy tools — even if it’s something as seemingly basic as laptop hard-drive encryption. Plus, even if journalists never need e-mail encryption, there’s no reason to not have it as an option. I’m happy to give up my Saturday to teach people about this stuff because I feel strongly that they should know about this stuff.

I was particularly happy to be teaching this stuff by sitting in groups of 4 or 5 with people in front of their laptops. It’s easy and tempting to just give theoretical talks about why it’s important to communicate securely, but that’s no substitute to being able to take someone and, 20 minutes later, have them able to send an encrypted e-mail. You definitely can’t teach someone everything in that time, but somebody with PGP on their laptop, who has their public key online and knows how to find and add other people’s, is in a much stronger position than before. Plus, I helped them dip their toes in the water, and if they ever go for another 20 minute session with someone, it’ll be even better.

Glenn Greenwald, in his most recent book about his part in the Snowden affair, wrote about how difficult PGP is. His comments have been echoed by a lot of journalists I’ve met:

Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistle-blowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and related topics, and had also communicated from time to time with people inside the US national security establishment. Most of them are very concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Between the event at Columbia and another event I helped run at NYU on Friday, I’ve barely had room to breath this week. The old college adage of “enough sleep, a social life, good grades — pick any two” definitely rings true.

The Future: Thoughts on the Journalism Industry

(A note: As a second-year journalism student, my opinions about the trade are at best under-informed and, at worst, completely wrong. This article is very much me flying a kite rather than me speaking from any sort of position of authority.)

When I tell people that I’m studying journalism, people sometimes raise an eyebrow in response. I don’t know if they think that robots and AI are going to replace journalists, or that, given the legions of bloggers online today, the role of a professional news-gatherer has been obsoleted.

I shouldn’t speak disparagingly of bloggers — I was one throughout my teens and still am. I think it’s an incredible medium and I don’t think society has fully appreciate the tectonic shift in communications that it represents. No longer is broadcasting the realm of the privileged few. When I started my introductory journalism class this semester, I half expected blogger-bashing to be a staple of the first few lectures. I knew a lot of journalists when I worked in Ireland, and most of them had little positive to say about editorless ‘keyboard warriors,’ who were disparaged for playing fast and loose with facts, and for being prone to sensationalism. Is this fair criticism? Or criticism unique to bloggers which could never be applied to journalists? I think not.

First, we have to ask what makes a journalist. We can probably agree that not everyone who writes is a journalist, so there must be some delineation. Can propagandists write for the New York Times? I doubt it, which means that our foundational definition probably includes some caveats regarding veracity and the absence of outright prejudices.

What interests me most is how journalism is being changed by social media and technology in general. Every few weeks, I run events for activists and journalists to learn more about our current set of privacy tools, and I make the point that source protection is much harder today than it was for Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. Today, if the government suspects a leak, it can tap the journalist’s computer in an attempt to discover their source. (And they do.)

So, if we have hundreds of thousands of blogs online, have they made journalism in the traditional sense irrelevant? If we’re all reporters, why have newspapers?

My guess is that modern reporting relies (and will continue to do so) on a symbiotic relationship between journalists and citizens. Not every blogger is a journalist, but reporters can’t ignore the fact that everyone now carries around a relatively high-quality network-enabled camera in their pockets. No longer is the public an abstract construct — a passive audience to be written at. Today, it has to be an integral part of the news-gathering process.

Kovach and Rosentiel wrote about this in “Elements of Journalism,” calling it something akin to collective intelligence:

Some advocates of the digital disruption believe that since no one controls information anymore, professional journalists in organized settings have become largely unnecessary or their role can be reduced to a narrower zone of activity far less focused than in the past on reporting and establishing facts. Since the information in the crowd is wider and deeper than whatever could be haphazardly collected by a few journalists, it will be closer to real truth anyway.

The basic argument seems to be that an increase in the information flow will obviate the need for professional news-gathering, but I think it’s arrant bollocks. The advent of CSPAN didn’t make Americans more politically aware, nor did it make Congress more efficient. As Jonathan Stray, writing for the Nieman Lab, said:

“[N]o one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means.”

This is the heart of the matter. The world of 2014 is one which is characterized by an overabundance of information, but that doesn’t mean we have the time or knowledge to sift through it all. In a world where 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, how does the best and the most important content rise to the top to be found? Today, a good journalist has to be less of a mindless fact-finder and more a contextualizer. If ten different sources are spewing out information, the journalist has to be able to quickly synthesize and package the information. Not only that, but news has to be engaging — here’s the information, she has to be able to say, and this is why it’s important. Journalism has lived and died by the 5 Ws (who, what, where, why, and when) for the last few centuries.

Today, it’s not the what that’s of paramount importance, it’s the what it means.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.