A home away from home in Paris

I really enjoyed my stay with Marc, my Airbnb host. The room in his apartment was clean and had everything I needed. The rest of the apartment was delightful as well, and I did not for one moment feel like I was in a stranger’s house. Marc had beautifully organised files full of information about things to do and places to go in Paris. The same attention to detail was evident in the way he arranged the towels in the bathroom and the crockery in the kitchen. It felt wonderful to come home each night to a scrupulously clean home-away-from-home and a friendly face. The metro station is a very short walk away, and the apartment complex is located in an area that is very interesting to walk around in. My trip to Paris was absolutely magical, and I am very grateful that it was Marc’s apartment I chose. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Submission to Select Committee on “Deliberate Online Falsehoods”

This is what I submitted to the Committee at 4.30pm today, the 7th of March, 2018. For readers who may not be aware, you can read about the issue here. There is a collection of submissions available here.


I am an instructor at the Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore. I have a PhD in Communications and New Media, and teach Public Communication, with research and publications in the fields of digital literacy, youth media practices, as well as the role of media in state-citizen relations. I write this submission of my own volition, and not on behalf of any organisation, and am prepared to appear before the Committee to give evidence, if required. Finally, I do not have any financial interest in the subject matter.

I have read the Green Paper on the challenges and implications of deliberate online falsehoods, and in summary, am unable to see from this document as well my other extensive reading that there is any clear and present danger for Singapore. Rather, my research and teaching experience lead me to advocate strongly for a particular type of media literacy that I think will better prepare the country for a more empowering digital future.

No clear and present danger

The points raised by the Green Paper seem alarming at first glance. However upon closer examination, the premises are based on evidence/suggestions from other countries of vote manipulation and racial/religious foment by bots/agents. These countries have very different politics and conditions from those of Singapore, and as such, premises that are based on them do not on their own support the conclusion that the same phenomena will apply in the same way to Singapore. Singapore is so small and so connected that any politically or socially significant rumours are rapidly quashed by the agencies that have the correct information. This means that even though such rumours may be widely shared, they will not have the sort of effect that we have seen in countries such as the US (which has highly partisan politics, significant racial and economic inequality, a large physical area, and state as well as federal level government, to name just a few features). This is not to say that one state is better than another. I merely make the point that the situation is very different.

Even if we want to consider the possibility that Singapore will at some point take on some of the characteristics of countries such as France or the UK (although at the moment I cannot see this actually happening), and that “fake news” will in this situation have some reach which the state is unable to quickly contain, there are existing laws such as the Sedition Act that do seem to me to cover this (unlikely) possibility. The reach of the state through media and other laws has been well established. That the technological platform is one that has unprecedented reach is balanced by the fact that it also allows governments unprecedented powers of surveillance and control. Where a law might be able to have some effect is also where it is wholly unnecessary and even oppressive. By this I mean that if a powerful foreign actor really wished to introduce a false piece of news into the Singapore public sphere, it would be impossible to legislate against this actor. On the other hand if a local actor were to engage in this act, it would be highly possible to identify and apprehend them. Singapore has seen multiple cases of local activists and commentators being charged with some form of public misinformation. This shows that new laws are not necessary.

That falsehoods are spread and read online is not in fact the primary danger. Indeed, parody Twitter accounts and political satire videos could all be termed “online falsehoods”, and yet are the lifeblood of modern political discourse. Even with the caveat that malicious intent is what separates these from the phenomenon under consideration, terms are likely to be difficult to define. In all the cases presented in the Green Paper, it is clear that what DOES leave a society vulnerable is actual inequality, discrimination, repression, the lack of a trusted source of information and fact-checking, and technological corporations that have too much power. This is evident from the cases cited in Section V of the Green Paper, which details some states’ actions to address the perceived problem.

Focus on media literacy

While I do not think that any new legislation is needed, I do believe that the anxiety expressed in the Green Paper is the logical outcome of the lack of development of political and digital literacy among the citizenry. There is a clear gap in the curriculum in this regard, as many scholars and researchers have pointed out. Certainly there is (a) some instruction in terms of being safe online, (b) a sort of societal curriculum (the press, existing laws and their enforcement, circulating discourses about kindness and morality, etc.) that conveys messages to people about what they can and cannot do in online spaces, and (c) instruction that prepares some young people for media jobs. However there is a serious lacuna in the more empowering forms of media education, which would teach young people how to critically read media messages, draw on their media experiences to critically engage with social issues, and meaningfully participate in online spaces. A citizenry that knows how to consume and produce media to interrogate their lived reality is a citizenry that is less likely to be manipulated by false information – wherever it circulates and whichever agent produces it.

What a critical media literacy curriculum can do is to reshape the discourse on the duties of a citizen in a Smart Nation. Technology has a totalising and anti-democratic bent to it, and the only way to deal with this is through more democracy, not less. People need to be able to openly and freely debate issues, and for this we need information to circulate more openly.

In response to the Green Paper, I end this submission with an American example that I think DOES translate to Singapore. In Florida, young people have been standing up to speak out against gun violence after experiencing it in their schools. They have been able to keep their demands for legislative changes in the spotlight with keen political strategy, social media experience, and the urgency of their cause. One of the insights that has emerged is that these young people have been able to respond to the exigence because they have been receiving instruction in political and information literacy. Many also have training in public speaking and debate. These are all skills that form an integral part of a critical media literacy curriculum, and we need to make this sort of education a priority in Singapore if we want to build a digital future in which we can have some confidence.

 

The perfect everyday life

It starts with a cup of coffee. No fancy coffee maker. Just a kettle and a jar of instant coffee. Because it’s not just a cup of coffee.

Some stretches while the water boils. The hiss that the kettle makes is background music. Because they are not just stretches.

Sitting alone in my armchair looking out the window at the trees whose leaves gently shuffle – there isn’t much of a breeze but enough. Just enough to cool the hot cheeks of the children screaming instructions to each other as they play outside, absorbed in the power plays that adults usually don’t see. I sit alone. Not lonely.

He’s coming home today. His dirty shoes will be kicked off outside the door, like discarded candy wrappers, socks unmatching. Dishes will pile up in the sink, wet clothes on the floor. Bleary-eyed hug, eyes which light up when telling a funny story that I can’t quite catch because he mumbles. Do all teenagers mumble? But he is almost a man. A sense of sadness – a dark patch on his soul – finds a mirrored sadness in me. Sadness is not always a bad thing.

Niggling worries at the back of my mind. Work that needs to be done. Ideas that need to be captured on paper. A life that needs to be made the most of. Why wake up every morning otherwise? But the soul needs rest after trauma. And perhaps making the most of life can involve rest too.

Where is the imperfection in a life that is lived everyday like this? A cup of coffee that signals being alive to face another day…stretches that feel like dancing as the body wakes up to the music of the kettle, the privilege of solitude in a safe home as the world unfolds around me, someone to love and share shards of light and swatches of darkness with, the joy of choosing – shall I work or shall I rest today.

What is perfection but the realization that this is as good as it gets.

Of reading and feeling

Sometimes it happens that the texts you read and the events you experience converge, such that each forms a lens for viewing the other.

Perhaps not sometimes

Perhaps always, once you start waking up to the conditions of your subjectivity.

Two friends, both dear to me, talking to me about race and power. One feels the weight of it – like I do – from intersecting positions of privilege and oppression. She wants to know – this man she is engaging with – is it okay that he constantly questions her judgement about situations where she perceives a problem of race. No, I agree with her, it is not okay that he does it. I am almost smug in my solidarity.

But another friend who questions my judgement about situations where I perceive a problem of race. Oh god. How can it be that someone I love does this to me? They are unaware…I must teach them… Not so easy when the problem is mine.

And that is when I remember a text. Sara Ahmed on The Problem of Perception:

When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that; it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid.

How clear this is to me – when I say to my friend “This is a problem of race”, and the reply – couched in terms of “help me to understand this” is “But surely it is not about race”. No, I agree. Surely – to you – this is not about race. It is my perception that it is about race that is the problem for you. And so let it be. I sigh. This is too much for me to cope with.

But it keeps coming up. And I don’t know that I can bear the emotional burden of all the teaching that I have to do, when I know the role of pedagogue has been thrust upon me. It is my punishment for perceiving a problem. Teach me – she says – why you say it is a problem. But I don’t know that I have the energy, because what she is asking me to do is validate myself.

Again, I turn to Sara Ahmed’s writing.

Sometimes we lose confidence because others do not have confidence in us in the first place. We can lose confidence before we acquire confidence, as if confidence was never ours to have.  This loss of confidence can be mistaken in the sense that: we might be able to do what we are not confident we can do.  Or maybe there is a past tense here: maybe we could have done what we assumed we could not do. Maybe now, given that assumption, given we have lived by it, through it, we cannot do it. A history of underestimation can shape what bodies “do do” and thus what they “can do.” A body can acquire the shape of a loss of confidence; a loss can be reproduced by being inherited.

When you don’t have confidence in my worldview, when you don’t start out believing me, there is a tiredness that speaks to a history of underestimation. A history of not being taken seriously.

And then there is the matter of the evidence you demand each time you say “but surely…let me try to understand this…see my counter evidence…why do you say this is a problem of race/gender…explain…explain…explain…”

And again, Sara speaks for me.

No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll.  My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.

So I come close to thinking that perhaps it is alright to refuse the role of pedagogue. To say – I will not teach. If what I say is not enough for you, you must do the work of looking for your evidence. If my testimony is not enough, then I am not enough. And I have been here before – standing before a person who claimed to love me, wanting desperately (and failing desperately) to be enough.

And then a third friend, who suggests that perhaps it is only within relationships that race privilege can ever be made visible, because of the desperate need to teach so that you don’t feel invalidated by the one who lies, bewildered, next to you every night. A pedagogy of discomfort, he recited.

But surely there is something about this pedagogy that exacts too high a price from the pedagogue when it takes place within an intimate relationship. Or even within a classroom. But that is another problem altogether – for another musing.

In silence, incubating

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I haven’t written for so long that I am not sure I can just jump in and do this now. But perhaps one has to (re)start somewhere. It is difficult to trust words now. What are these words that come out of me? How are they different from shit? Or piss? Or blood? Or spit? Perhaps the words are really the waste products of my thoughts. What do I create with my words? What have I done? What can I do?

As long as one eats, one shits. As long as one thinks, one writes. This analogy is taking me straight to hell but now that I have started it I cannot seem to stop. But perhaps it can recede to the background for now. So I can talk about writing and you, my poor reader, can imagine how it relates to shitting.

I have been silent for so long. In this space I have been silent. Because my thoughts have been too much for me. Too many things to contemplate. Words have been my undoing. So I have sat in silence and tortured myself with thoughts. I suppose you could say I’m all backed up…

But this is where I want to switch analogies. Because other things have come out of me – not waste products but precious creations. Oh hello little man number one…oh hello little man number two. They incubated inside of me before slipping and squeezing their way out of my body. In my silence, my words have been incubating. And now perhaps when they come out, they will carry all the thoughts that I have held. And perhaps these word-encased thoughts will grow like my little men did, and perhaps I will then have to release these words to the world, just like I have had to do with my little men.

They are not so little now, my men, my thoughts, my words. But the incubation has been good for me, as it was for them. So many more questions than answers grew in me during the incubation. Who am I? Why am I? Why is this world? How is freedom? But okay. My little men are leaving and my thought-words are now my babies.

I love new beginnings 🙂

 

[Guest Post] Couches Build Character

My sister Radha’s fourth post about life as an autism mom. 

Just so you know, we are those people. We have a couch in our dining room, and let me tell you, it gets sat on a lot.

I didn’t plan it. I had planned on a dining room that had credible dining room furniture in it. In fact, I spent a ton of time decorating our (couch filled) living room, and envisioned all of us piling in there to chat, watch movies, play board games and Twister, do yoga, and who knows what else. At no point did I say, “You know, there really needs to be a couch in the eating part of the house too.”

The little guy watched the living room decorating process with keen interest. He skittered about when his dad was installing the media cabinet, patted the delivery men affectionately when the new couches arrived, approved the paint color by warbling at the top of his lungs, and almost passed out with delight when he returned from school to find a coffee table in there. Nothing makes him happier than watching processes. They show rather than tell, which is just how he learns.

So the day came. The room was done. I had even unearthed an appropriately stately looking bowl to place on the coffee table. All of us stood about solemnly, studying the tableau, filled with self love and smug satisfaction.

It was then that Gumby decided to show his appreciation for the beautiful job we had done. Surely we meant it as an homage to his leisure time. He shook his head, removed the useless bowl, and promptly placed his wooden toys on the table.

When we didn’t have any kids yet, we laughed over a New Yorker (I think) article about how the 90s generation of parents was so into the granola lifestyle, and everyone had to buy character building wooden toys. And here we were, with a coffee table full of character building wooden toys! We still laugh about that, but it’s more a laugh at our own delusions.

Anyway, the room became Gumby’s safe spot. Everything was where he wanted it to be, and the noise and lighting were kept at a tolerable level in there. We decided to humor him, and balanced it out by not letting the creep of colonialism spread to any other part of the house. To this day, he only enters our master bathroom for a haircut, and never for any other reason, not because we don’t allow it, but because he doesn’t want to linger in a room he can’t manage. Same with his sister’s room. He was highly offended when she wouldn’t let him dispose of a pillow he found ugly, and won’t step over the threshold, which works for her just fine, since she’s a teenager and her room is her shrine to solitude.

At the peak of the Living Room Tyrant’s reign, my husband and I conceded defeat, and moved the old, battered couch into the dining room. We needed a spot to sit, where we could talk and work without stressing out Le Gumb, and where we could dump some comfy cushions. Did I mention the no cushions rule? Maybe I forgot, just because, you know, there were too many rules to remember.

The battered couch in the dining room soon became my mom lair. It still is, really. I don’t care if it looks weird, I love it, and I can keep an eye on my stove, my kid, and the front door. So brilliant, and equally tyrannical! Gumboo and I can be the next Frank Lloyd Wrights, telling our clients how to sit properly and staging their lives just so, requiring the humans to do justice to the architecture and decor, and not the other way around. *cackle*

Lots of things have changed since the room decorating saga, one of which is that the little guy has relaxed some of his rules. We are now welcome in his perfect room, and as long as we don’t upset his sensory apple cart, we can stay. Dad gets banished during allergy season because his sneezes are too loud.

But because the little guy now seeks out people to play with him, and he understands that my dining room couch is my lair, GUESS WHO NOW WANTS TO SIT WITH ME ALL THE TIME? You guessed right. We are constantly in a tangle of limbs, and just when I need to make a phone call or get my work from the printer, I am assailed by Gumby love. He puts his hand on my arm and says Mama, and I am a fool for that kind of affection, so we end up having a romp and laughing till we are exhausted.

It’s neocolonialism at its finest. And it’s also my most secret dream realized–that my son would someday want to engage and play with us, that he would let down his sensory guard just a bit, that he would call me something (Mama makes my eyes fill with tears because I waited a decade to hear it), and if it takes being followed around and colonized to get him to open up, I’ll take it. I’ll redecorate every room in the house if that’s the result we’ll get. Practically speaking, of course I won’t do that, since he would leave us with no pillows and we’d have to stop sneezing altogether. But the sentiment stands.

We work all the time, in tandem with his home therapists, on getting him to be more accommodating and less upset by small changes, and to a large extent, it’s bearing fruit. It’s his essential nature to seek out and establish patterns, though, so he moves on to find another focus for his pattern making. We raise the bar for his behavior, and he raises the bar for our parenting.

Every day has a character building wooden toy hidden in it somewhere.

Radha.

Disclaimer: Gumby is the clay animation figure created by Art Clokey. We use the nickname in affection, and I am not profiting off the name.

[Guest Post] Tribal Identity

This is my sister Radha’s third post about her family life as an autism mom. 

Years ago, in a moment of foreshadowing, we ran into a mother and her autistic daughter.

We were all at a live Dora show (don’t judge me!) and the mother had high hopes that her daughter, who was a huge Dora fan, would enjoy the experience. But she couldn’t handle the amplified sound and darkness, so they were leaving, and both mother and child were crying, one from crushed expectations, the other from overburdened senses.

I exchanged a few words with the mother, nothing of significance, but her face has always stayed with me. And shortly after, I joined her tribe.

In the beginning, we were too overwhelmed to relate to other people. The daily demands were such that there was no reality beyond the Lakshman Rekha drawn by sensory overload, ritualistic tics, and communication fails. Maybe it was best. Then we never had to see how left behind we were.

But when relatives younger than A began to forge ahead of him in milestones, I occasionally lifted my head and took resigned note. One demoralizing evening, after listening to someone describe their child’s birthday party, I sat on the stairs and cried for what should have been, for what was now our reality, and in fear of how to stay positive.

I hate remembering those days.

I am sorry to all the people with whom I lost touch. And if you kept me in your thoughts and reached out to me despite my long silences, you know who you are, and I will never forget you.

Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been so afraid. It was like being a new immigrant to Special Needs Land, and I had yet to truly recognize all the amazing people who would become our companions.

In Special Needs Land, they all matter, the encouraging friends who make up for the occasional Grumpy Guts who doesn’t want to be around a kid who is different. We just had to take that flying leap of faith.

It was harder than I like to admit. We felt like we were living in a fishbowl. Raising a special needs child is like hanging a sign on your forehead that says “Please leave comments here.” Trusting in unknown people used to make me quake with dread. When you are still learning to manage your own child, the pile-on that is the unsought advice turns even a trip to the supermarket into a forced march.

Our new tribe is made up of some wonderful people. Fellow special needs families and their adaptations to the new normal. A’s lovely and kind doctors who have lent us their strength and held our hands through many hardships. His home therapists who brought some peace and structure to our family life, and taught us how to leave the house with minimal drama. The owner of the dosa place who reserves his favorite table when we are coming. The bus driver and attendant who visited him in the hospital, and who still screech to a halt when they see one of us and shriek, “How’s our baby?” The summer camp counselor who sobbed when she said goodbye to him. My mother-in-law, who buys him one red shirt after another because that’s his color, and always remembers to get ones with soft seams. My parents, who listen to my stories and enjoy all his adventures, and give the best advice. My sisters, who, despite not seeing him often, have a knack for making him laugh. The cousin who always invites him to her kids’ birthday parties, and whose wonderful in-laws let him roam free in their house. The boys at after school who play Uno with him. The Balvihar teachers and parents who welcome him into their homes, cook for him, and let him sit in their laps. Every day, the generosity of this tribe touches him gently, never overwhelming, only loving, and seeking to understand and give him a sense of familial trust.

All of you make me cry, but this time I shed tears of joy and gratitude, and for the new understanding I have–that Special Needs Land is a country full of love, opportunities to do small but good things, and whose greatest natural resource is its special citizens, who don’t need to symbolize anything. They just need to live, be themselves, and remind us that there is, after all, no Special Needs Land, for it is all around us, existing without fanfare, in no need of a national anthem, a pledge of allegiance, or patriotic demonstrations.

Radha.