This #100hardtruths was given to my friend, and fellow-member of FemTechNet, the writer, performer, activist and professor, T.L. Cowan. It is written based on conversations with and learning from Dorothy Kim, Eunsong Kim, Gabrielle Bellot, Moya Bailey, Jacqueline Wernimont, Jasmine Rault, Alexis O’Hara, Dayna McLeod, Robyn Overstreet, Veronica Paredes, Lisa Nakamura, Alexandra Juhasz, Danielle Cole, Alexandrina Agloro, Joss Greene, micha cárdenas, Izetta Autumn Mobley, and many others.
It may seem very innocuous, but the purloining of ideas for profit is an egregious form of journalistic harm that places no value on the thoughts, feelings, or needs of the original creator of the content. It is at the very least the laziest form or ‘journalism’ possible. In the broader scheme of things, it is a form of intellectual property theft and should be dealt with as such. Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 1

“A lot of justice-oriented academics and journalists are committed to researching, writing and circulating what we see as hard truths, responding to fake news with evidence we gather from a wide range of materials. Often, the work of circulating #100hardtruths has to do with amplifying the experiences, perspectives and ideas of folks whose voices are not typically heard, or are actively suppressed, in and by dominant (white, wealth-driven, settler, US-centric) news media. For example, well-meaning academics and journalists might cite a social media content producer as evidence to show public sentiment and support for a social justice-oriented argument—for example, this is what people are saying on Twitter about state-sanctioned anti-black police violence, or about the proposed anti-Muslim ban, or about the Canadian Prime Minister’s support for another pipeline, destroying more land, air and water, or we might base an entire article or book on how social media content producers are shaping contemporary activism.

The availability of easily accessible social media posts has made it possible for scholars and journalists to find a wide range of perspectives from folks they do not have ready access to in face-to-face existence, thus allowing the researcher to easily incorporate the ideas of others in the formation of their own research argument or news story. Social media platforms make it possible to grab a “quote” from a minoritized social media content producer—who generated the content for free—without ever having a conversation with that person, or sharing the potential profit, be it financial, intellectual or cultural capital. As long as the source is cited, we’re accustomed to calling it a day, and an ethical day at that! We’ve written something that incorporates the ideas and words of folks who are not normally heard in the context of [insert the newspaper, magazine, journal or conference], possibly to tell a hard truth, uncovering the real story behind some fake news, and now we’ve helped make the world a better place. Well done!

The CSOV a modified version of the logo for the #tooFEW Wikipedia Edit-a-thon many of us were involved in 2013. When used for #TooFEW, it was part of making the argument that issues of race, gender, and sexuality weren’t adequately represented in Wikipedia. In suggesting it be modified for our purposes now we intend to keep that spirit, particularly seen in the work of the Digital Alchemy group which addresses the disproportionate online violence that women of color face, particularly Black cis and trans women.

Not so fast, comrade. As Jamie Nesbitt Golden and Monique Judge explain in their short essays (see my epigraph above) for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV), hoisting a tweet or other social media post from a non-famous person and using it to build a scholarly argument or news story is not rigorous or ethical research, it’s idea theft. Sure the tweets of high-profile people might be fair game as public speech. But to use the tweets of folks who are having an online conversation that we’re not part of, even with a correctly-formatted citation? That’s just eavesdropping.

The politics of citation—to cite down rather than up, to cite sources that are not already in massive circulation, to cite predominantly women, people of color, trans folks, Indigenous peoples, folks from the Global South, etc.—is an important form of intellectual activism meant to center the ideas of these folks rather than perpetually re-centering the ideas of mostly white, Euro-American settler dude-experts. But, citation is, as the Northern Lights Canadian all-star charity ballad goes, not enough.1 [Heads up: this video clip opens with scenes of Ethopian people starving, during drought and famine of the early 1980s. It also features a lot of white people in Canada–though not exclusively white Canadians—singing in a sound booth and ends with the very nationalist images of Canadian wheat being flown to Ethiopia. Sorry.]

By approaching all social media content as public texts, just as available for quotation as any newspaper article, published book or policy statement, we fail to recognize that not all social media content producers (i.e. tweeters, bloggers and posters) want their words to extend beyond their immediate social media network or, indeed, that the re-circulation of a tweet or a post beyond its initial context is, in fact, unethical and potentially harmful. In so doing, as Joss Greene explains, we “flatten very different relationships into one generalized public.” Social media content producers face different kinds of risk when their words are taken beyond their original context, depending on who they are, where they live, how they live, and how targeted they may already be in a world structured by, for example, racial and gender hierarchies.

Most social media posts are created in community, in conversation. When a scholarly or journalistic researcher—especially one from outside the community in which the material was originally posted—extracts a tweet or post written by a non-famous (or not professionally public) person without covering the scope of the conversation, without getting permission to quote, without being accountable to the community of origin and context, we conveniently steal someone else’s ideas in pursuit of our own argument, exposing the content producer to risk of harm, without their consent and without sharing the profit or credit of this work.

Rather than thinking that our ethical obligation stops at citation, we can be more rigorous in our research practices towards a framework of accountability, co-authorship, resource distribution and power sharing.

So often the logic of mere citation is that in the food chain of ideas, scholars and journalists who have access to high circulation or high prestige publishing venues, will use their profile and access to increase the exposure—to signal boost, amplify the voices—of artists, activists and other grassroots cultural workers, and the payment these folks receive, as my collaborator Jasmine Rault and I have argued, is the “caché of being studied.” That is, so often scholars and journalists don’t pay the artists and activists whose work and words they study because the labour of being studied (of answering questions, of dealing with the potential blowback) is understood to be in the interest of that artist or activist, i.e., for their own good, for the good of exposure. As the artist Alexis O’Hara says about these logics and practices, “You can die of exposure.”

The politics of mere citation helps to keep the power structure—the ideas food chain— in tact, keeping grassroots social media content producers and other cultural workers putting it out there for free, and journalists and scholars using it without paying for it, to add cred to the articles that they get paid to write.

Let’s hear the chorus now, Northern Lights style: Don’t you know that citation is not enough?!

That is, mere citation does not require the kind of transformation of privilege, values, analysis and access that is needed to shake up the world of “thought leaders,” to use a particularly gross term that nonetheless reflects how ideas circulate as currency in the intellectual and news economies.

Created by The Alchemists: Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence. Design by: Liz Andrade

Once more: Citation is not enough!

At the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) we have created a set of materials to help journalists, teachers and scholarly researchers to rethink how they use the work of social media content producers. Our materials are meant to shift the discussion from an obsession with proper citational practices (i.e. what does the MLA style guide say about tweets?), to a commitment to ethical community engagement and resource distribution. In particular, we hope that our materials will help scholars, students and journalists to build accountability to their social media “sources” into their research and publishing practices.

As all of the contributors to the CSOV resources have noted in one way or another, one way we can begin to make these kinds of transformations is to start thinking of social media research as community-engaged research, rather than as textual analysis or literature review.

You can check out our open-access materials on shifting digital research ethics by Izetta Autumn Mobley, Dorothy Kim, Joss Greene, Veronica Paredes, micha cárdenas, Alexandrina Agloro, Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Moya Bailey & T.L. Cowan, and The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley and Danielle Cole. These materials are available on the FemTechNet website; they are intended for sharing widely and folks were paid for the labour of making them, although nothing is stopping you for paying them some more if you can!

These materials are created with the idea that if we shift our methodologies, it will help us to shift our ethics, and help us to match our research protocols with the community protocols of our subjects and sites, especially social media subjects and sites.

Here’s a tour through some of the CSOV digital research ethics materials:

Moya Bailey and I wrote a Research Ethics for Social Media in the Classroom guide, in which we explain the ways that often well-meaning teachers might inadvertently expose social media content producers to harm, by turning their posts and profiles into curricula without ever seeking permission or input from the OPs (Original Posters). We offer some tactics that teachers can use to be accountable to the individuals and communities they want to engage with their students. In particular, we think through the risks associated with increased, unwanted exposure and the labour and potential harms associated with that exposure.

The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole—developed the Power & Control Wheel and Respect Wheel to “help creators slow down and consider the ways they cite and utilize information both on and off the web.” The Alchemists explain that these resources are “modeled from the popular Power & Control Wheels that have been created for discussing domestic and intimate partner violence, we extend those conversations to the violence we have experienced and survived online.”

The CSOV also produced the “Research Ethics, Social Media & Accountability Video Series,” based on two online workshops co-hosted with the Feminist Technology Network (FemTechNet). Six of the co-facilitators of these workshops further contributed to the project by making videos, responding to the question, Why is it important for teachers, students and journalists to think about Research Ethics when they are using social media as part of their teaching and research? Here are some of the practices proposed:

Joss Greene: “What does it mean for us as researchers to work from a place of solidarity? Social media tends to flatten very different relationships into one generalized public. In the real world we understand that there are different dynamics at play. Just because we have access to information, doesn’t mean that we are the intended audience. It is important to recognize that a power dynamic is in play here and as researchers we have an ethical obligation to negotiate with the person whose words we are interested in using, even it if seems like it would be easier to just take what we have access to…. I would encourage academics to have relationships with the communities that they’re doing research with that go beyond the researcher-subject dynamic, which is always going to be one in which we, as researchers, hold power. Being in solidarity is about taking direction. It is important that we as researchers release our grip on our researcher way and devote our time and energy in equal part towards the goals and projects that other people are defining.”

Alexandrina Agloro: “Data is not detached from real world bodies, real world lives and real world experiences. So, when using social media, think about the increased vulnerability of folks who are online.”

 Veronica Paredes: “Like any other mode of communication and expression, social media has its own set of histories, communities, and practices. If a teacher, journalist or researcher imagines social media as an empty space, or only as one composed of autonomous contributions, each 140 characters long, they are missing the conversation. They are missing a lot about how individual tweets are situated, and where they come from.”

Izetta Autumn Mobley: “We are now thinking about social media as divorced from IRL (In Real Life). So sometimes we think that informed consent or thinking about context, is somehow dropping out from concerns about research. I think this is the moment when we need to consider it the most. What is the impact of the exposure? If we are educators asking students to go follow a blog or Twitter feed, what, then, is the result of that? What does that do for the exposure of the person is who now being highlighted? Did they expect for this to happen? And, probably most importantly, what labor are they now being asked to do that they previously weren’t being asked to stand up and do?”

micha cárdenas: “Just as with offline socially-engaged scholarship, try to make your work mutually beneficial to the individuals and communities you are engaging with, and to you and your students. Think carefully about how your use of social media may cause harm to people for your own benefit.”

 Dorothy Kim: “Try not to do harm…. Research all the platforms and understand what those ecosystems are and what the rules of engagement might be before you do something on social media in relation to your work. … Think about the possible harm that may come from your engagement, slow down, and plan out what you want to do, and what these interactions might look like and what might be the consequences.”

As journalists and scholarly researchers in pursuit of hard truths, let’s also examine and adjust our research practices so that we aren’t just reproducing the logics of exploitation and exposure for the purposes of our own careers and reputations.

Read more:

1 By the way, the song I’m quoting here, Northern Lights’ “Tears are Not Enough,” is itself not unproblematic, but it is the refrain I hear every time I write about digital research ethics. The song was a fundraiser to help folks in Ethiopia during the famine and drought of the early 1980s. However, while the song is reminding folks in Canada that tears are not enough, which is true enough, it does not engage in the structural analysis required to be accountable for Western imperialism in Africa, forced industrialization and resource extraction, in addition to the normalized devaluation of Black lives, and global maldistribution of wealth and life chances that produces and reproduces the glut/starvation divide. Relief efforts, like the one Northern Lights is promoting, are kind of like mere citation: they show a little bit of care, but require no real engagement, and keep the food chain in tact.

 

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I taught Learning from YouTube (LFYT) for the fifth time this year. The first iteration was in 2007, fresh into the early years of the still short life of YouTube and social media more generally. I taught the course again this semester, after a several year hiatus, because I was interested in two things: accounting for what has changed in these 8 years as well as for the confounding relations between social (in)justice and social media (which I have reflected upon twice at Lady Justice a part of New Criticals committed to “reconsidering gender and technology in the age of the distributed network”).

While the most obvious changes on YouTube are 1) its unimaginable and consistently escalating scale (seemingly as large as the world, or at least the world of media, more on this later), which itself is connected to the ever shortening time-scale of memes (see video above by LFYT student, Samantha Abernathey, one of several videos made for 2015’s Meme Project) and 2) the marked consolidations of its professional and financial infrastructures and outputs (allowing for new modes of mediamaking and their monetization that sit precociously between amateur and expert media and which actually do make people/corporations/YouTube/Google money). What I will  focus on here is another glaring, although perhaps more variegated change, 3) the nature of feminism on YouTube as a way to think about the massive cultural, political, and personal shifts associated with the rapid maturation of social media. In the brief observations that follow, I will press my course (which, surprisingly [definitively?] was taken by 14 women, “feminists” all, and 2 men, probably “feminists” too; whereas in its past iterations it had been dominated by male students, often [definitively?] basketball players, probably not “feminists”) into conversation with another example of feminist media pedagogy, a memorable symposium I just attended at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan: Feminist Video Documentary Strategies in Social Dissent and Change (organized by Michigan art professor, Carol Jacobsen with Vicki Patraka and Joanne Leonard). There, in Ann Arbor, in conversation for three intense and fully-scheduled days with eleven hand-picked feminist scholars, artists, and activists, ranging from their mid-forties to mid-seventies, fully-formed, carefully-schooled, and highly– and deservedly-vetted for their diverse and stunning bodies of activist feminist documentary work, built in some cases beginning in the 1970s, and occurring all over the world and in regards to feminist issues as diverse as prison reform, domestic abuse, racism, homophobia and Chevron, and the dreams of female Indonesian domestic workers in training—an anti-YouTube if ever there was one—I encountered a feminist media space that itself put the changes at YouTube into another form of stark release.

1. feminist-research-seminar-may2015-5-1

Margaret Lazarus, Sally Berger, Patty Zimmerman, Karen Sanders, Joanne Leonard, Wendy Kozol, Jeannie Simms, Carol Jacobsen, Connie Samaras, Alex Juhasz, Meena Nanji, Regina Austin (Vicki Patraka not picture)

In 2010, thinking about my teaching and writing about YouTube within my video-book about this, I suggested that my feminism, and feminism more broadly on YouTube, was closeted. With a tip of the hat to both film scholar and critic, B. Ruby Rich and feminist poet and theorist, Adrienne Rich, I attempted to create sign-posts to better mark and see the “nowheres and everywheres” of this new closet, one which I named as holding many hidden-away in plain sites for feminisms:

  • ARCHITECTURAL or ARCHAIC feminism occurs at a deep and structural level
  • UN-NAMED feminism that in so doing sees itself newly
  • MORPHING feminism transforms to encapsulate other beliefs in feminism’s name
  • FRAMING feminism that umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racism and other activisms
  • ASSERTIVE or INSERTIVE feminism that names its relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important
  • COMMON-CULTURAL feminism that assumes feminism is the shared space of production
  • ACCESS feminism that doesn’t only speak to feminists and also speaks to feminists by opening access to unusual places
  • TECHNO feminism that engages in collaborative, goal-oriented, placed, critical self-expression online
  • ASSUMPTIONAL or PRESUMPTIVE feminism that always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak
While these terms sign-post places that are still very much alive and operational on YouTube, what I had not mapped then is how YouTube, like the world itself, a world itself, and as one of the places that makes our world itself, now also, at the same time, holds unimaginable quantities of visible, uncloseted, never-closeted feminisms:
  • OVERT feminism that names itself proudly and often attached to equally proud descriptors (i.e. Black, trans, queer)
  • TRENDY feminism that attaches to memes, celebrities, and products
  • WARRING feminism that pits feminists against each other
  • TWITTER and TUMBLER and INSTAGRAM and PINTERST feminisms that spread, link and grow transmedially
  • TROLLING (against) feminism that harasses, stalks, demeans, threatens, bullies and endangers

YouTube is truly a (corporate) space where everything and everybody is (with notable blind spots both self-chosen and socially deployed). As proved true for the feminist demographic and associated conversations within my 2015 class, YouTube has become a place of, for and by feminists and this overt engagement has brought clarity and confusion. My students, like all of us who are engaged with social media, name an anxiety, cynicism, and consumerism that is core to their new media experience even when they are being “political” (in the production, or more definitively consumption of overtly “feminist” media) but especially when they are not, when they are taking a much-deserved break from the onslaught of “feminism” that now greets them there and so are watching the innocent, fun, funny, trivial (corporate) content that surrounds the feminist media also readily-available.

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

Meanwhile, the Michigan feminists also attested to a level of fatigue, anxiety, and hard-to-manage overwhelmedness brought on by new and social media consumption practices. I suggested that media production and its feeding feminist process, now radically accessible to so many, is a final feminist frontier in that it can maintain attention, ethical conditions, non-corporate environments, and clearer boundaries of commitment that now seem nearly impossible in the space of new media reception given the noise, hyper-visibility, and corporate domination of this space. As you see, these conversations circled around architectural metaphors and material considerations attempting to describe possible feminist media spaces, norms, and histories that might be defined by counter-, concordant-, and/or immersive YouTube practices (a project I have being pursuing in my Feminist Online Spaces work).

The twenty-five year plus bodies of work shared by many of our group who have devoted their careers to ongoing, careful, connected, personal and political media projects help refine vocabularies for feminist media practices that can and do share the broader media ecology with YouTube and social media. For instance, our host, Carol Jacobsen, has been making photo and video for over twenty-five years as part of her work as the Coordinator of the Michigan Women’s Clemency Project, advocating for the human rights of women prisoners and seeking freedom for women wrongly incarcerated. Her feminist media work has been shown in galleries, used by activists, lawyers and policy people, and contributed to the release of nine wrongfully-incarcerated women. Some of it is on Vimeo while also sitting elsewhere across the Internet.

Conviction: Janis, 2006

Conviction: Janis, 2006

I would like to conclude by thinking through the experiences in Michigan (where we sat for two-plus days in an isolated, quiet, and window-less conference room while each participant took an hour or more to present her work, and we listened and responded with heightened focus) as a way to also see some of the notable dark spots that are by definition lost to the eye within our (new) place of feminist hyper and over-visibility. Critically, these eleven women were significantly older than your typical “YouTube feminist.” Each had an institutional home that she may have fought to achieve over most of her career, that she had made herself by creating this counter-institution on her own or with others, or that she was precariously connected to or even retiring from. But notably, the diverse feminist media activism of this group shares certain core values, practices, and infrastructures quite different from the ones I have mapped through YouTube thus far, ones which signal time, space, connection and attention as core:

  • SEQUESTERED feminism where the environment to share the work is small, closed, respectful, and supportive.
  • SLOW feminism during which we took time,  were not rushed, and no one multitasked; we listened, watched and were focused (thanks to Meena Nanji for this term and the previous one).
  • RESEARCH feminism where work is anchored in (often) funded and mostly multi-year engagements
  • AESTHETIC feminism where the refinement of a personal practice takes place in conversation with other artists and traditions
  • HISTORIC feminism that knows and marks where it comes from
  • PLACED feminism grounded in and connected to a lived or political community
  • VERSIONED feminism occurring over time and in conversation with other work, changing audiences, and history

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already suggested that everything and everybody is on YouTube, which by definition puts all of these women, their methods, and projects there, too (or not if they inhabit the dark space by choice or exclusion).

Furthermore, a significant subset of “Hashtag” or “Twitter” feminism functions quite similarly to what I have named above. Lisa Nakamura’s recent work on This Bridge Called my Back on Tumblr being only one of innumerable examples of such practices. I am not suggesting that social media can’t or doesn’t attend to architectural, historic, or sustaining feminisms. Rather, I am curious about how these many feminist modalities map onto or next to each other, how they feed or frustrate us, how we can build experiences and media for feminisms with intentionality and purpose given the conflicting norms of the many media spaces that are now available to us. Thus, the current state of YouTube feminism is not a matter of medium (or age or even institution) and entirely one of métier: taking the time, making the space, producing the architecture, community, and history from which to make, receive, and relish our very best work.

I am honored to have taken on the leadership of Pitzer College’s Munroe Center for Social Inquiry for the next four years. Each year, I choose a theme, and then get to engage in public programming, as well as a related advanced seminar each Spring (led by distinguished guests). This year, the theme is Technology, and there is an amazing slate of speakers for 2014.

For the Fall, I planned two events. One will occur in November, more on that later, but the first, and my inaugural event was a visit and lecture by Lisa Nakamura, professor in the departments of American Cultures and Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

My friend, and fellow FemTechNetter, gave a provocative set of addresses at the college where she performed media archeologies on both ubiquitous and extraordinary sites of the everyday or “normal racism” that has been “written into the Internet.” She argues that this racism is not exceptional but rather is structural, inevitable, and environmental showing us the constant if varied places online where “socio-technical racism” (and sexism and homophobia) are written into the norms, architecture, and ethics of the Internet: its shameful “racist technicity.” She argues that all that we shutter off as “noise” when we search for information, or add our comments to important conversations, or try to play games is itself the signal of the Internet. In her Atherton Lecture, recorded below, she looks to long and repeating histories of racist iconography—rooted in excess, confusion, arousal, fear, and control—to think about how “the culture of racism is itself memetic.” I hope you’ll take a long look.

As it is wont to do, the blogisphere will tackle, pin-down, chew-up, devour, and spit out the story of the phony “lesbian blogger Amina” and her pseudo-lesbian editor, “Paula Brooks.” I would like to enter my two-cents to the fray by speaking as a “black lesbian.” I do not take on this position lightly, as was also true for Tom McMaster and Bill Graber who say they understood some of what was at stake during their lengthy charades as “lesbians.” However I do not do so because I hear this titillating character inside my brain or because I need a beard to write in support of lesbian issues. Black lesbians speak just fine for themselves, and much of what they demand and produce is the possibility to voice their experiences and knowledge into history and culture on their own.

I speak here as a “black lesbian” because when I was teaching my course on feminist online spaces during the Spring, to my surprise and initial confusion, so many of my students did. They were assigned to inhabit an online space for the semester and make a number of interventions there about feminism and anti-racism. Somehow, a significant enough number of them decided to do so as a “black lesbian” that this became a short-hand for us to name a number of online behaviors worth noting here:

  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference on the internet, a non-differentiated space where race, class, gender, and sexuality are neutralized
  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference for the bodies and lived experience of many humans who are more hegemonically situated
  • these limits so broken, the “black lesbian’s” position authorizes her to raise otherwise unmentionable or outlawed points about race, gender, class, and sexuality online by anchoring these forbidden thoughts to a body that seems to have the right and need to so speak
  • as if we white, straight, male, wealthy, Latino, biracial, bisexual, working-class, transgender, Jewish, Hungarian others don’t already have our own authority to trouble so easily or casually or “honestly” or “naturally” the norms, boundaries, and rules of the spaces we inhabit

Internet studies has thoughtfully and carefully worked through the reasons of the cyber-ruse over these many years, and I hope the blogisphere will find Lisa Nakamura’s work on cybernetic-tourism, or Allucquere Roseanne Stone‘s thinking about “virtual cross-dressers,” to be useful to think through today’s late-breaking fake-news. My own work on the “Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove helpful.

MacMaster blogs, “I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.”

The problem with this plea, as sincere as it may be, is that popular culture reminds us again and again that men and white people always play better women then women, better lesbians than lesbians, and better blacks than blacks because the real ones are too right, or correct, or left, and in the end, it’s easier to palate difficult issues with irony.