Participating in democracy

I can’t vote. Although I am a permanent resident of the United States, I am not a citizen, which means I do not have the right/privilege of voting. It’s kinda like taxation without representation…

Because I cannot vote I have been feeling like I have no control over what happens today. Given that Illinois is strongly Democratic, it is extremely unlikely that my one vote would change things here. However, the same cannot be said of other places in the country. I will still not be glued to TV/web coverage of the election, though. Partly because of my inability to participate, partly because of my concerns over the two-party system, and partly because I cannot stand the media coverage for the reasons eloquently parodied in this xkcd comic:

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Does feminism have an excluded middle?

Rebecca Watson recently posted a summary of her life in the skeptical/atheist community on Slate. The comments left in response by readers are, sadly, not surprising. The discussion on Slate is not that different from the discussions that have been taking place in the atheist zone of the blogosphere for the past 16 months.

Broadly, people (whether on Slate or elsewhere) agree or disagree with Rebecca’s position. Those who agree that sexism exists and is a problem make a fairly straightforward argument. However, those that disagree seem to be a more diverse bunch. There are certainly some who are happy to present as sexists or even misogynists; they may or may not be trolls. If they are trolls, according to one argument, they can be ignored. I’m not convinced. If they are not trolls then there is clearly a problem – one that is easily expressed: Some people are sexists.

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My time machine worked!

Excellent news! The time machine that I built yesterday, September 9th 2012, has worked! Here I am in the “future” of October 28th. I wonder whether I will be able to blend in? I hope so: the world of the future (late October) seems very similar to my world (early September). Whilst my science-fiction-like escapade promises immense breakthroughs for the world of physics, there is a downside. I was not able to write anything for this blog in the period that passed slowly for you but passed in a subjective instant for me. I hope to remedy this soon.

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How to pick a team to support

I never really got into following sport. As a child I could see that it was clearly important to many people: adults would talk about the local football (soccer!) team; other children would talk about national football teams; and Saturday afternoon’s television scheduling was devoted to Dickie Davis and Des Lynam discussing scores, performance, tactics, division standings, and so on.

I tried to get into football, as that seemed to be the most popular sport among young boys. At the age of 7 I decided that I should support a team. I picked Liverpool, as they seemed to be (a) very popular, and (b) doing well at the time. I think I asked my mum to buy me a Liverpool holdall for my school bag. My little brother, in contrast, was much taken with the young Gary Lineker and became an Everton follower. This gave us both someone to argue with about who was best – another key aspect of being a sports fan. In keeping with my status as a Liverpool supporter I decided that I really ought to watch a match on TV. So one Saturday afternoon, at 3 o’clock (or whenever it was that kick-off typically occurred), I sat down in front of our wood-veneered TV to watch the beautiful game. Within about 30 minutes I realized that I was utterly bored. I think the next time I watched a game was some 30 years later, when Chelsea played Bayern Munich last May. I watched this match in Maggie Miley’s, together with a couple of friends and my dad; it was really about spending time in a pub with people I like, not the game. Plus it was one of those farcical matches that ends on penalties.

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Congratulations, trolls and misogynists

…for your work here is done. You have managed to chase away an excellent young blogger with your unrelenting harassment. Jen McCreight quit last night:

I love writing, I love sharing my ideas, and I love listening to the ideas of my readers. But I simply no longer love blogging. Instead of feeling gleeful anticipation when writing up a post, I feel nothing but dread. There’s a group of people out there (google the ironic term FtBullies to find them) devoted to hating me, my friends, and even people I’m just vaguely associated with. I can no longer write anything without my words getting twisted, misrepresented, and quotemined. I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job. I’m constantly worried that the abuse will soon spread to my loved ones.

I just can’t take it anymore.

I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it. I’ve been miserable. And this toxic behavior is affecting all parts of my life. With this cloud of hate hanging over my head, I can’t focus or enjoy my hobbies or work. It has me constantly on edge with frayed nerves, which causes me to take it out on the ones I love. I spend most of my precious free time angry, on the verge of tears, or sobbing as I have to moderate comments or read what new terrible things people have said about me. And the only solution I see is to unplug.

So, vile scum, do you feel happy now? Have you got a glowing sense of accomplishment? Are you virtually high-fiving each other? What’s next? Are you going to put your feet up and retire, or will you shift your attention to other champions of equality and social justice?

I have a suggestion. Go away and don’t come back. Enjoy your freedom of speech, but do it in a place where people who are full of awesomeness do not have to attend to it. This is exactly why Jen proposed the idea that became Atheism+: to define a space you do not get to destroy. Though Jen may have stopped writing about atheism and feminism, she has started something new, and the idea will continue to grow, even if she takes a less active role.

Jen: I am sorry to see you go. I have been reading blag hag for years now and know that you are an important part of the freethought/atheist/skeptic movement. I hope you come back. More importantly, I hope that you can cope with all the hate and move on, knowing that you have the support of thousands of people who have enjoyed reading what you have written, and have been inspired by your words and ideas.

Check your privilege! Part 2

In my last post, I discussed white privilege and how to find out if you have it. Now I want to turn to another kind of privilege, one that is particularly relevant to the atheist community right now. I have already talked about the many recent examples of sexism and misogyny that have dogged atheism recently. Now I would like to talk about sexism in the light of male privilege. Before getting into the details of male privilege, I would like to highlight a recent issue: the one that gave rise to Atheism+.

When Jen McCreight said

I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk

a whole can of worms opened up. Many people understood, sympathized, or empathized with Jen’s statement. Other people blew up, arguing that this was a ridiculous statement: how is it possible not to be safer at a convention – in a room full of people – than walking down the street? Another class of response was to ask for evidence: what is the evidence that you are safer on the street than at a con? The latter two types of response are missing the point. Jen did not claim that as a woman she is safer on the street than at a con; this would have been a claim that could be supported or refuted with evidence from research on the relative frequency of assaults on women in different settings. Neither did she claim that as Jen McCreight she is safer on the street than at a con. I doubt there is any published research on this question, but Jen would be able to offer up data regarding all the times she has been attacked in different settings. Of course, this may not satisfy the most hyper-skeptical among us as these would be anecdotal data. But why am I even making the distinction between Jen-as-a-woman and Jen-as-Jen-McCreight? This distinction is relevant because, in the context of a public atheist/skeptic event, she is not just one of many women walking around. She is a woman who has

“received sexual invitations from strangers around the country”,

who has been

“repeatedly told I can never speak out against people objectifying or sexually harassing me because a joke about my boobs was eternal “consent”,

who has received

“hundreds of comments accusing me being a man-hating, castrating, humorless, ugly, overreacting harpy”,

who has

“become used to being called a cunt or having people threaten to contact my employers because a feminist can’t be a good scientist.”

In short, she is a public figure in the atheist/skeptical/freethought community who has received many threats of violence. Given this, I can see how Jen may feel less safe in an environment where there is a chance that there are a few individuals who recognize her by sight and wish her ill than in an environment where she is anonymous. This does not seem irrational.

I now want to stress that her claim was not that she is less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk, but that she feels less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk. This claim does not belong in the class of claims that require, or can be supported or refuted by, evidence. If I were to say “I have a headache” or “I feel sad”, no-one would ask me to provide supporting evidence. People would be happy to accept these statements without challenging the truth-status of these claims. Why? First, because they of little consequence, which I do agree is not true of Jen’s claim. Second, because they are my subjective feelings, and we are typically happy to allow that people have subjective experiences that may not be true for the rest of us at this time, and this second reason is true of Jen’s claim. The key difference, however, is that when I talk of headaches or sadness, others can easily simulate what it feels like to be me because they have probably experienced both of these feelings themselves at many different times in their lives. However, it is not the case – and I am happy that it is not the case – that all of us have felt threatened in the way that Jen describes. This is because we have not been subjected to the same abuse and threats that she has. This makes it potentially harder to simulate what it feels like to be Jen. People who have received threats and have been in public spaces in which those who have issued the threats may also be present will probably have a much easier time simulating what it feels like to be Jen.

All of this talk of phenomenology, alluded to in my last post, is essentially the problem of other minds. If I want to be hyper-skeptical, I can make the argument that I have no way of knowing that other people (or animals) have thoughts, feelings, or any kind of conscious experience that is in any way similar to what I experience.

Given the subjective nature of the claim of feeling less safe, adducing the threats received by Jen is not even necessary for accepting that her feelings regarding specific places or situations may differ from other people’s. It is quite possible that Jen could feel safer in one situation than another even if she were not well-known to the atheist community and had not been the recipient of harassment.

The example I have discussed is a specific case of a more general problem: empathizing with others, or – if empathy is not possible because one has no similar experiences to draw upon – accepting the idea that different people have different experiences. That was the point of the White Privilege Pop Quiz, and it is also the point of Barry Deutsch’sMale Privilege Checklist:

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true.

3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are.

6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.

7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low.

8. On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.

9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.

12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.

13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.

14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.

17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.

18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.

19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.

20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.

21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.

22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.

23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.

26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.

27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time.

28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.

29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.

30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.

31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)

32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.

35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.

37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.

39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.

40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.

41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.

44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”

45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

I agree with the vast majority of these statements. As with the White Privilege test, the point isn’t that I am a sexist, or that I can choose not to have this privilege. The point is that I should now be aware that I have male privilege, and have some minimal idea about what women may experience. I still do not know what it is like to be a woman, but I am aware that the phenomenology of being a woman is not the same as the phenomenology of being a man.

You may be a woman who does not agree that all of the statements on the list are representative of your experiences, but that does not mean that this is true for all women. Jen McCreight recently blogged about Richard Dawkins retweeting the following:

I’m a woman & an atheist blogger, & never experienced sexist abuse from fellow atheists. Maybe because I don’t assume they’re misogynists?

Jen then quotes a nice critique:

From Veronica at Purple NoiZe:

Good for you Lucy. Good for you. There are numerous women who have, but I’m glad you’re not one of them.

The problem, however, with this tweet is of course the second sentence. Lucy seems to be saying that either is the abuse imagined, i.e. that the recipients interpret the abuse as sexist while it is actually just for laughs or something. It is a little tricky to treat death and rape threats as funny jokes, but I suppose if you’re naive enough you could manage it. The other option is that the abuse women receive online is caused by women assuming these people are misogynists, therefore the sexism is really the victim’s fault for being so uppity. The classic victim blaming that we so often see of rape victims.

As well as the victim-blaming implied in the second sentence, this is good example of the point I am trying to make: just because you have not experienced something or have not felt a particular way in a situation, it doesn’t mean that other people haven’t.

Note that all the arguments I make in this post can be applied to Rebecca Watson’s experiences as well.


The Male Privilege Checklist is copied from Barry Deutsch’s site, where he explains the reasons for compiling it:

In 1990, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh observes that whites in the U.S. are “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” To illustrate these invisible systems, McIntosh wrote a list of 26 invisible privileges whites benefit from.

As McIntosh points out, men also tend to be unaware of their own privileges as men. In the spirit of McIntosh’s essay, I thought I’d compile a list similar to McIntosh’s, focusing on the invisible privileges benefiting men.


Thanks again to Corinne Zimmerman for inspiring this post.

Check your privilege! Part 1

Today I am writing about white privilege. If you are already familiar with the work of Peggy McIntosh, Molly Secours, and the many other people who have explained this concept, and if you ‘get it’, then please feel free to ignore this. If you don’t know what I am talking about, or if you have heard of white privilege, but don’t get it, please do read on.

I think one of the best ways to explain what is meant by white privilege is to have you take Molly Secours’ White Privilege Pop Quiz. This is a quick and easy multiple-choice quiz. There are no right or wrong answers; just pick the answer that is true for you.

A) When was the first time you were made aware of your racial identity and realized that your ‘race’ would play a pivotal role in the challenges you faced on a daily basis.

1) 1-5    2) 6-10    3) 11-present    4) never

B) How often are you reminded about being the race with which you identify?

1) several times a day    2) once a day    3) several times a week    4) once a month    5) never

C) As a child how often were you given safety instructions on how to walk through a department store or public establishment in a way that did not foster suspicion or attract attention?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) rarely    4) never

D) How often have you been (or are you now) coached by parents or guardians or family members on how to behave or what to say in order to avoid being perceived as dangerous or menacing when confronted by law
enforcement, teachers or authority figures?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) rarely    4) never

E) How often do you talk with close friends and family members (or just wonder to yourself) whether or not your racial identity is negatively impacting your daily interactions with others?

1) everyday    2) once a week    3) once a month    4) once a year    5) never

F) How often have you wondered if your race negatively impacted a job interview, a grade, a confrontation with a co-worker or a friend?

1) too many to count    2) periodically    3) seldom    4) never

G) How often are you the only person (or very few) of your identified race in daily activities? Including Church, school, bars, nightclubs etc?

1) always    2) frequently    3) seldom    4) never

H) Have you ever been tempted to deny your racial identity in order to feel more comfortable in a particular setting or to have an advantage?

1) always    2) frequently    3) seldom    4) never

I) Have you ever found yourself feeling frustrated, invisible or ashamed in a history class because you felt ‘your people’ weren’t represented (or represented accurately) in “His-story”.

1) yes, always    2) yes, often    3) yes, sometimes    4) never

J) While watching television or movies do you often feel that people who look like you or are racially/culturally connected to you are not represented (or misrepresented) in the media?

1) yes, always    2) yes, often    3) yes, sometimes    4) never

K) How often have you been challenged and/or corrected by someone about how ‘you identify’ racially?

1) more than 5 times    2) several times    3) once    4) never

L) How often have you adjusted your behavior out of concern that people might assume or suspect you to be lazy, inarticulate, untrustworthy, criminal, or unintelligent because of your race.

1) more than 5 times    2) several times    3) once    4) never

M) How often do you notice that the majority of authority figures in your school career or work environment–who sign your checks or supervise your daily activities–are identified with another race and/or culture?

1) always    2) often    3) sometimes    4) never

N) How often do you feel in need of reassurance (or to reassure other family members) you/they are ‘just as good as’ (not better) than someone of another racial group because of a negative experience?

1) Always    2) Frequently    3) Seldom    4) Never

O) How often have you wondered if something you said or did in a public setting might reflect negatively on your identified race?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) seldom    4) never

If you answered numbers 3, 4 or 5 for more than 3 questions then you are someone who experiences white privilege. If you answered number 3, 4 or 5 for more than 7 questions, then you are definitely a ‘card carrying member’ of white privilege. And if you answered 3, 4 or 5 for more than 10 questions, let’s just say, ‘it’s a done deal’.

So how did you do? I answered “never” to all 15 questions, so I definitely have white privilege. So what does this say about me. Does it mean I am a racist? No. Does it mean that I am to blame for the state of affairs that led to me having white privilege? No. It means nothing except that I should now be aware that I have white privilege, and have some minimal idea about what other people – those who do not answer “never” to all the questions – may experience. I still do not know what it is like to be someone who isn’t white, but I am aware that the phenomenology of being non-white is not the same as the phenomenology of being white.

Let’s be clear about this. If your answers indicate that you experience white privilege, you should not be getting defensive; you are not being accused of anything:

  • “White Privilege” is not a slur or an insult
  • It is not derogatory
  • It is not something you can stop, start, eliminate or get more of
  • Acknowledging that you have it does not change anything
  • Denying that you have it does not change anything
  • You have no reason to be ashamed of it
  • Someone saying you have White Privilege is equivalent to pointing at an Oak Tree and saying “That is an Oak Tree.” It is a statement of fact.
  • “Checking your privilege” makes you a decent human being and the best part is that even if you are constantly “Checking it” you are also constantly benefitting from it
  • Because of the above, there is no down side to “Checking your privilege” which means if you don’t, you are a double whammy dirt bag
  • It’s okay to not fully understand how to “Check your privilege”
  • It is NOT okay to not make a conscious effort to learn
  • White Privilege isn’t something dirty. It’s just something you have if you are white.

OK, so I have white privilege (as do many of you reading this), and I understand that is purely descriptive. No value judgments are being made. So what’s the point in all of this? Reminding myself of some of the items on the quiz will (I hope) stop me from saying stupid things about other people’s experiences. For example, I like my town. It seems like a nice place, and there are definitely nice people in it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of racism. But how do I know that? Well, in my experience, few people have said racist things to me, or in my presence. My experience is valid in the sense that it is true that I have not seen a lot of evidence for racism. But it is a leap for me to claim that as a result of my experiences, there is little racism. “Checking my privilege” enables me to realize that other people may have different experiences; they may be more likely to be exposed to racism than I am, or be more likely to notice it where I didn’t, simply by virtue of not being white.

How should I feel about my privilege? Hard to say. It inspires some guilt, but I understand that I may not have said or done anything that I should feel guilty about. It can inspire defensiveness, denial, or a desire to point out that some criminals are black: just look at some of the comments on Molly’s quiz. But defensiveness, denial, and generalization from statistical outliers are not appropriate responses. I really rather like what PZ Myers’ said as a response to how people feel about disparity:

I’m a white male middle-class professional. I profit from disparity, and it simultaneously gives me guilt and worry that someone might take my privileges away from me. But I can’t in good conscience live in the illusion that I somehow deserve more than a poor black woman making ends meet with menial labor; I don’t. I’m just the recipient of the blessings of chance and history.

Molly Secours’ pop quiz has its origins in the classic essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this essay, Peggy McIntosh gives a list of statements that identify

some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

You can go read the whole essay, but here are a few of the items on the list:


  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

This quote from the essay explains why having an awareness of white privilege is important:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Thanks to Corinne Zimmerman for pointing me in the direction of the white privilege quiz, and thus inspiring this post.