“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”

I get this question so often (especially online) that now you get an entire blog post just on this topic!

So, here’s how.

1) Judaism is a religion, but being Jewish isn’t necessarily.

Jewish people have at various times considered ourselves and been considered by others a faith, a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, and a culture. While the distinctions between some of these categories are blurry–and some of them are recognized mainly by anti-semites–that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

For instance, the fact that groups such as Nazis and Soviets considered Jewish people a separate and inferior race has obviously had a huge effect both on Jewish history and on how many Jewish people see themselves. To use the obvious example, Hitler didn’t hate the Jews because they worshiped the wrong god or because they didn’t eat cheeseburgers; he hated them (among other reasons) because he considered them genetically flawed and therefore dangerous to his vision of a perfect Germany.

(Weird how Nazi types can never seem to decide if Jewish people are genetically flawed or genetically so fucking good at money shit that we literally run the whole world. It’s enough to give a Jew an identity crisis, for fuck’s sake.)

Anyway, Nazis and Soviets don’t get to define us–we do. And for many of us, the significant things about being Jewish have less to do with prayers and more to do with food, music, language, ethical values, history, overcoming oppression, bad jokes, holidays, drinking alcohol, arguing all the time, and so on.

Because Jews have historically tended to marry and have children with other Jews–not just for religious reasons but because non-Jews have typically wanted nothing to do with us–Jewish people are particularly susceptible to certain genetic abnormalities, and there are certain phenotypes particularly associated with Jewish people (i.e. My hair, olive skin color, and facial structure) just like there are with other ethnicities.

None of this means that all Jewish people are culturally, physically, or historically identical, and it’s extremely irritating when people use that as evidence against anything I just said. (It’s also extremely irritating that non-Jewish people feel the need to argue with anything I just said, period.) There are also distinct ethnic subgroups that evolved after Jewish people were expelled from the area now known as Israel/Palestine. The Ashkenazim, like me and my family, are the ones who ended up in Eastern Europe. The Sephardim settled in Spain and Portugal and were exiled from there in the 15th century. The Mizrahim hail from the Middle East and Central Asia. There are also smaller groups, such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia and the Kaifeng Jews from China.

These subgroups differ in lots of ways, including language, customs, and religious observance. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally speak Yiddish, name their children after relatives who have passed away (this explains both my first and middle names), and pronounce Hebrew differently than other groups of Jews. Sephardi Jews traditionally speak Ladino (and potentially tons of other languages depending on where exactly they were from), name their children after living relatives, and sometimes face racism from their Ashkenazi cousins, which is bullshit, but there ya go.

I could go into a lot more detail about non-religious aspects of being Jewish, but that’s a good start.

2) Belief in god isn’t particularly central in most Jewish communities and practices.

If you’re not Jewish, you may not believe me if I told you that in my many years of attending Jewish services, celebrations, and events in a variety of different traditions and communities, the subject of any individual’s belief (or lack thereof) in god hasn’t ever really come up. But it’s true.

While Jewish prayers and texts obviously reference god copiously (usually with terms like “Hashem,” “Elohim,” “Adonai,” and other clever ways to avoid using god’s actual name which is forbidden), individual belief in god isn’t central to most Jewish conceptions of how to be a good person. That tends to focus more on doing good deeds, not breaking commandments, and generally not being an asshole. I say “most” because of that whole thing about two Jews, three opinions. Jewish rabbis and scholars disagree with each other on just about every single detail of Jewish history or practice, and while certain views get a lot more consensus than others, the idea is that you’re supposed to argue about it.

So while there are probably rabbis out there who would say that I’m a bad person–or even “not a Jew”–because I don’t believe in god, they are in the minority and you’d probably have to go to certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Jerusalem that I honestly try to avoid in order to find them. I’ve never had a rabbi take issue with my personal beliefs. I’ve never been questioned about my personal beliefs at synagogue, or expected to express or defend them. I have never had a Jewish person of any level of observance react negatively to finding out that I’m an atheist; many of them simply say that they’re atheists too. The one time I clearly remember telling a rabbi that I don’t believe in god, it simply led to a friendly debate in which the rabbi challenged me to explain the mathematical improbability of life on earth. (You may not agree that it’s mathematically improbable, but regardless, nobody told me I was going to hell.)

The vast majority of rabbis and other Jewish leaders that I’ve interacted with did not express or even show any sign of judgment or dissatisfaction with me about my beliefs or level of observance. They simply wanted me to participate to whatever extent I felt comfortable, because they liked seeing more young Jewish people get involved in the community and help it grow and improve.

3) Because I fucking said so.

Here I have to admit that I find it irritating as all heck when random people (usually on OkCupid, usually with a skeptical tone) ask me “how” I can be both Jewish and an atheist. First of all, it’s eminently googleable. Try it.

Second, even if all of that stuff I just wrote wasn’t a well-known and accepted viewpoint within most Jewish communities–why does it matter?

People identify how they identify. There are also many atheists from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds who still include that in their personal identity, although they usually call it “ex-Muslim” or “lapsed Catholic.” But that’s because Islam and Catholicism don’t have a long tradition of secularism dating back centuries. Within Islam and Catholicism, atheists don’t get a prominent voice. As far as I know, there are no secular mosques or churches within Islam and Catholicism. There are secular synagogues, and rabbis who lead them.

Point is, many people who were raised Muslim or Catholic but who no longer believe in god still identify with various aspects of those cultures, whether it’s giving up something difficult for Lent, celebrating Eid, or simply acknowledging that their upbringing affects them even today and that whether or not they believe in god, they still care deeply about their religious families or about issues facing those religious communities.

Religion isn’t the only category in which some people have complex and seemingly contradictory identities. There are bi dykes and lesbians who sometimes date men and nonbinary femmes and people who identify with different genders depending on the day and mixed-race folks who call themselves “Black” in certain contexts and “mixed-race” in others and asexual folks who have sex and biromantic homosexuals and homoromantic bisexuals and straight queers and married poly people and Jewish atheists. Sound confusing? Good! It’s not supposed to be simple.

Identity is complicated because humans are complicated. The vast majority of the times you feel like someone’s identity is contradictory, it’s probably because you’re defining words much more narrowly than they are.

If you think that “Jewish atheist” makes no sense, chances are you have a very narrow and ahistorical view of what it means to be Jewish (and probably what it means to be an atheist, too). Chances are I’m one of the first Jewish people you’ve ever really talked to about what being Jewish actually means.

And I get that. I do. But I’m getting pretty tired of having to justify an identity that feels obvious to me and to provide evidence of my own existence.

Every time I hear “but how can you be both Jewish and an atheist,” it feels extremely invalidating. The way this question is usually phrased implies strongly that the correct answer is “you can’t,” and that I’m somehow mistaken about one or both of these identities, and that you, a person with no Jewish background and clearly very little Jewish knowledge, know better than me.

Here’s a fact: polls and studies consistently find that about half of Jewish people are agnostics, atheists, or otherwise doubters of god’s existence. Less than half of Jewish people consider themselves “religious.”

Jews who openly question god or deny god’s existence are hardly unknown and include Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Franz Kafka, Isaac Asimov, Howard Zinn, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Baruch Spinoza, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Albert Einstein.

So I think I’m in pretty good company, and I don’t need to be corrected when I say that I’m a proud Jewish atheist.


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“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”
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Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

Yes, I’m still alive and writing! I’ve spent the past few months enjoying life with medication for my sleep disorder and focusing on stuff like hiking, building friendships, baking bread, and learning how to ride a motorcycle. To that end, I’ve recently started a separate blog to document some of those adventures. But now I’m back with a Real Blog Post.

[Content note: sexual assault and abuse. Another note: This post discusses some dynamics common to many forms of violence and abuse, of which sexual assault is obviously a subset. This isn’t to conflate sexual assault with abusive relationships in general, but rather to acknowledge that they often go hand-in-hand and that most sexual violence involves someone the survivor knows.]

All too often a friend or client with a long history of abusive relationships or sexual violence asks me, “Why does this keep happening to me? How can I break out of this pattern?”

And most of the time, I’ve had nothing to say. The feminist perspective is that, because you are never to blame for violence or abuse, any “prevention” thereof has to focus on the perpetrator. Implying that there’s a way for you to keep yourself safe(r) by changing your own behavior is victim blaming.

As a response to our nauseating cultural tendency to interrogate survivors about their behavior and insist that they stay safe by dressing like nuns and locking themselves indoors (preferably with an armed guard), this makes sense.

But as I look at the scared but determined person sitting in front of me, asking me these questions, it seems incredibly unhelpful to say, “Well, it’s not your fault that this happens. The only person who can prevent abuse is the abuser. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Okay, now what? Are folks supposed to just sit around patiently waiting for us to replace rape culture with consent culture, teach everyone bystander intervention, establish real consequences for sexual assault, and ostracize all abusers from our communities?

Drawing the line between actual prevention advice and victim blaming is challenging, but it can be done. For starters, don’t give unsolicited advice, and especially don’t give unsolicited advice to someone who’s just disclosed to you that they’ve been the victim of someone else’s fuckery. That’s the sort of thing that makes you really come across like you’re blaming, whether you meant to or not.

Second, recognize that prevention strategies may not be accessible to everyone, every time. The leap from “this might help” to “you have an obligation to do this or else it’s your fault” is really more a hop than a leap in our culture. I think of it like this–many people learn defensive driving so they can try to avoid accidents caused by another driver. But just because you didn’t spot the warning signs of a collision this time doesn’t mean you’re now to blame for a crash caused by someone else. They’re still at fault. Their insurance still pays. The story is still “wow, some asshole totally ran a red right into my car” and not “I fucked up and failed to see that someone in my peripheral vision wasn’t actually decelerating as I drove legally through a green light at or slightly above the speed limit.”

And sometimes there are no warning signs.

Third, acknowledge that the vast, vast majority of advice intended to prevent sexual or emotional violence is bullshit. Most of it focuses on irrelevant factors that the advice-giver has a personal fixation on, such as what people wear or how nice they are to their abusers, and has nothing to do with reality. A lot of it demands that people drastically curtail their lives and freedom for what is, at best, a small increase in safety. For instance, if you stop going out and socializing, you’re probably less likely to encounter a would-be assailant or abuser because you’re not socializing, but at what cost?

Any prevention advice worth listening to has to begin from the premise that sexually and emotionally violent behavior is caused by the person who perpetrates it, and that if they’ve decided to behave that way, you can’t stop them by dressing some particular way or placating them somehow. What you can do is learn to recognize the red flags for such behavior and stay as far away as you can from people who display it.

Most resources about abuse focus on pointing out the signs that a relationship is abusive–for instance, they damage your property or pets, try to isolate you from friends or family, and so on. These signs are important and you should familiarize yourself with them, but the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they’re really hard to get out of. A lot of folks who have been in abusive relationships say that they were caught off guard–“When we first started dating, he was so sweet and loving. I never knew he had this side to him.” Abusers often wait quite a while before revealing their abusive traits and behaviors. By then, their partner is invested in the relationship and leaving would be difficult.

By in paying attention to how abusive people behave, I’ve noticed that they often start giving off red flags a lot earlier. Like, as soon as you meet them, in some cases. Most of us Just don’t see them as red flags. We may even see them as quirky, charming, or romantic.


1. Crossing boundaries. Abusers will often deliberately cross small boundaries to see how you respond. Many of us are vigilant about this when it comes to sex, but it happens in a lot of other contexts. Pushing you to talk about something you’re not ready to talk about, pressuring you to try activities that you’re scared of or uncomfortable with, calling you and apologizing when you said you needed space, showing up uninvited or as a “romantic” “surprise”–basically the plot of any romcom. Some of these things may be totally okay in a context where they’ve been mutually agreed-upon, but otherwise they indicate that your preferences aren’t that important to the other person.

A lot of people think that these small boundary crossings are no big deal even if they’re uncomfortable with them, but that’s because our culture often encourages us to ignore our own gut feelings about people. When people deliberately ignore your stated boundaries, that tells you a lot about who they are. Assume they’ll continue to ignore them, in ways big and small.

2. Making you uncomfortable as a “joke.” Some people seem to find it funny when others are scared or uncomfortable. I suggest staying far away from these people. There’s a huge difference between playing practical jokes on people in order to amuse everyone involved and actually relishing seeing them in discomfort, even if it’s momentary. Most people have a visceral negative reaction to seeing others in pain or distress. Those who have a positive reaction instead are likely to make you feel like crap in order to feel good themselves.

3. Blaming you for others’ choices. One way that red flags for abuse can show up very early on in a romantic relationship is when someone blames their partner for the fact that someone else flirted with that partner or asked them out. It’s a disturbingly common dynamic in monogamous relationships between men and women–the guy sees or hears about another guy asking his girlfriend out, and tries to deal with his jealousy by blaming her and accusing her of having somehow provoked it.

For many people, it’s normal to feel some type of way if someone else hits on their partner. But blaming their partner for a choice someone else made is controlling. And while this is already disturbing in and of itself, it also slides really easily into other, more overtly abusive dynamics. Abusers often blame their own behavior on their victims–“If you weren’t so ______, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” Abusers often convince themselves that some people (i.e. them) can’t be expected to control their own behavior, and that others should be expected to control it for them.

4. Using double standards. Do they get irritated at you whenever you’re late, but expect you to tolerate their own tardiness? Do they suddenly become tired or busy whenever you want to vent about something, even though they vent to you all the time? Abusers have a way of making others feel like nothing they do is good enough. One of the ways they do this is through double standards.

Aside from blaming others for their own behavior, as I discussed above, abusers will often find all sorts of excuses for their lower standards for themselves. “My job is really stressful; you can’t expect me to listen to you complain when I get home from work.” “I can’t not yell when I’m angry; it’s one of my mental illness symptoms.” You, on the other hand, will not be forgiven for anything, even if you also have a stressful job and a mental illness.If you want your partner to be okay with your lack of punctuality or willingness to listen to them vent, it’s unfair to expect those things from them. They may obviously still choose to be punctual or listen to you, but that’s different. You can also agree as a couple about what exactly to expect from each other. Just because I need you to take care not to wake me up when you come home late doesn’t mean you necessarily care about getting woken up when I’m the one coming home late. But if someone expects from you by default things that they have no intention of expecting from themselves, that’s a red flag.

5. Expressing bigotry towards people like you. If you’re in a relationship with a bigoted person, they may say things like, “You’re not like other girls,” or “I don’t even really see you as black.” They may say hateful and demeaning things about marginalized people and follow that up with, “But you know I don’t mean you.”

But that’s not how bigotry works. They may really see you that way–for now–but the moment you step out of line, it’ll be, “I thought you were different” and “Come on, don’t be like that.” Given the way bigotry and stereotypes work, your partner will probably use them against you whenever you try to set boundaries or advocate for yourself.

When you’re involved with someone who hates, fears, or looks down on people like you, it becomes your never-ending job to prove them wrong–even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. I’ve known a lot of people who were shocked when, in the middle of a heated argument, their partner suddenly spat out words they’d never heard them use–“whore,” “f****t,” “n****r,” “cunt.” I clearly remember a few moments when I suddenly transformed from a girl, a woman, a partner, into a fucking bitch. I knew then that to them, I was always just a step, a word, from being “like other girls.” From being a “fucking bitch.”

That’s why bigotry towards people like you is a red flag, no matter how kind and respectful they’re being towards you right now. And bigotry towards one marginalized group is good evidence of bigotry towards others.

6. Gaslighting. So much has already been written about gaslighting that I won’t give it much space here, but in a nutshell: gaslighting is denying and invalidating your feelings and experiences, making you feel like you could be wrong about your own perceptions. Gaslighting isn’t the same thing as disagreeing with you about your interpretation of something (“Are you sure this means she hates you? It sounds to me like she’s upset at you for what you said”); it’s disagreeing with you about something that you have knowledge of and the other person doesn’t (“I’m sure he didn’t really do that; he’s a nice guy”; “Come on, there’s nothing to be so upset about”). Gaslighting is usually pervasive in abusive relationships and it’s one of the main ways they function–by making the person being abused distrust or ignore their own perception of reality in favor of the abuser’s.

But gaslighting can also come up in subtle ways when you’re first getting to know someone, before they have enough influence over you to gaslight you “successfully.” Like I discussed above with boundary crossings, we often ignore these apparently-harmless interactions. For some people, especially men, gaslighting is practically a style of social interaction (especially when they’re interacting with women). While it may never escalate into something that would actually harm you, it’s at the very least annoying and at worst, potentially a very red flag.

A great way to test this when you’re first meeting someone is to tell them a story about a time you were hurt by someone, and how you felt. For maximum effectiveness, choose a story that involves someone that that person might identify with. If you’re on a first date with a white cis guy, tell him a story about a white cis guy. Watch him get really uncomfortable and start pulling out rhetorical moves such as, “Aren’t you overreacting a little?” and “It can’t have been that bad.” Then tell him it’s not going to work out and sashay away.

7. Saying one thing and doing another. 

One of the most destabilizing traits of many abusive or otherwise unsafe people is that they will repeatedly tell you what they intend to do and then do the opposite. It’s sort of a gaslighting-adjacent behavior in that it leaves you really confused and uncertain of whether or not they really did agree to whatever it is they said they’d do.

As an extreme example, I’ve known people who would ask their partner to put on a condom, and the partner would reply “Oh of course” and then literally proceed to have sex without the condom. But it also happens in non-sexual situations and with other types of boundaries, and although the person will often try to chalk it up to a bad memory or their own confusion, that’s rarely it. I once asked a partner to stop doing certain things that I found patronizing and described exactly which behaviors I took issue with, and that partner would agree to stop doing those things, but by next week would be doing them again.

I mean, could it be a memory issue? I suppose so. But if you can’t trust someone to remember your clearly stated boundaries, that’s a problem.


All of these behaviors could be (and frequently are) explained away as some combination of good intentions, mental illness symptoms, genuine miscommunication, garden variety human hypocrisy, and more. Doing a few of these things doesn’t automatically make someone an abuser.

But I encourage folks to move away from questions like “Did the person mean to be hurtful/controlling/etc” and instead ask questions like, “Does this work for me? Can I be in a healthy relationship with someone who acts like this?”

Assume, too, that these behaviors will escalate. Small boundary crossings will probably turn into bigger ones. “Oh, come on, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” turns into “How dare you accuse me of this horrible thing I never did.” “When I saw you sitting all alone and looking so beautiful, I couldn’t help but to come and talk to you” turns into “You can’t expect me to control myself when I’m turned on.”

Setting firm boundaries right away rather than waiting till later can help truly well-intentioned people improve their behavior, and convince the ill-intentioned ones that you’re onto them. “I don’t appreciate pranks like that.” “Stop asking me to try this [food/activity/drug/sexist TV show/etc]. I said no.” “Actually, you weren’t there; I was. I know what I experienced.” “Whoa, that’s pretty fucking racist and I don’t care if you think I’m an exception to that. I’m leaving.”

Feeling uncomfortable setting boundaries is normal and okay; it takes practice. But if you feel unsafe setting boundaries–if you’re actively worried that the person will yell at you, become physically violent, gaslight or guilt-trip you, or so on–that’s a red flag in and of itself. We will all need to set boundaries at some point in every close relationship, and in many casual or professional ones, too. If you have the option to avoid someone that you feel unsafe setting boundaries with, I suggest taking that option.

But we can’t avoid all abusive people forever; unfortunately, many of us will experience abusive family members, friends, partners, bosses, or others. Blaming people for “letting” abuse happen is one way that many people try to cope with that reality, but it doesn’t work and it’s unjust.

Sometimes, though, gut feelings and a good knowledge of how abuse works can help us NOPE out of potentially shitty situations before they develop. Hopefully this helps someone.


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Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

The idea that jealousy stems from personal insecurities rather than the actions of the person you’re jealous towards is a common introductory polyamory mantra. It’s important because we’re all coming at this from a culture that centers and compels monogamy (and an unhealthy and coercive extreme of it at that). One of the tenets of mononormativity is that in romantic relationships, people “make” each other jealous. You are jealous because I smiled at a cute person at the bar. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me.

This mentality allows people to blame each other for their own feelings and, sometimes, pressure each other to change their behavior. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me, so you’re not allowed to see her anymore except at social events, and if you do it anyway, then you have “broken a rule” and are obviously in the wrong.

While some people are probably able to make this work, they run a high risk of developing resentment towards their partners and making the issue worse rather than better. Instead of addressing why I have such a problem with you being friends with women, now I’m jealous about another of your female friends. I don’t want you seeing her that much, either.

Because this approach to managing jealousy is so common, it makes sense to encourage people to first look for the roots of jealousy in the fertile soil of their own insecurity. But once we move on from Polyamory 101, we need to acknowledge the fact that others’ actions can cultivate jealousy even in people who otherwise wouldn’t have felt it. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it isn’t. Some people try to artificially create jealousy as a way to control others.

First, a caveat that jealousy is a loaded and imprecise term that makes it really difficult to communicate effectively. That’s why I wrote this piece about different feelings that are often called jealousy. I’m using “jealousy” as an umbrella term here.

Unclear communication

Say I’m at a bar with my (nonmonogamous) partner, and while I’m off ordering a drink I notice them flirting pretty obviously with someone. After the person leaves, I sidle up to my partner and say, “Soooo, who’s that cutie you were talking to?”

There are basically two types of people at this point. One would say, “Oh, their name is Sam and they came over to compliment my Star Wars t-shirt. Think I should ask for their number?”

The other would say, “What? That was nobody. I don’t know them or anything. Why?”

Yes, even in poly relationships.

If you’ve ever had a partner get weird and cagey at you like that, you know that it’s a magical jealousy-inducing elixir. Sure, not everyone would care, but even I–with my solo poly, no-rules approach to things–would wonder why my partner is dodging the topic as if they have something to hide. Maybe I should feel bad about it.

Sometimes people get cagey like this because they’re still recovering from mononormative contexts in which virtually any interaction with a member of their preferred gender(s) needs to be shrouded in secrecy (not that caginess is effective there either). No matter how friendly or playful my tone, any variation on “Who’s that person you were talking to”/”Are you interested in them” sounds like an accusation and the learned response is to shut down.

Unfortunately, there is probably no way to have a healthy and transparent nonmonogamous relationship without occasionally asking a partner about someone they might be (or are) interested in, so you’ll probably have to work on that.

And, of course, people who have been in abusive relationships in the past may have learned to keep their cards close to the chest. But my argument isn’t that it’s always your fault; it’s that this communication style can cause jealousy even in folks who have worked through their insecurities.

Some people do it on purpose. They know that hedging and obfuscating is a way to create jealousy–which, of course, they can then blame on their partner. “I said it was nothing. You’re acting crazy.” The more subtle ones do it differently: “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been more clear with you. Of course you’d feel that way.” But then they simply do the same thing over and over.

In a healthy nonmonogamous relationship, someone’s desire to know more about their partner’s other interests/partners is treated as healthy and normal. While there are obviously things that you’re entitled to keep to yourself–especially when they involve another person’s privacy–trying to hide crushes or flirtation from a partner is a sign that something’s wrong. And if someone keeps basic information like “I’m interested in dating that person” from their partners and then turns around and blames them for feeling weird about it, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Comparison

Say my partner Alex also dates Sam. During a date with Alex, my chronic illness flares up and I regretfully ask if we can go home early so I can rest. Alex agrees, but sighs and says, “I wish this didn’t keep happening. At least with Sam I get to stay out late and have fun.”

Would you blame me for being a little jealous of Alex and Sam’s relationship?

That example was also horrifyingly ableist, but not all comparisons are so obviously awful. Say Alex likes smoking pot with their partners and finds it a really fun and meaningful way to spend time with someone. They ask if I’d be interested, and I say, “No, I’m not comfortable with pot.” Alex says, “Huh, really? I had no idea. Sam loves it.”

Alex probably didn’t mean anything by it, but saying no is already difficult for many people, and drugs are a difficult subject for a lot of people, and in this context, a lot of people would feel a little slighted. If I said no to something a partner asked me to do with them and they responded by immediately letting me know that another partner likes doing it with them, I’d wonder if they’re trying to pressure me, or subtly let me know that if I don’t do this thing with them, then something’s missing from our relationship.

Of course, in reality, poly people often do different activities with different partners, or admire different traits about them. I really love dancing, and during times when I didn’t have any partners who liked dancing, it was really nice to start dating someone new who does. In fact, it’d get a little boring to date a bunch of people who all like to do the exact same things.

But comparing people to each other, even if you mean no harm by it, is a really tricky area. The fact that Sam likes smoking pot has nothing to do with the fact that I just declined to. The fact that Sam is able to stay out really late has no bearing on whether or not my physical condition allows that.

That particular example is also a good illustration of how comparison can become coercive. If you’re comparing partners in order to make them feel bad about themselves, you’re not just triggering jealousy–you’re also abusing them.

New Relationship Energy

NRE–that feeling when you’ve just started crushing on or dating someone and you’re kind of obsessed with them and want to see them and talk to/about them constantly–is a big driver of jealousy. Long-term relationships eventually settle into a comfortable rhythm where you’re not necessarily desperate to constantly see, talk to, and have sex with each other–even though you’re probably very much in love and an integral part of each other’s lives.

When a new partner comes along, you may suddenly find yourself putting energy and attention into that relationship to a degree that you haven’t been with your preexisting partner(s). Suddenly you’re staying up all night to talk and have sex, telling everyone who will listen about this awesome new person you’re seeing, and responding emotionally to their every text or call in a way that you just wouldn’t when it’s someone you’ve been with for years. (I just can’t imagine myself screaming “OHMYGOD THEY JUST TEXTED ME” to my roommate when I’ve been dating them for two years, you know?)

For many people, NRE is normal and natural. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, and it can feel awesome. (Other people, like me, kinda hate that feeling, but that’s a separate issue.)

However, it can also bring up complicated feelings for the non-NRE partner. Maybe I’ve been kind of wishing we had sex more often and trying to find a way to bring it up, but now you’re having sex with someone else more in a week than we do in a month. Maybe I’ve wanted to have an occasional date night at a nice restaurant, but you said it’s not worth the money…but now you’re having those kinds of dates with someone else.

Even if you know your partner doesn’t “owe” you anything, it can still hurt when you’ve been communicating your desire for more/different connection and not getting it–and now your partner is doing that with someone else. It can also make you aware of needs and desires that you didn’t even realize you had. Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as an introvert and a homebody, but your partner describes an exciting date spent dancing at a club and you realize that you want to try that, too.

Often, the NRE partner has no idea their non-NRE partner is feeling this way, and an honest conversation can go a long way in helping them meet each other’s needs despite the NRE.

Some people, though, really do have a pattern of going “OOH SHINY” and ignoring/neglecting a preexisting partner in favor of a new one. Needless to say, it can be really, really destabilizing when a committed partner suddenly drops off the face of the earth because they’re interested in someone new. If that describes you, you might be better off dating casually or doing serial monogamy rather than polyamory.


In all of these examples, jealousy is a canary in a coal mine. The root of the problem isn’t that someone is feeling jealous. It’s that someone feels like their partner is keeping things from them, comparing them unfavorably to others, or tossing them aside in favor of someone new.

If you’re in one of these situations and you treat jealousy like a personal problem for the jealous person to “work on,” you miss an opportunity to address what’s really going on. You may also miss a major red flag for abuse–as I’ve discussed, some of these behaviors can become abusive if they’re part of a larger pattern of controlling someone else.

If you’re unsure whether or not that’s happening in your relationship, here are some troubling signs to watch out for:

  • Your partner insists that your jealous feelings are entirely your own problem to work on, and refuses to change anything about their behavior or help you through this process. (Even in non-hierarchical contexts where it’s not expected that people will prioritize one partner over another, partners should still support each other emotionally insofar as they have the capacity to. “That’s your problem, deal with it on your own” is, at best, a red flag.
  • Your partner psychoanalyzes you in order to blame you for your jealous feelings. (“If you’d stop comparing everyone to your one ex who cheated on you, maybe you wouldn’t feel this way.)
  • Your partner holds you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. For instance, when they feel jealous, they expect you to change your behavior, but when you feel jealous, they expect you to work through those feelings without any changes from them.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to happen right after an argument–especially an argument that ends with you doing something they don’t want you to do.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to be a way to get you to change your behavior somehow. (For instance, see my first example under “comparison.”
  • Your partner gaslights you–denies your experiences or reality. If you saw them talking to someone at the bar and they literally deny having talked to anyone at the bar, that’s pretty fucked up.
  • Your partner refuses to provide the sort of basic information nonmonogamous people need to know to maintain safety and healthy boundaries. If they won’t tell you how many other folks they’re seeing or what their level of physical involvement is with those people, you can’t make the decisions you need to make about your sexual health. Even if you’re using barriers for all forms of sexual activity, you deserve to have some sense of what your risk level might be. Someone who keeps this information from you is either completely unprepared for any sort of healthy relationship, or is actively trying to control you. This isn’t cool or mysterious or edgy; it’s controlling and dangerous.

Just like everything useful and catchy, the idea that jealousy originates entirely within the jealous person eventually outlives its usefulness. To make an ethical nonmonogamous relationship work–especially if you’re doing it without rules and hierarchies–you’ll have to examine jealousy in a more nuanced way.


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Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”

[Content note: high sodium]

Existing around other progressives right now often feels like being back in elementary school. “You’re the reason Trump got elected!” “No, you’re the reason Trump got elected!” “Your mom‘s the reason Trump got elected!” (Ok, that last one may actually be true.)

Some people who were apparently personally responsible for Trump being elected: trans people who want to use the right bathrooms, anyone who objects to being called a slur, radical leftists, center-leftists, Hillary supporters, Bernie supporters, college students concerned about cultural appropriation and pronouns, people who don’t want to be friends with people who think they don’t deserve basic rights, people who won’t cut off their Republican relatives or scream at them at the dinner table, anyone who doesn’t want to “just give Trump a chance,” anyone who wasn’t ready to Burn Down The System and Start the Revolution on November 9, anyone who is gasp invested in political issues that affect them personally due to their social category, Meryl Streep, and Meryl Streep’s fans.

An Archer meme reading, "Do you want Trump? Because that's how you get Trump."
This is what y’all sound like.

For good measure, some Republicans have jumped into this infantile blame game, too, which is a tad bit rich considering that Donald Trump was the candidate they nominated and all.

We have got to stop abusing each other like this.

Because that’s what it is. It’s undeniably abusive to fling Trump’s election at someone to shut them (and their opinions/feelings/boundaries/activism) down. We are facing, at best, 4 or 8 really difficult years, especially for marginalized people. At worst, we’re facing partial or complete dissolution of our democracy and the creation of an autocratic state. How about think fucking twice before blaming anyone who didn’t vote for Trump for that.

Everyone’s hurting, and when people are hurting they often look for ways to blame themselves, ways to blame others, or both. That’s natural. But your need to blame someone else and my depressive guilt and self-loathing are a terrible combination. Stop.

First of all, I’m extremely skeptical of any explanation of Trump’s election that can fit into a tweet, and I think you should be too. Whenever I say this I get the usual assload of glib responses, but that belies the fact that necessary conditions aren’t always sufficient conditions. Trump won because of sexism. Trump won because of racism. Trump won because of fake news. Trump won because of gerrymandering. Trump won because of the electoral college. Trump won because of the steady erosion of voting rights by Republicans. Trump won because of that whole motherfucking “alt-right”/Gamergate/manosphere septic tank that’s been gradually filling up online. Trump won because people in the Rust Belt are losing jobs and they believe that liberals/immigrants/Jews are to blame. Trump won because a lot of people hate liberals and wanted to hurt them. Trump won because Bill Clinton has no self-control and this apparently reflects on his wife for some reason. Trump won because of The Russians. Trump won because of James Comey. I could keep going.

Unless you personally created all of these conditions, you literally cannot be “the reason Trump won.” And if you want to actually understand what the fuck happened, you can’t just choose one or two of these as The Ultimate Reason and ignore all the rest.

Second, many of these claims function to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. For instance, “Trump won because of trans people who want to use the right bathrooms.” Obviously, you shouldn’t blame Trump’s election on trans people and if you don’t understand why that’s wrong I don’t know how to convince you.

However, it would probably help us understand what happened if we view Trump’s election as part of a backlash of the sort often happens in response to social change. One example is the backlash against the feminist movement, which Susan Faludi describes in her appropriately-titled book, Backlash. Another is the possibility that Obama’s presidency has caused a racist backlash–not really because of any of his specific actions or policies, but because many white people are furious at the existence of a Black President.

There’s no reason to assume that other recent advances in social justice couldn’t have provoked similar backlashes–although, really, it’s all kind of the same one–and perhaps developments like national same-sex marriage and increased media attention on trans rights have functioned the same way.

This doesn’t mean trans people are “to blame,” though. Regressive backlashes may be inevitable. The only way to avoid them is to avoid social progress. So if you’re a well-meaning white liberal who is tempted to decry “identity politics” as the cause of the situation we’re currently in, think about what you’re actually advocating. You are advocating against social progress.

And if you want to be accurate, don’t say that Trump won because of trans people and bathrooms. Say that Trump won because many Americans are still that offended at the idea that trans people are people, among other things that shouldn’t be controversial.

Regressive backlashes may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that Trump’s election or his policies were inevitable. For instance, Comey could’ve actually done his fucking job. Or, we could’ve collectively taken GamerGate as the warning that it was and started taking steps to recognize and respond to this type of rhetoric years ago.

Who knows? What does it matter now? Our benchmark now shouldn’t be doing what would’ve prevented Trump from being elected if we’d done it ages ago; it’s doing what will keep the damage at a minimum, protect our institutions (flawed as they are), and ensure a fair election in four years that elects basically anyone else.

Finally, it’s pretty damn fallacious to blame Trump’s election on someone’s response to Trump’s election, which is what a lot of these comments come down to. Trump cannot have been elected because of people protesting his election, or people disengaging from politics because of his election, or people yelling at bigots because of his election, or people doing anything else because of his election.

Of course, that’s not what’s literally meant. What’s literally meant is, “Because of the sort of person that you are, and because of the way you’ve been acting, you deserve to have this happen to you.” That’s where the abusiveness of it really comes in. Anyone who’s ever lived with an abuser knows it. “I wouldn’t have to hit you if you weren’t so stubborn.” “I only yell at you because you won’t shut up and listen to me.”

In fact, it’s not just a certain type of liberal white man who reasons this way about Trump; many of his voters apparently did. As I discussed in a previous article, many of them chose to vote for him in order to punish liberals for such impudence as enacting healthcare reform. “If you’d just stop trying to pass laws that allow you to survive, I wouldn’t have to do this to you.”

This is abusive, and I’m not letting anyone get away with it anymore.

The truth is that we all bear some responsibility for what happened. We could’ve volunteered (more). We could’ve resisted racism and Islamophobia, a lot more. We could’ve donated more money–well, some of us. We could’ve gotten involved in local politics. We could’ve listened better to all the people of color who knew what the fuck they were talking about.

That’s not the same as saying that this was your–your, you specifically, you who is reading this right now–fault. That’s the beauty and the curse of collective responsibility. We should’ve tried harder, and now we’ll have to try even harder than that.

But anyone who tells you that this election happened because of you and the type of person that you are and the things you care about and the way you set your boundaries is not only literally wrong; they are manipulating you to be less like you and more like them. If we are to accomplish anything of what we need to in these coming years, that’s the type of manipulation we will have to resist.


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“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”

The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual violence]

In discussions about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas song in which a man persistently pressures a woman to stay at his house instead of going home to her family for the night, many consent-aware people point out that given the time period in which the song was written, it should be interpreted as playful, fully-consensual banter.

Even the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” is meant as a jokey reference to how strong the alcohol is rather than the way we read it today–an implication that date rape drugs are involved. Viewed in its proper context, the song is actually a celebration of female sexual agency–something that wasn’t exactly condoned at the time–because the woman in the song is clearly looking for excuses to stay with the guy she likes.

Given my own cultural background, I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation because it’s exactly how I was brought up to expect these things to go. I’ve had consensual, fun interactions of this sort with partners. It was how I always interpreted the song growing up.

But as others have pointed out, even this interpretation means that women cannot say “yes” to sex directly and that’s nothing to be celebrated. That’s part of the problem. If men cannot expect women to say “yes” directly–if they’re taught that sometimes, “no” actually means “yes”–that creates way too much room for misinterpretation and sexual violence.

I’ve written about Guess Culture here a lot. The type of interaction presented in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of Guess Culture. The man in the song never comes out and says that he wants to have sex. In fact, he never even directly asks the woman to stay the night. Instead, he encourages her to stay later than she meant, have another drink, it’s so cold outside, you wouldn’t want to go outside in that, imagine how bad I’d feel if anything happened to you…

Likewise, the woman neither says, “I really want to stay over but I can’t this time,” nor “I’m not interested in you that way, I’m leaving.” Instead, she’s supposed to understand that the man is implying that he wants to have sex, and he’s supposed to understand that…this is where things get a little hazy. Critics of the song say that he’s supposed to understand that she’s actually not interested but won’t say so directly because she’s been socialized not to and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. People who think the song is fine say that he’s supposed to understand that she really wants to stay, perhaps even intends to, but feels obligated to first present this list of “excuses” to show that she’s a “good girl” who won’t just jump right into bed with someone.

And like I said, it could totally happen that way. I’ve had it happen that way. Maybe the specific people in this song are an established couple for whom this is an established consensual pattern. (But just because they’re an established couple for whom this is an established pattern does not necessarily make it consensual.)

The problem is that:

There is no way for the man to know if she’s saying yes or no.

And when your “yes” looks and sounds exactly the same as your “no,” you’re not communicating effectively. When your “hey, I’m really worried about you going out in this weather, please crash here for the night” sounds exactly the same as your “I’m having sex with you tonight whether you like it or not,” you’re not communicating effectively. But if you would like to violate people’s boundaries, having the latter sound exactly like the former is very clever.

That’s who this communication style is primarily serving.

When people say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that all rape is considered permissible in all circumstances, or that all sex is rape, or even that all sex without clear and explicit consent is rape. What we do mean is that our culture normalizes sexual practices and ways of interacting that sharply increase the likelihood that people will have sex with someone without their consent–that they will commit sexual violence.

One of the ways this works is plausible deniability. In our culture, someone can say something like, “But I totally thought they were into it! I thought they’d say no if they actually wanted me to stop!” and people treat this as evidence against sexual assault. Someone can intentionally violate someone’s boundaries and say the exact same thing and get away with it.

That’s why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is kind of terrifying regardless of the context it was originally written in, or the feelings of the hypothetical people in the song. In real life, a woman in that situation might feel wanted, cared about, and flirted with. Or she might feel pressured, coerced, and trapped. As the other person in that interaction, how are you supposed to know? You can’t.

I get that many people find these interactions fun and exciting. I get that it’s how many of us were raised. I get that even I might momentarily feel kind of unwanted if I playfully say, “Oh, I don’t think so, I really have to go…” and a partner immediately says, “Oh ok I’ll take you home right now then!” I get that for many of us, women and folks socialized as women especially, it can be hard to believe that someone really wants us if they don’t seem to “fight” for it.

But mind-reading is a hell of a flimsy hook to hang your bodily autonomy on.


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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

(Self-)Care in the Age of Trump

Over the past few years, the social justice and nonprofit spheres have been gradually building an awareness of the necessity of self-care for anyone who engages in the (often unpaid) emotional and intellectual labor of activism. While plenty of us–including myself–have critiqued the way that self-care is co-opted by those who want to exploit us, we’ve also recognized the fact that without it, people burn out and quit, and change is impossible.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the election of Trump seems to have reset a lot of that progress.

I’ve seen people seriously claiming that calls to engage in self-care are a tool of the neoliberal agenda. (If there’s any word that’s become uselessly vague these days, it’s “neoliberal.”) I’ve seen that horrible “don’t mourn, organize” quote over and over. (I’ll feel however the fuck I want, thank you.) I’ve seen people berating themselves (and sometimes others) for being too mentally ill to engage in certain forms of activism. I’ve seen people altering self-care memes to be about political activism instead, such as this one:

I don’t want to hate too much on this graphic, much less on the person who altered it, because it’s an important message. Yes, those of us who still care about basic things like justice should be actively trying to bring it about, and it’s useful to reflect on the concrete things you’ve done to make that happen rather than to just reassure yourself that the arc will magically bend on its own.

But I would’ve much rather seen this as a stand-alone message rather as a negation of something else–and no, the cute hashtag doesn’t make it any better. Actively doing things to make the world a better place is important, and reflecting on your happy memories is important. We shouldn’t be crossing out the latter to make room for the former.

I think a few things are going on here. One is that some progressives, noticing that corporate interests have co-opted concepts like self-care and mindfulness in order to extract more labor for less money, have decided that this somehow means that these concepts are now meaningless. While I put the bulk of the blame for this on those corporate interests, I also think that anyone who accepts their redefinition is unintentionally colluding with them. Whether or not your employer makes you attend vapid corporate trainings on self-care, you can still decide that you, personally, need real self-care and that real self-care is important for others. You’re not going to stick it to the man by running yourself ragged.

Second, there’s a lot of activistier-than-thou posturing going on right now. Just like college students brag about how little sleep they got the night before the final, some activists hope that by appearing superhuman and beyond such petty earthly concerns as letting yourself feel happy about the good things in your life, they can impress others–or themselves.

Third, some progressives think that self-care is only for times when political action is less urgent, less life-and-death. It’s for when oppression and injustice are at their usual levels, not for when we’ve elected a sexual predator who gets saluted by Nazis.

I can understand that. When considered out of context, it does seem a little weird to just sit there filling a jar with happy memories while our democracy collapses. If anything, though, now is when keeping yourself recharged is especially important. First of all, that’s the only way we can get anything done. If I burn out, the world loses my contributions, possibly forever. If I keep myself from burning out, I can keep contributing, possibly for the rest of my life. It’s because this is a marathon and not a sprint that self-care is so important right now.

Second, what we’re up against is a regime that wants us to feel like shit. Trump’s America is designed to be a place where women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and other marginalized people feel terrified and unwanted. That was the basis of Trump’s campaign, and it was the motivation of many (if not all) of his voters. If you can somehow resist that, you are resisting Trump. Self-care in this context is resistance. It’s not a form of resistance that’s accessible to everyone, but if it is accessible to you, why not use it?

And speaking of resisting Trump, that brings me to another form of resistance that many progressives are discounting and ignoring. In a healthy community, self-care is accompanied by plain old care–people caring for each other, and not just for their romantic partners, either. To survive Trump, we will have to care for each other even more than we already do. We will have to check in with each other, support each other, comfort each other, entertain each other, energize each other, encourage each other, love each other. This is emotional labor, and it’s not easy, and you can’t always do as much of it as you want for everyone that you want (let alone everyone that wants it from you), but it’s vital work and it has to be done.

I see people asking each other how many congressional representatives they’ve called, how many protests they’ve attended, how many bigots they’ve yelled at, how many Republican family members they’ve argued with, how much money they’ve donated and to how many organizations–how about how many friends have you listened to? How many hands have you held? How many wounds have you treated?

I don’t necessarily think we should quantify it like that, by the way. But if we’re going to make it about numbers, we should be counting all of the things that matter. And we should be keeping in mind that these quieter, less flashy acts of resistance are the very same ones that are feminized, racialized, and too often discounted altogether.

Armies don’t fight wars without doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. So why should we?

In the past, I saw more activists talking about this. People used to talk about how we’re not all social justice warriors; some of us are clerics, healers, and bards. Where are the clerics, healers, and bards in the fight against Trump?

One of them is right here, and is fucking tired of being told that care is a frivolity we can no longer afford.

Kindness to yourself and to others is neither hippy-dippy bullshit nor neoliberal propaganda, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying either to manipulate you or to escape accountability for their own unkindness.


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(Self-)Care in the Age of Trump

“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism

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There’s been a lot of left-wing hand-wringing (say that five times fast) about alleged Republican/Trumpist “hypocrisy” lately. They mock our safe spaces, but they want their own! They accuse us of suppressing free speech when we boycott, yet they boycott companies for removing advertising from Breitbart and movies for having women and people of color in them! They don’t think poor people deserve health insurance and opposed the Affordable Care Act, but now they’re upset they might lose their Medicare!

I’m not saying these positions aren’t ridiculous and wrong. But I’m going to suggest that “hypocrisy” isn’t a helpful lens through which to try to understand them. Tribalism is.

I wrote in a previous post about Trump voters that we underestimated the importance of tribalism in this election outcome:

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Tribalism is a feature of human group behavior in which loyalty to one’s group takes precedence over other values that we’d generally consider important, such as morality, empirical accuracy, thinking for one’s self, and so on. Obviously, tribalism exists for a reason and was probably once very adaptive, insert evopsych here, blah blah.

It’d be convenient if tribalism only applied to groups that have deep significance and importance for their members, such as religions, ethnicities, and political beliefs. That’d be difficult enough to manage, but unfortunately, tribes can develop over completely fucking random things. When research participants are randomly assigned to groups named after colors, they still somehow manage to develop a group identity around that and start to denigrate the other group. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen this firsthand. (Seriously, y’all. Those teams are totally fucking random. I just picked the one that looked prettiest.)

It’s not exactly a new or controversial opinion that tribalism has completely overtaken actual policy positions as the dominant force in American politics–if in fact it was ever the other way around. But I still see a lot of folks ignoring the implications of this and being really confused about why Trump supporters ask for their own safe spaces while denigrating ours, boycott companies and film franchises they don’t like while bashing progressives for doing the same, and receive government assistance while voting for politicians who repeatedly state an intent to limit that assistance.

It’s not because they oppose safe spaces, boycotts, or government assistance. It’s not because they’re confused or stupid. (I apologize for the ableist language, but it’s what progressives have been saying, so it’s what I’m refuting.) It’s not because they’re “hypocritical” in any meaningful sense of the word.

It’s because they think that they deserve safe spaces and government assistance, and we don’t. It’s because they think their boycotts are brave fights for justice, and ours are whiny, dangerous attempts to repress free speech. It’s because when we ask for safe spaces, we’re making mountains out of molehills and need to toughen up, whereas their needs are valid and urgent. It’s because they worked hard and deserve help from the government when they need it, but we’re lazy and that’s why we’re asking for help. It’s because if anyone’s actually oppressed around here, it’s white conservatives, especially men.

Obviously, factual reality defies these explanations, but what progressives call “factual reality” is just the liberal propaganda that the media is pushing, and they know it’s wrong because it’s liberal. As I said: Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon these beliefs because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

Whenever I’ve pointed out a conservative’s apparent hypocrisy to them, I’ve gotten nowhere because they insisted that the two things I was comparing were completely different. Sometimes they will even go so far as to say something like, “Those people don’t deserve [help/respect/a living wage/political autonomy/representation/life] because they’re bad people. I’m not.” Other times they’ll utilize the just world fallacy to claim that those people are to blame for whatever bad thing is happening to them. This is how you get, for instance, Jews who lost loved ones in the Holocaust and now think that Israel should literally kill all Palestinians. It’s not that they actually think that sometimes killing innocent people is okay and sometimes it isn’t. It’s that they think that the people currently being killed are not innocent.

But Trumpists don’t just hate marginalized people; they also hate liberals/progressives. As Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, much of this election result can be attributed more to trying to get back at liberals for such insults as putting a Black man in the White House and legalizing same-sex marriage than to pursuing any particular policy agenda of their own. Supporters of Sanders and Clinton tended to celebrate the positive changes they hoped their candidates would bring about as President; supporters of Trump seemed much more excited about frustrating, angering, or even terrifying liberals.

That’s why even if you have a lot of privilege, you are unlikely to successfully convince a Trump voter of anything. Back when I used to argue with conservatives, the responses I most often got from them weren’t things like “You’re wrong about the facts” or “I disagree that those are important values” or even “What you’re suggesting isn’t practical”; it was “That’s just liberal bullshit.” And that’s why I stopped arguing. Anything I said was automatically classified as “liberal bullshit,” and by the way, this was the case whether I used “controversial” language like “white privilege” or not. Anything I said was liberal bullshit because I was a liberal. I was not Them.

How do you fight this type of thinking? I’m not sure, but it’s one of many reasons I don’t think patiently debating policy positions or the humanity of marginalized people will help. Because it’s not about the specific opinions. It’s about allegiance to your tribe.

In order to change your mind, you have to be willing to give up that allegiance first. And most people–left or right–aren’t.


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“Hypocrisy” is Often Just Tribalism

Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

Donald Trump’s mental health diagnosis, if he even has one, is almost entirely irrelevant to any of the questions we are trying to answer about our future and is a pointless and dangerous distraction that we cannot afford.

I regularly diagnose people with mental illnesses. I am myself diagnosed with a mental illness. As far as I can tell, these diagnoses have a few main functions:

  1. Insurance billing. Your insurance company needs to see something from the doctor justifying the money they’re spending on you.
  2. Research. Participants in studies have to be systematically categorized somehow, because a treatment for depression symptoms may not work for eating disorder symptoms and we need to know which it works for.
  3. Treatment. You and your therapist or doctor can use diagnoses to figure out a course of treatment that’s most likely to be effective, and to know what to try next if that doesn’t work. You can also use it on your own to find books and other resources that might help you or a loved one with coping skills and self-acceptance.
  4. Community. When people know what their diagnoses are, they can use those labels to find others who have very similar issues and build solidarity with them.

Notice what’s not anywhere on that list? Predicting a stranger’s future behavior.

Suppose you know that Donald Trump qualifies for the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. What exactly does this knowledge change? How does it impact your predictions of Trump’s future behavior or your decisions about your own behavior? How is a world in which Trump technically fits those criteria different than a world in which he doesn’t technically fit those criteria?

The only halfway-reasonable answer I’ve ever seen anyone give to any of these questions is that maybe if a fancy doctor examines Trump and concludes that he fits the criteria for some or other mental disorder, then people will finally realize that he’s unfit to be president.

First of all, that’s just false. Trump has been accused of sexual violence by numerous women, saluted by actual Nazis, and implicated in numerous cases of fraud. A bunch of clinical jargon isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion on anything if none of those things have. And given what I’ve gathered from Trump supporters by actually listening to them, many of them don’t recognize the validity of psychiatry, the DSM, or mental healthcare in general.

Second, Donald Trump is going to become president on January 20, 2017. Do whatever you need to do to cope with that knowledge, but it’s going to happen no matter which billing codes his doctors send to his insurance company.

Third, if–after the sexual violence and the fraud and the nepotism and the tax evasion and the naked racism and the probable interference of Russia in the election–it’s mental illness that makes people finally see Trump as unfit for office, that is horrifying.

What that says is that our unjustified, irrational fear of people with mental illnesses is more powerful than the collective evidence of someone’s past behavior.

That being a person with a mental illness is worse than being a rapist.

Worse than stealing the labor of working class people who need that income to put food on the table.

Worse than threatening to imprison and deport innocent people, and having the power to actually do it.

Worse than pandering to Nazis and dictators.

What does that say about the millions of people who share Trump’s supposed diagnosis?

And as awkward as I find it to disagree with a bunch of Harvard psychiatrists with much more experience than I have, we don’t need an expert neuropsychiatric evaluation to tell us that Trump is unfit for office. We already know because he provides evidence of this daily and has been doing so since he first emerged in the public spotlight. We elected him anyway.

And there’s both the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that you can never predict with anywhere near-certainty what someone will do in the future, especially if it’s not someone you know personally. People surprise us every day. It would be nice if we could magically divine a complete catalog of the disasters that Trump will cause while in office, but we can’t. Knowing which DSM criteria he fits will not help with that, and it may even obfuscate it even further.

The good news is that there is one fairly effective way of predicting someone’s behavior, and that is by observing their current behavior and reflecting on their past behavior. Trump has a long and clearly-evident record of dishonesty, boundary violations, fraud, discrimination, nepotism, harassment of journalists and other critics, conservative politics, and other things that most of us generally dislike. It’s a safe assumption that he will continue to do these things in the future.

Mental health diagnoses, on the other hand, are very poor predictors of behavior because the causative link between mental illness symptoms and outward behaviors is much more complicated than simple cause-and-effect. Diagnoses mostly describe internal processes, such as feeling hopeless or thinking everyone’s out to get you, and not outward behavior (although outward behavior can help identify internal processes). Someone who really wishes they were dead may or may not ever attempt suicide or even self-harm. Someone who is scared of elevators may or may not choose to use them anyway for any number of reasons. Plenty of people with depression hide it perfectly even from people who know them well. Someone experiencing hallucinations that tell them to jump out a window may or may not realize that the voices are a symptom of psychosis, and may or may not be able to ignore them and stay away from windows.

Personality disorders, which is what people typically associate Trump with, are an even more complicated thing. For starters, many professionals are skeptical of their validity as diagnoses in the first place because they’re extremely subjective and based much more on local norms of social behavior than on what is actually harmful or distressing for the patient. Regardless, we typically do not diagnose something as a personality disorder unless it’s maladaptive for the individual being diagnosed or they’re unhappy with the way they are. That others are unhappy with the person’s behavior doesn’t count. Trump does not seem to be unhappy with his behavior and you could hardly argue with a straight face that it’s been maladaptive for him.

In any case, I work with individuals with personality disorders on a regular basis and while knowing their diagnosis certainly predicts some of their symptoms–that’s literally the point of a diagnosis–it doesn’t necessarily predict their outward behavior, especially not when it comes to complex roles like running a government. That’s because, as I wrote above, diagnoses mainly describe internal processes.

Having a few random experts declare that Trump officially has a mental illness will not remove him from office or undo any of the harms he has already done or will do by that time. If it could, then we’d have to have a difficult conversation to have about just how badly we want to fuck over ordinary people with mental illnesses for the sake of removing from office someone that we elected in the first place, because that would mean that nobody with a history of mental health treatment will ever be able to hold elected office in this country again.

But it won’t, so the conversation we should be having instead is whether or not we will continue to attribute everything we don’t like in ourselves to mental illness, or whether we will stop demonizing those of us who suffer from it and instead aim our arrows at the proper targets.


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Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

Niceness and Kindness

When deciding how to act, I find it helpful to distinguish between niceness and kindness.

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between nice and kind. But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

And a lot of the time, that’s okay. It’s tempting to elevate kindness above niceness as the clearly superior way of interacting, but it’s not. First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

Trying to insert kindness into situations where it’s not warranted and wasn’t asked for can also mean giving people unsolicited help or advice. You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested. That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

I mentioned earlier that too much kindness, or kindness at inappropriate times, can look like trying to help people when they don’t want it or in ways they don’t need. Too much niceness looks like trying to manipulate people’s emotions by keeping them from ever being upset–specifically, upset at you.

Excessive niceness can also be extraordinarily unkind. If you continue a relationship you don’t want to be in so that you don’t hurt the person’s feelings, that prevents them from coping with the truth, moving on, and maybe putting their energy into finding someone who actually wants to be with them.

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.


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Niceness and Kindness

The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Over and over again this conversation happens:

“Anyone who voted for Trump is racist and sexist.”

“Well, you’re never going to convince them of anything if you call them that.”

Leaving aside the fact that not everyone particularly cares at this point about convincing them of anything or thinks that’s even possible, this conversation is unproductive because the people in it are talking past each other.

The fact that we acknowledge that Trump voters are racist and sexist doesn’t mean we have to open a discussion with one of them by announcing that they are racist and sexist, and the fact that we may use different language to try to engage with Trump voters doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a potentially crucial theoretical framework in our own heads and spaces. You can think something without saying it out loud in a particular situation.

Personally, I don’t care a whole lot about which words we happen to call Trump voters; what we call them for the purposes of our own internal conversations doesn’t change what they do and what they believe. As I discussed in my last post, right-wingers have made their beliefs about various social groups abundantly clear, and whichever words you chose to use to describe those beliefs, they are still out there, and still affecting public policy and group behavior in measurable, observable, and harmful ways.

However, I think that words like “racist” and “sexist” are appropriate descriptors for Trump voters for two reasons: 1) the majority of them would endorse statements that easily fit the definitions of those words, such as “Black people are more dangerous than white people” and “Women aren’t fit to be president”; and 2) even those who would not endorse those statements still voted for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern American history, who has stated an intent to harm marginalized people in multiple ways.

Racism and sexism aren’t just about beliefs. They’re also about behaviors. Someone who truly believes in racial equality but for whatever reason refuses to hire people of color to work at their company is acting in a racist way. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about race but helps elect someone who repeatedly states an intent to violate the civil rights of particular racial groups is also acting in a racist way. I get that it’s difficult to think of your actions as having consequences when elections are decided by millions of votes, but the fact that millions of people are equally responsible doesn’t mean you aren’t.

One of the few things I think that the edgy white liberal thinkpieces are getting right is that, indeed, screaming “You’re sexist!” at a Trump voter probably won’t make them change their minds about their sexism or about voting for Trump. Thankfully, nobody has seriously suggested that it would; believe it or not, the people of color and women who have been writing about this problem for years have much more nuanced suggestions than that.

The problem with screaming “You’re sexist!” at Trump voters is threefold: 1) screaming at people usually causes them to shut down and stop learning, which is why I don’t recommend it in any situation that is meant to be educational; 2) labeling someone’s behavior “sexist” doesn’t actually tell them what they did wrong or what you would like them to do differently; and 3) if you do use it as a jumping-off point to explain what exactly they did wrong and what you would like them to do differently, you probably won’t get anywhere because they probably disagree that those things are wrong.

For instance, I’ve been in arguments with conservatives about Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in which I would claim that the system is racist because it disproportionately targets people of color, especially Black men, as potential criminals and treats them more harshly than others. The conservative would respond that that’s because people of color, especially Black men, are much more likely to be criminals. I would point to data that show that there is overall no racial difference in criminal activity; that whites are actually more likely to commit certain crimes; that the data that shows that Black people are more likely to commit crimes is based on convictions and it’s also been shown that they are more likely to get accused and convicted (including falsely) in the first place and etc etc etc. And the conservative would say that that data is just liberal propaganda and that everyone obviously knows that Black people are simply more dangerous than white people, so I should be thanking our brave police forces for keeping me safe from them. I would point out that in our country it’s supposed to be unconstitutional to execute a criminal, actual or suspected, on the street without a trial. They shrug and say that sometimes bad things happen and I can’t let that get to me.

(These experiences, plus research about persuasion, have convinced me that there’s literally no point in arguing with someone by presenting them with factual evidence they disagree with.)

If you define “racism” to someone and they disagree that it’s a bad thing, then obviously you’re not going to get anywhere by telling them that they did something racist. If they do think it’s a bad thing, they’ll just waste your time arguing about how what they said or did isn’t actually racist and that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

(While it’s plausible that calling Trump voters sexist and racist will just reinforce their belief that liberals look down on them and hate them, contrary to the thinkpiece du jour, I don’t think that this is what literally created the systems of sexism and racism in this country. I’m pretty sure the transatlantic slave trade predated Vox.com significantly.)

None of this means that we shouldn’t consider them sexist and racist. As I also discussed in my previous post, sugarcoating, euphemizing, or simply ignoring conservatives’ beliefs about various social groups is not going to be helpful in defeating their ideology. You may choose not to come at a Trump voter accusing them of hating women, but you need to keep in the back of your head the fact that they would probably endorse lots and lots and lots of sexist statements–or at least not be very bothered by them.

If we acknowledge that Trump supporters are racist and sexist and just about every other kind of -ist, that changes our behavior and predictions in a few ways. First of all, that informs us what Trump can and can’t get away with. Friends of mine have joked that after all of these allegations–sexual assault, fraud, tax evasion, and so on–the only thing Trump could do that would actually lose him a significant number of supporters is come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s also clear that just about anything he does to target marginalized people, no matter how flagrant, will be met with either tacit approval or open celebration by his supporters.

If we assume that Trump supporters endorse many bigoted beliefs, then we cannot appeal to their better natures to stop him. It seems that so far, Trump voters who regret their choice regret it mostly because he has not tried to imprison Hillary Clinton and because his fellow Republicans are hoping to dismantle Medicare.

Second, when it does come to engaging with Trump supporters, awareness of their bigotry can help you choose the best approach. Nothing he has said about women, people of color, or other marginalized people will be relevant. It won’t be like talking left-wingers out of supporting Hillary Clinton. You will have to show how Trump is a threat to the sorts of American values they do hold dear, such as free speech and relatively unregulated markets.

Third, acknowledging the bigotry of the Republican base is, honestly, a vital self-care tactic for marginalized people. Over and over we have been told that it’s not that, it’s that they love Jesus and want to spread his love, it’s that they’re worried about their taxes, it’s that they want to see their values reflected in our culture just like anyone else would, it’s that they want their jobs back, it’s that the Democrats have ignored their needs, it’s that globalism has shut down their factories so of course they’d be against trade agreements, it’s that some of these immigrants are probably bad people so naturally we should vet them carefully, it’s that the police have very stressful jobs so you can’t blame them for freaking out sometimes, it’s that Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs and so are they, it’s that marriage is supposed to be for procreation, it’s that if you work hard you won’t be poor or homeless, it’s that if you do something sinful like have premarital sex it’s only fair that you should have to face the consequences, it’s that fetuses are living babies, it’s that they miss the way things used to be when everyone knew their place and nobody asked for more than what they got, it’s anything but the fact that they simply believe that men are better than women, white people are better than non-white people, and LGBTQ people are disgusting abominations altogether.

And almost all of us, to a person, grew up with that awful buzzing voice in the backs of our minds: What if it’s me? What if I’m the problem? What if I’m disgusting, sinful, ugly, criminal, dangerous, lazy, stupid, sick? What if I’m a bitch, an outsider, a slut, an animal? What if I deserve everything they’ve done to me, and everything they still intend to do?

The reason marginalized people have been so adamant about naming Trump and his supporters for who they are isn’t because we still have much hope that they’ll feel even a twinge of shame, but because naming them for who they are is how we survive them.

Naming bigots as bigots allows us to stop blaming ourselves for our own oppression. And as soon as we’re able to direct blame outward rather than inward, we become able to fight it.


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The Importance of Naming Bigotry