The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality

A lot of folks have been asking, “How do we protect our own emotional health without normalizing what’s going on?”

They’re speaking to the tension between being horrified, terrified, and disgusted by what’s happening and what’s about to happen politically, and yet still being able to get up in the morning and go to work or do whatever it is you do and function as if life is, well, normal.

To be honest, I don’t know. And to be honest, I really feel the temptation to just assimilate this into my model of the world and go on with my life as if it’s no big deal.

Of course, doing so is dangerous because it breeds complacency. If this is normal and no big deal, why fight against it? If it’s normal for our country’s leadership to casually throw around ideas like Muslim registries and internment camps, what can be done anyway? If swastikas all over everything is just a thing that happens now, why bother?

So we must retain our capacity for horror, even as it drags on year after year and threatens to feel less and less horrifying.

On the other hand, I also know this: no living thing is meant to live with unrelenting stress. Our stress response evolved to help us escape life-threatening but temporary situations. It spurs us to action that quickly burns through our reserves of energy but is meant to get us to a place where we can safely rest.

One of the ways in which mental illness can develop is that this physiological response is fired up constantly due to trauma, abuse, adverse life events, overly stressful jobs, and so on, to the point where we never have relief. It’s not meant to work that way, and depression and anxiety result.

That sort of constant stress can also lead to physical health problems, and it’s one reason (along with healthcare disparities and so on) why marginalized people tend to have worse health outcomes. The added stress of constant racism or other forms of bigotry takes both a physical and a psychological toll.

The reason so many of us are feeling such a strong urge to just accept our new political reality and move on isn’t just because activism is hard or because we’re lazy or whatever. It’s because, unfortunately for progressive politics, that’s actually the psychologically adaptive response. You’re not a bad person or a bad activist if it feels like your brain is urging you to move on.

This isn’t to shame anyone who can’t move on. Many people aren’t anywhere near feeling “normal” about this election because of preexisting trauma, mental illness, or any number of other factors that prevent them from “getting used to it.” That can make it even harder for them to go on with their lives, but that’s not their fault.

But if you are fighting the impulse to normalize, know that you’re to some extent fighting with biology. That doesn’t make you wrong and biology right–we fight and control our instincts all the time, often for our (and others’) greater good. That just means that you shouldn’t blame yourself if it’s hard and you sometimes fail.

As I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with this myself. I’m still very much in the place I was in my previous post, and I’m still dedicated to giving myself space to move through my own feelings rather than shoving them aside for others’ sake. The thing is, if I don’t normalize at all, I’m going to burn out. And not only is that horrible for me, and for all the friends and family and partners who depend on me, and for my parents who cosigned on my $160,000 of student loans and will have to pay them if I become too depressed to work, and for my clients who depend on me to provide them with mental healthcare–it will also be ultimately bad for any sort of activism or organizing that I was supposed to be involved in, because then I won’t be doing it at all.

And if I were going to give any actual advice in this post, it would be this: be on guard for the possibility of burnout, and know that you owe it to yourself to do what you need to do to protect your own health. And the people who depend on you need you in good health, too. But more importantly, so do you.

The struggle against normalization also belies the fact that, unfortunately, what’s happening right now actually is kind of normal on a global and historical scale. It may be relatively abnormal in the United States, but many people have already lived through it. The fact that I was raised by such people might by why I’m simultaneously so triggered and so resilient–triggered because unlike them, I don’t yet have the confidence that I can survive it, but resilient because I’ve learned some of their coping skills. No matter how bad things get, my parents spend time with their loved ones, do “silly” things like watch bad crime shows to relax, invest in their work, take care of their health, and do things they enjoy. Oppressive governments are entirely normalized to them, and they survive. To some extent, they’ve passed that down to me. It’s hard for me not to feel like this is just the way of things.

That said, we don’t have to conflate normalization with acceptance. That swastikas and casual references to mass internment may be normal here right now doesn’t mean we have to let them remain normal forever. We can’t let them remain normal forever.

That means that we may have to look beyond emotional reactions to motivate our activism. If your main motivator is the anger you feel when you witness bigotry or when Trump opens his mouth (so, when you witness bigotry), you may stop acting when the anger stops coming. And for many of us, it will, because our brains can’t sustain that level of emotional response for four-plus years.

Since I’ve never really been motivated by negative emotions–for me it’s more about the satisfaction of doing something that I think is meaningful and effective–I’m not actually that concerned that I’ll stop doing things once the pain of this election outcome stops feeling so raw. Actually, I’ll probably be doing more things because I won’t be so fucking overwhelmed with despair.

And if you think about it, many of the things we fight against–racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on–have always seemed “normal” to us because we grew up steeped in them. That didn’t stop us from fighting. The threat we face now is of a different type and a different degree, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t feel both normal and unacceptable at the same time.

Something I’m going to try to do to maintain both my sanity and my outrage is to set aside times for doing political things and times where I’m going to keep political things out of my head and out of the conversation. Sometimes I’ll sit down for an hour or two to read the news and write a letter to my representative and feel angry and worked up during that time, but then I need other times where I am free to not think about that stuff at all, to not give a fuck about it. Not everyone is able to achieve that sort of compartmentalization–it’s something that comes easy to me after a lifetime of necessity–but if you can, it might help you.

So I suppose my final answer to the question I opened with is that, for the most part, you cannot maintain your mental health without doing some amount of normalizing, or whatever else it takes to gradually reduce your stress response so that you can function rather than sobbing for days on end like I did right after the election.

But it matters how you normalize–what language you use, and what you do in response. “Trump’s not that bad I guess” combined with no action is disastrous if enough people adopt it; “It is currently normal in our country to advocate mass internment and I must act against it” would be a very beneficial attitude for people to take, even though it doesn’t necessarily involve getting your blood pressure up at each mention of mass internment.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to resist their urge to accept this are the people least likely to be reading this article or worrying about normalizing horrible things to begin with. If you’re worried that this will become normal to you and you’ll stop caring, I’d predict that you probably won’t stop caring. But, of course, you know yourself best.

And again, if you cannot normalize, you don’t have to, and I hope you can find a way to be okay without it. But if you can, that’s not a personal failure; that’s your brain trying to protect you. You don’t have to let it, but you’re also allowed to put your own oxygen mask on first.


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The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality
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What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Now that we’re deep in the latest irritating round of internet hand-wringing over college students and their political correctness, I’m watching again this dynamic:

Students want something. They want a “controversial” (read: openly hateful towards women, people of color, etc) speaker disinvited from a campus event, or they want a designated safe space, they want a professor investigated for what they perceive to be a Title IX violation, or whatever. They advocate for this via newspaper editorials or marches or signs. The administration agrees and does the thing. Then the administration and the media blame the students for the action as if they had the power to make it happen themselves rather than simply argue in its favor.

And I’m thinking, where have I seen this before?

Oddly enough, I have seen this before in polyamorous relationships.

It happens like this: John and Jane are in a serious open relationship that involves a pretty high level of emotional support. Jane and Jill are also partners, but a little more casual. Jane has a date with Jill tonight, but John is having a pretty bad day and would like her to reschedule it and stay home with him instead. He’s not telling her to cancel, but makes it clear that he’d really prefer it if she did and that his mood will probably get even worse if she doesn’t. Jane wants to be supportive of John, but she doesn’t want to cancel on Jill at the last minute because that’s not fair to her and implies that John is more important to her. At the same time, she also doesn’t want to feel responsible for John’s even-worse mood or risk the possibility that this will erupt into a fight later.

So Jane does what many poly people do in this situation. She cancels with Jill, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight because John’s having a bad day and he wants me to stay home.”

It may seem like a totally reasonable thing to say, but notice how it conveniently displaces the responsibility for the decision entirely away from Jane and onto John. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go on the date; it’s that John doesn’t want her to.

In fact, it would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cancel tonight because John is having a bad day and I want to be there for him.” Jane didn’t cancel because John forced her to. It’s not that she “can’t go tonight”; it’s that she is choosing not to go because she wants to stay home with John. This can be spun in either a positive or a negative direction: on the one hand, she’s staying home because she cares about John’s feelings and doesn’t want him to feel even worse; on the other hand, she’s staying home because she wants to avoid having a difficult conversation with John about these types of situations and she doesn’t want to deal with her own feelings about potentially making John’s bad day even worse.

And while that latter alternative might seem monstrous to many people, it’s not as unreasonable as it seems and it is in fact how many people, for instance me, prefer their relationships to work. I have been the person feeling crappy and knowing that I would feel better if my partner canceled their plans and spent time with me, and yet I wanted them to keep their plans anyway. I wanted them to go despite my feelings. I wanted to have the opportunity to practice coping with the feelings alone. Sometimes they did keep their plans, and sometimes they decided that they’d rather cancel and care for me, but either way it was a mutually informed decision and nobody was pressuring anybody. You may not want your relationship to work that way and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a ridiculous way to do relationships.

Jane probably isn’t being intentionally obfuscating when she cancels with Jill using that wording, but on some level she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to avoid the negative consequences of leaving John alone at home–such as feeling bad because John is sad and potentially having a fight about it later–but she also wants to avoid the negative consequences of choosing to cancel on Jill at the last minute, such as feeling bad about being flaky and potentially having a fight with Jill about how she being flaky. So she makes it seem like canceling the date wasn’t really her choice, that she had to do it because of John and his feelings.

(Later on, she will be surprised and angry that Jill and John aren’t getting along, and will probably blame it on “jealousy,” when in fact she’s been accidentally playing Jill and John against each other all this time by blaming one for her own decisions regarding the other. Given that framing repeated over a period of time, I wouldn’t blame Jill for thinking of John as “that guy who always makes my girlfriend cancel our dates,” or John for thinking of Jill as “that girl who would apparently totally flip out if my girlfriend canceled with her to help me through a really shitty time [whether or not she actually would totally flip out].”)

What Jane needs to do if she wants two healthy relationships is:

  1. talk to John about how the two of them will handle times when he needs support and she may not be available to support him, such as other friends/partners, activities, professional help, or being able to text her while she’s out or reconnect later that night or the following morning, and make sure to clarify what sorts of expectations each of them already has about these situations. Does John actually expect her to cancel her plans at the last minute, or did he just want to express his feelings, get some empathy, and see if maybe canceling the plans was at least an option? Does Jane feel like the emotional labor she is doing for John is balanced with the emotional labor he does for her? If John would like her to be willing to cancel other plans to support him, is he willing to do the same for her? (By the way, even if Jane doesn’t necessarily want that type of support from John, it’s still important that both feel that things are balanced.)
  2. talk to Jill about how the two of them will handle times when Jane feels an obligation to another partner that conflicts with her commitments with Jill. How does Jill feel about being canceled on? Maybe she honestly doesn’t care. (Even if she doesn’t, this is something Jane will need to regularly check in on, because feelings change and it will be hard for Jill to suddenly say, “Hey um actually, I’m no longer okay with being canceled on even though last month I told you I was.”) How can Jane reassure Jill that she cares about and values her in the aftermath of having to cancel to take care of John? If Jane and Jill are interested in growing their intimacy and commitment, how will this work if Jane always prioritizes John first? Can it work? Can Jane rethink how she thinks of commitment and priorities? By the way, are there times when Jill would really appreciate it if Jane would consider canceling plans with someone else in order to support her? Or is that a privilege only John gets?
  3. own her decisions and take responsibility for their consequences. That means that even when someone’s feelings influence her a certain way, she needs to acknowledge that the decision was hers to make. If your partners are making you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate their feelings, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! Well, it is, and I hope that John and Jill will contribute equally to that work by fully engaging in these conversations with Jane when she starts them, being upfront about their feelings and expectations, and being as willing to compromise as Jane is.

Ok cool story, but what does it have to do with college campuses?

College administrators are in a bind when it comes to student activism. They don’t want to come across like they’re ignoring it, especially when it’s very loud and angry. But they also don’t want to do the thing the students are asking for, because it will be unpopular among their colleagues and/or people who write for Atlantic and New York Times. So they do the thing the students are asking for, but then make it seem like the students somehow “forced” them to do it. (Y’all, seriously, if campus newspaper op-eds had that kind of power, I’d have kept writing mine for longer than a semester.)

Sometimes the administration doesn’t even have to make that implication, because national media does it for them. This is how we get articles written by people who have not been on the campuses in question or interviewed the students involved, claiming that student activists “caused” a speaker to be disinvited or “made” professors add trigger warnings to their syllabi. (In fact, the most unpopular speaker disinvitations and trigger warning demands to be featured in the media have overwhelmingly not actually happened, and yet the students are ridiculed for even asking for it*. So much for Free Speech. Oh, what’s that you say? “Free speech” only applies to governments regulating speech? That’s not the definition of the term you were using a minute ago. And if we’re talking about chilling effects, the large-scale ridicule of student activism certainly constitutes one.)

I understand that college administrators may perceive students as having an enormous amount of power. After all, they can say whatever they want (there’s that pesky free speech again) and theoretically ruin the university’s reputation. They can, I suppose, transfer themselves and their tuition money elsewhere. But practically speaking, they’re probably not going to transfer (if anything, students whose needs as survivors of violence or as marginalized people are ignored may quietly drop out of school altogether). I’ve never heard of a university catching serious media flak for inviting a controversial speaker or refusing to add trigger warnings to syllabi; if anything, they are regularly praised for this by publications as influential as, y’know, the New York Times. (The linked article includes some balanced voices, but I think it’s pretty obvious just from the headline which direction it leans in.)

My impression as a former college student who’s been watching these debates play out for years since is that universities often acquiesce to student demands because they are uncomfortable with the discussions that those demands create. I’m not saying that all student demands are valid, well-argued, or charitable–I think that a few invalid, poorly-argued, or uncharitable claims are to be expected from people who are in school to learn how to think and debate. But will you as an educator join these discussions and use them as learning opportunities, or will you shut them down, either by categorically refusing the students’ demands or by accepting them just to get them to shut up?

I suppose if a university administration wanted to try to resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug, they could take a similar approach as I suggested for that poly couple. Administrators could meet with student activists to try to understand what they’re asking for and where they’re coming from. They could also meet with other stakeholders, such as professors or a speaker if there’s one involved, to get their point of view. If they reject students’ demands, they could do so without invalidating their feelings or opinions–for instance, instead of “DON’T EXPECT ANY CODDLING HERE” they could say, “We understand that [controversial speaker] may express opinions that are considered harmful and oppressive by certain students, and we acknowledge the hurt this causes. However, we’ve decided to invite the speaker because [reasons] and we encourage students to decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Students who are looking for support are welcome to go to [counseling services, Women’s Center, LGBTQ safe space, etc].”

Lest it seem like I’m unfairly dumping on college administrators here–I’m sure many of you are lovely and do a great job. Just like many poly couples are lovely and don’t pit their partners against each other. But some do, and that’s who I’m writing about. If the shoe fits, and so on.

Nothing that I’ve suggested here is at all easy, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just because something will not be attainable every time doesn’t make it any less of a best practice.

And by the way, just as Jane may be in an abusive situation where John really does make her feel like she has no choice but to acquiesce to his demands, there are situations–although they are rare–when students can act in a similar way. For instance, if students make threats of violence against a speaker, it is completely reasonable for the speaker to cancel, for the university to choose to cancel the speaker, and/or for law enforcement to get involved. Obviously, don’t make threats of violence; I don’t give a fuck how much you hate the person.

However, both administrators and speakers sometimes misperceive students’ power in significant ways, just as Jane may assume that John’s stating his feelings constitutes a passive-aggressive demand in and of itself. (Unfortunately, people who are accustomed to passive communication tend to see it everywhere they look.) For instance, sometimes administrators or speakers cancel events because they know there will be protesters, even though no threats of violence have been made and the protesters have stated an intention to peacefully hold signs, hand out pamphlets, or whatever. This is not the same as students “forcing” anyone to cancel anything. They are exercising their First Amendment rights. If you’re an ~~~edgy~~~ “””controversial””” speaker who can’t handle people holding signs at your speech, then maybe you shouldn’t be a speaker.

And while John and Jane might each have some sort of power over the other, when it comes to the administration-student relationship, the administration holds an overwhelming amount of the power. Students, even otherwise-privileged students, can’t practically do anything besides write op-eds or march with signs if a university administration is determined to do things they don’t like. All they can really do is be annoying. But being annoying isn’t the same as forcing someone to do something.

tl;dr Abuse and coercion are things that happen, but otherwise, strongly expressing a desire isn’t the same thing as forcing someone to fulfill that desire. That applies to relationships and campus activism and probably a lot of other things.


*Similarly, a Northwestern professor raised hell online because she was investigated and then cleared for an alleged Title IX violation. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Someone accuses someone of something, an investigation happens, and, if the accused is deemed innocent, they’re cleared? Yet somehow this is still Political Correctness Run Amok or whatever.


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What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

Something I hear regularly from progressive men:

“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do as a feminist/ally. Some women say I should be fighting for women’s rights, but others say that that’s not my battle and that instead I should apply feminism to work on men’s issues–but others say that that’s appropriation and ‘what about teh menz.’ Some say I shouldn’t be a ‘white knight’ and defend women against sexism, but others say that it’s my role as a person with privilege to stick up for those without. They don’t even agree on whether or not I can call myself a feminist. The only thing they agree on is that I should listen to marginalized people, but no matter what I say or do, a marginalized person will disagree. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother, since no matter what I do I’m doing it wrong.”

(Substitute “men” for “white people,” et cetera.)

I sympathize with this. When a bunch of people are telling you what to do with an air of authority and they are telling you to do contradictory things–speak out, shut up and listen, stand up, have a fucking seat–it makes sense that you might just give up.

Here are some thoughts that might help you figure it out.

1. There is no activism rulebook.

One reason marginalized people are giving you contradictory messages is because there is no activism rulebook. This isn’t a board game where you just have to play by the rules (with perhaps some minor variations permitted) and follow the path to the end. That’s why the very topic of this article is so frustrating to many activists/marginalized people–when they feel like would-be allies are asking them for a concrete, simple step-by-step guide to fixing oppression (an act of unpaid intellectual labor, by the way), they feel like these would-be allies don’t really want to do the work themselves. They want to color-by-number, not paint originals.

There are a lot of legitimate disagreements among activists about what the best way to do activism is, and what the most important issues to focus on are. Should we try to get marginalized people into positions of power in politics and business, or should we work on dismantling those institutions? Should we be calm and friendly, or angry and confrontational? Should we work within flawed institutions to make them better, or should we create new ones? Should we address the “low-hanging fruit” issues (i.e. same-sex marriage) first in the hopes that they will make the more difficult issues more accessible, or should we go straight for the most urgent, least “sexy” problems? Should we work on acquiring “allies,” or should we say fuck it and make direct change ourselves? Do you catch more flies with honey or vinegar?

While there’s data on some of these and, I think, more compelling arguments in favor of some rather than others, the point is that experienced and knowledgeable activists disagree. So of course you’re getting told different things. There is no activism rulebook.

2. Marginalized people don’t all agree with each other.

There are many reasons why different marginalized people have different (but equally strong) opinions on activism and allies’ place in it. They might have had different personal experiences. They might have different intersecting identities. They might have different political and philosophical values that inform their approach to social justice.

People who share a marginalized identity are not all alike. When allies demand a Unified Field Theory of Ally Activism from them, they’re actually engaging in outgroup homogeneity bias–otherwise known as stereotyping. Of course women are giving you totally different opinions on how to fight sexism. Women aren’t all alike.

As a useful exercise to help you develop your empathy, try to figure out what’s causing the marginalized people you know to disagree with each other on something. For instance, I’ve found that most of the women and nonbinary people who strongly believe that men shouldn’t claim the “feminist” label are those who have been most harmed by “feminist” men who have infiltrated their spaces to get laid or feel special. Trying to actually understand the disagreement can take you from throwing your hands in the air and whining that “I guess I can’t do anything right” to acknowledging that people’s personal experiences shape their political views and that’s okay.

3. Marginalized people are not born with a magical complete understanding of their oppression.

“But you always say to listen to marginalized people!” you may protest. Yes, I do. Marginalized people are uniquely qualified to comment on their particular marginalization because they’ve lived it. Because they’ve lived it, they can explain to you exactly what it’s like and how it’s affected them. And because they’ve lived it, they’ve often done a lot of thinking and learning about how oppression works on a systemic scale. Your average woman probably understands sexism better than your average man, and your average person of color probably understands racism better than your average white person. (Caveat: research has not been conducted. At least not by me. But I feel pretty confident about those claims.)

But experiencing something firsthand doesn’t necessarily confer understanding of how exactly it works. Just because you can drive a car really well doesn’t mean you know how cars work, or how to fix a car that doesn’t work. Having a lot of experience with broken-down cars will gradually lead you to learn much more about how they work than someone without that experience, but it’s not going to be complete. And just because you can fix a passenger car doesn’t mean you can fix a semi.

And remember intersectionality. The reason many marginalized people do activism that is not intersectional and fails to account for the members of their group who are even more marginalized is because being a white woman doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a Black woman or a trans woman, and being a cis gay man doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a bisexual genderqueer person (and look at who we’ve primarily got leading feminist and LGBTQ movements). Many male allies get confused when, for instance, a Black trans woman tells them something about feminist activism that contradicts something a cis white woman said. Although the Black trans woman isn’t necessarily “more right” than the cis white woman, it’s quite likely that she’s getting at a piece of the puzzle that the cis white woman can’t see and hasn’t educated herself about. When someone who faces multiple forms of marginalization is telling you they disagree with you or someone you trust, listen up.

4. Listen to a wide range of opinions from marginalized people.

The dynamics I discussed above are why you should expose yourself to different voices as an ally. Some men read a few cis white women on feminism and think they’re done. No, they’re not.

Worse, some men listen to a few women who claim that short skirts and alcohol cause rape (yes, there are many women who buy into these myths because it’s comforting) and then feel validated in their belief that people can prevent their own assaults. Remember what I said about marginalized people not having a magical understanding of their own oppression?

You’re always going to find Black people who claim that young Black men just need to pull their pants up and be nice to the cops, and trans people who think that you’re not “really” the gender you identify with until you’ve had The Surgery, and women who don’t think they should have the right to vote, and so on. If these are the only marginalized people you listen to, you’re going to make a lot of other marginalized people pretty angry at you, and for good reason.

5. Listen to those further left than you.

I think that paying attention to opinions that seem way too “radical” can be a valuable exercise. First, you might find that you agree. Second, even if you don’t agree, you’re going to learn a lot about the dynamics you’re trying to address.

For instance, I once read (and was at times frustrated by) the book Against Equality, a radical queer response to same-sex marriage activism and other attempts to include queer people in traditional institutions. I’ve thought for a long time that same-sex marriage should never have become the focus of the LGBTQ rights movement–for many reasons–but I just couldn’t get behind some of the claims made in that book. For instance, some of the authors believe that not only should we not have focused on marriage equality and repealing DADT, but that we should actively avoid expanding these institutions to include queer people because these institutions are bad and harmful and therefore queer people should not join them.

I found that incredibly patronizing, and I also think that that excuses discrimination for the sake of a perceived greater good (namely, queer people not getting involved in marriage or the military). However, I also think that reading these essays gave me a new perspective on the potential harms that institutions like marriage might do both to queer people as individuals and to the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole. I may not agree that we should actively prevent queer people from being able to get married (and, anyway, that ship has sailed in the years since I read that book), but I know more now. And if I were an ally, I would be better prepared to do activism that actually helps rather than harms.

5. Listen, but make up your own mind.

What all of this comes down to is that, yes, you should listen to marginalized people, but they can’t do your thinking for you. They especially can’t do your acting for you. You’re going to have to take ownership of your opinions and actions, even though that means that someone will disagree. Someone will always disagree.

“But marginalized people say that I disagree with them because of my privilege.” Yes, sometimes. But I distinguish between two sorts of disagreement–the knee-jerk “no this feels bad stop saying that” sort of disagreement, and the thoughtful, considered sort where you actually sit down and discuss ideas with people and process those immediate feelings that you had and decide, no, this isn’t what I believe. If you’re constantly experiencing that immediate disagreement with marginalized people’s ideas–that disagreement that makes you want to lash out in anger or ignore what they’re saying–lean into that discomfort and figure it out. But not all disagreement is that.

Decide whose opinions you most respect, make sure that those people aren’t always the most privileged members of a particular marginalized group, and discuss with them. For instance, I find that the people whose opinions I most respect are the people who crave justice and not vengeance, who love nuance, who openly admit when they’re doing activism out of self-interest (I don’t trust anyone who says they never do that), who frequently criticize the groups they belong to, and who are comfortable with changing their minds. If someone like this disagrees with me, I put a lot more stock in that than if it’s some random internet person who enjoys name-calling.

But, yes, people will disagree, people will dislike you, people will use social justice language to discredit your opinions. Sometimes their use of that language will be valid, and sometimes it’ll be a form of weaponization. You won’t always know, so consult with someone you trust to be both kind and honest, and keep going.

Your primary goal as an ally needs to be something other than getting anyone’s approval. You’re not here to get people to like you. You’re here to get shit done.

~~~

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For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.

~~~

Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

On Demanding Solutions To Social Problems

One of the most frustrating and most understandable responses I encounter in the course of activism goes something like this:

“Okay I get that this is a problem but what am I supposed to do about it? Should I decline a job that I supposedly got because of my privilege? What are your policy prescriptions? What’s the point of talking about this all the time rather than doing something about it?”

I hear variations on this theme all the time, and they vary from well-intentioned to not well-intentioned, from honest to dishonest. It’s not always clear what’s really going on. Questions often contain a declarative layer to them, even when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” (Perhaps especially when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” For example:

  • “I’m frustrated by the immensity of this issue and I feel like it’ll never be solved.”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable to have to listen to people talk about how injustice has impacted them. I’d rather hear something more positive.”
  • “I bet you’re about to suggest that the government intervene to fix this and I want to argue about the role of government rather than listen to what you want to talk about.”
  • “I don’t actually think this is a problem.”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything we can to do solve this problem, so I’ll dismiss your proposed solutions anyway.”
  • “I don’t think it’s worthwhile talking about problems if we’re not also taking immediate steps to solve them.”
  • “I don’t think it’s all that important to understand the nature of a problem before trying to solve it.”
  • “Not knowing how to fix something makes me feel inept and useless, so I want to know how to fix it.”

I disagree with some people that it’s always necessarily possible to tell when someone is arguing (or asking) in bad faith, and I disagree with some other people that one should always assume good faith. So I tend to just take these questions at face value and try not to guess at which of these layers may be hidden inside them.

There’s a reason why activisty/writerly types are often advised to include “where to go from here” or “suggestions for action” or “next steps” in their works, and a reason why books about social causes often have that as the last chapter. I think it does make the medicine go down a little easier by showing that all hope is not lost, and it also encourages people to take action by giving them simple ideas for things to do.

But sometimes it’s impossible to include such a section, either because we simply don’t know what to do or because that’s not the intended focus of the piece.

“Raising awareness” gets sort of a bad rap because of its association with car magnet ribbons and Facebook memes about where women put their purses. It’s true that most people are already “aware” of breast cancer, for instance. But most people are not aware of what often happens when someone tries to report a sexual assault to the police or what often happens when a person of color shops at an upscale store or what often happens when you’re a teenager trying to start an atheist club at your high school in South Carolina, for instance.

And with activism, as with any big project, you have to break it down into smaller steps. Sometimes the immediate step isn’t “solve the problem,” but “get people to agree that a problem exists,” and then “show people how the problem impacts others.” Trying to skip one of these steps is like trying to, say, plan a renovation for a building without first taking note of what’s wrong with the building currently, or even getting anyone else to agree that a renovation is needed.

And guess what? If you do genuinely see the problem that’s being described to you, you’re already ahead of most people. If you’re talking about the problem with people, you’re already “doing something” about it. Talking is doing, not only because it educates others, but because that’s how the doing ultimately gets done.

It’s understandable that people find it uncomfortable to listen to really sad stories about really sad things happening to people. Some might even find it triggering or otherwise detrimental to their mental health. At this time, you have a decision to make, and only you can make it for yourself: are you able and willing to deal with this discomfort? If not, you owe it to yourself (and perhaps to others) to step back. Don’t attend the panel, take a break from the book club, stop reading blogs for a while. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling this way, but it’s not others’ responsibility to stop sharing things that need to be shared, either.

But if it’s not an issue of triggers or mental health, then I think that people should make an effort to learn to sit with discomfort without needing or demanding immediate relief from it. Yes, it feels a lot better when someone finishes their presentation or blog post with, “Want to help make a difference? Just donate to our fund/write to your representative/spend a few hours volunteering with us/sign this petition!” Sometimes that’s how a difference gets made, but sometimes it’s not.

It’s uncomfortable to listen to stories of oppression and injustice, and it should be. That’s a feature, not a bug. These stories are not shared to make you feel good, and they’re not always necessarily being shared to “inspire” you to action. More often than not, they’re shared because this is information you need to know to be a good citizen (and a good person). If you take the time to understand the issue, you might find that potential solutions start coming to you, and that you don’t need someone to include a bulleted list of action items in their PowerPoint. You might even feel compelled to implement some of these solutions. You may even succeed.

The people who respond in this way, the “okay just tell me how to fix it” way, are not always men, but they usually are. That’s probably because men are socialized to fix things, and their security in their own masculinity often rests partially on their ability to fix things–not just the broken toilet or the leaking roof, but things in general. It happens on the macro level and the micro level: for example, all the male partners I’ve had who would neither allow me to talk about my depression without trying to fix it, nor ask me to please not share it because it’s too frustrating. They would insist that I share it, and they would insist on trying to fix me, and they would fail, and so would the relationship.

Social problems are similar to depression in that they are complex and require patient and knowledgeable effort from people who know what they’re doing. There is no quick fix for any of these things.

If you’re a man and you find yourself demanding immediate solutions when social problems are described to you, ask yourself if the way you’ve been brought up as a man might be impacting your reaction to the situation. The fact that a feeling stems from gender roles doesn’t make it wrong or fake, but it does mean that the problem isn’t with the person who’s refusing to give you a ready-made solution, but with the lessons you were taught about being a man.

Obviously, looking for solutions to problems is a Very Good Idea in general. But in this specific way, during these specific times, it may not be a good idea. It would be nice if every problem came with a prepackaged bulleted list of Next Steps, but that’s just not life. Don’t let your earnest wish to see the problem solved keep you from listening to the people dealing with the problem.

~~~

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On Demanding Solutions To Social Problems

In Defense of Conferences #sk6

This morning as I was sitting in my horrifically delayed plane to Missouri for Skepticon, I had this exchange on Twitter.

I don’t mean to pick on Ali at all; he stated his argument well (even though I think I’m right and he’s wrong!) and was really great about listening to my take on it and walking back his statements once he realized where he’d been missing information. (Thanks for being such a great argument buddy, Ali!) However, Twitter being what it is, I don’t think I was really able to adequately explain my view on this and why conferences are so important to me. So I’m going to do it here, not as a jab at Ali or anyone else specific, but just as a response to a claim I encounter fairly frequently.

I guess I take this a bit personally because of the nature of my involvement in social justice, progressivism, and activism (it’s literally going to be my entire career, as well as what I do during a significant portion of my free time) as well as my own history in this community (going to these conferences and meeting these people is probably the reason I don’t have clinical depression anymore). It also stung to read these comments as I was en route to a con where I’d be giving a workshop that’s aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault. Like, you’re going to claim I’m not doing anything worthwhile? Really?

But I know everyone isn’t me, so I tried to set that aside and examine the claims more objectively (not that objectivity is ever actually achievable). I still don’t think they have much merit.

First of all, basically every professional field and every hobby or interest has conferences. I’ve never heard of one that doesn’t. Researchers have conferences to share their research, tech developers have conferences to show off new products, mental health professionals and educators have conferences to discuss best practices and learn from each others’ experiences, and so on. Writers both amateur and professional have conferences to learn new skills, hear other writers’ work, and network with agents and publishers. When I was a sexual health peer educator in college, we even went to conferences just for health peer education to present our workshops to other peer educators who might provide valuable feedback and adopt some of our methods for themselves.

Nobody, I hope, would argue that a therapist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend sharing their experiences with other therapists as opposed to treating clients. Or that a research scientist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend listening to presentations on other people’s research rather than working on their own project in the lab. Or that a writer is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend networking with potential publishers rather than being holed up in the coffee shop with their manuscript.

But activists, for some reason, are expected to always, always be “on.” If we’re not out there protesting or fundraising or educating or arguing or volunteering or otherwise Creating Change, we’re “circlejerking.”

Does this seem convoluted to you? It does to me.

People who criticize conferences on these grounds seem to be making a very similar strawman as people who criticize so-called “slacktivism” (in fact, I’m sure there is significant overlap between those two groups). Does anyone actually believe that changing their profile picture on Facebook is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt it. Does anyone actually believe that attending Skepticon or a similar conference is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt that too.

From what I gather, people who attend secular/skeptical/otherwise progressive conferences do so for a number of reasons:

  • To learn new things
  • To make new friends
  • To see old friends
  • To network and find new opportunities for jobs or volunteering or other activisty things
  • To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance
  • To feel a sense of hope
  • To have fun

I believe that all of these goals are important. I think they can be as important as Changing The World. And while people might not go to conferences with the explicit goal of Changing The World while they are there, the things they learn and experience at conferences might help them to eventually do so.

And I have to say, Changing The World is very hard when you feel alone, unsupported, and unaware of what else is out there.

Personally, I can speak to most of the reasons on that list. I learn new things at conferences all the time. One of the talks that stuck most with me from last year’s Skepticon, for instance, was Jennifer Oulette’s talk on drugs, their potential health benefits, and the difficulties of researching them since they’re illegal. That was an issue I’d never really thought about! Now I feel much more prepared to seek out even more (scientifically accurate) information on that subject, advocate for more sensible drug policy, and correct misconceptions that people may have about drugs. I might never have run across this information otherwise, because it’s not my field and I can’t read every damn article on the internet.

Sometimes I learn things that are less immediately practical, but still extremely important. Another talk at last year’s Skepticon was Greta Christina’s on grief, secularism, and her own personal experiences with that intersection. I have not experienced a loss like Greta’s before. I do wonder what will happen when I inevitably experience such a loss, and how I will process it without faith. As a future mental health professional considering working with people who are leaving religion (or have recently left religion), helping people deal with grief without faith is extremely important to me. Her evocative talk was valuable both on a personal level (I care about Greta and want to know about her life) and on a professional level (I want to learn how people process grief and how I might be able to help them).

I could go on and on. This Skepticon is my 8th secular conference, and so many brilliant talk and speakers stand out to me from the past year and a half of my involvement in this community. I’ve learned so much. Reading articles on the internet just isn’t the same.

I think people–especially people who consider cons to be “circlejerks”–diminish or misunderstand the significance of learning at cons. Yes, we drink. Yes, we play Cards Against Humanity. Yes, we dress up in costumes or fancy clothes or whatever. Yes, we shoot the shit with friends. Yes, we hook up until ridiculous hours of the night/morning. But you’ll notice that the talks at conferences? They have audience members. Many of those audience members are so invested and interested in what’s being discussed that they laboriously live-tweet/-blog everything so that others can learn too. After the con, people write about their impressions of various talks and what they learned, or they repost videos of talks or even transcribe them so that they’re more accessible.

I don’t think I need to provide any more evidence that people learn at conferences and they value that learning.

But moving on to the less practical stuff. For instance, my incredible friends and colleagues, whom I’ve either met directly at conferences or through the people I’ve met at conferences, or whom I’ve really gotten to know at conferences. These people are 200% there all the time. The people I’ve met at conferences advocated for me when Facebook wouldn’t take my stupid death threat page down. They’ve gotten me speaking gigs and other opportunities. They help me with my writing, which is significant since I had very few writer friends until I got involved in all this. They post “<3” or “*hug*” on my Facebook statuses when I’m struggling with depression or anxiety. They give me things to think about and they teach me every day. They are my lovers and partners. They are the people I’d call if I got mugged or lost a loved one or got a job or got an offer to have a book published. They are my chosen family.

It’s a common practice, especially among self-identified skeptics, to discount the importance of community, acceptance, belongingness, and mutual respect–all that touchy-feely shit many of us would rather ignore or pretend we don’t need. But we do.

Virtually everyone needs these things. But activists especially need them. Activism can be very alienating. Our efforts fail. People belittle or even threaten us. Apathy is pervasive. Nothing seems to change. Burnout is always on the horizon.

But then you show up in a huge building full of people who care about the things you care about*. Who want you to feel like you’re having an impact. Who want you to keep doing what you’re doing. Who come up to you just to tell you that your writing changed their life. Who will laugh at the trolls with you and shake with fury at the people who threaten you with death and cheer for you when you’re speaking and signal-boost for you when you’ve done something cool or you’re in a tight spot and need help. Who don’t make you explain over and over why we still need feminism or what’s so wrong with school prayer. Who don’t say “nerd” like it’s a bad thing.

This is what they call a “circlejerk.”

And if that’s a circlejerk, then pass me the lube.

~~~

*I am quite aware that cons do also have shitty people at them, but the point is that the ratio of awesome-to-shitty people is much better at these cons than in the world at large.

In Defense of Conferences #sk6

(How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On "Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome"

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda has a post called, “Must Attention Be Paid?” In it, he describes what he called “Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome,” or “SSSSS”:

SSSSS (as I abbreviate it) begins when an individual writes or is recorded as saying something strikingly venal, inhumane, and/or dumb. The quote is then taken up and derided—in social media or blogs—by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of other individuals. And then it spreads from there.

If you’ve ever seen the roundups of racist tweets that inevitably follow when a person of color does something awesome, or the exposes of shit some crappy pickup artist said, then you’ve witnessed SSSSS in action.

Although Yagoda eventually walks his opinion back somewhat after experiencing SSSSS in his own offline community, he initially takes a firm stance against it:

First, we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on. Second is the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom: “Don’t pay attention to them. You’ll only encourage them.” Finally, SSSSS is rhetorically weak. It’s not so much an example of the straw-man fallacy—since someone actually said the stupid statement—as the ultimate in anecdotal evidence. The fact that you’ve found some number of people who said a horrible thing proves nothing beyond that those people said that thing. (Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.)

As for why SSSSS is so pervasive, Yagoda gives two reasons: one, that the internet makes stupid statements so much easier to witness, and two, “all the bloggers and posters need something to blog and post about, and Something Stupid Somebody Said (SSSS) would seem to be perfect fodder. All the more so when it confirms one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents.”

I think Yagoda’s argument (in its pre-walked back state) has both merits and…demerits? I guess that’s the opposite of a merit. I’ll talk about the demerits first.

First of all, assuming that bloggers and journalists as a whole only cover this stuff because they want pageviews displays a lack of imagination (or theory of mind, for the psychologically inclined).

Could it be that they cover it because they find it interesting, relevant, and important? That Yagoda seemingly doesn’t does not mean that nobody else does.

Second, the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom largely fails in this case. It’s a common belief that people say terrible things because they want the opprobrium that they inevitably receive. Maybe some people do, but most people’s reaction to censure and scorn is to feel, well, bad. That’s how the human brain works. Rejection hurts, even when it’s by a group you despise or a computer, and even when you’re profiting financially from it!

One piece of evidence for this is that the bigoted tweets/Facebook posts/whatever that get strongly called out online often get deleted very soon after that. If the people who post them are just looking for massive amounts of attention, why would they delete the posts just as they’re starting to attract that attention?

(Further, the fact that they get deleted is actually a direct positive result of SSSSS. Fewer shitty posts means that fewer people will be harmed by them, and fewer bigoted norms will be implicitly enforced.)

Even when SSSSS does not stop any bigotry, though, it might still be better than the alternative that Yagoda proposes, which is ignoring the stupid stuff–that is, doing nothing. Folks, nobody will hear you loudly doing nothing about bigotry. Nobody will care that you determinedly, passionately shrugged and closed the browser tab and moved on. The best case scenario of this is that trolls will keep trolling and bigots will keep bigoting.

The best case scenario of speaking up is that you change minds. The good-but-not-best case scenario is that you don’t necessarily change any minds, but the bigot will stop posting bigotry because they’ll realize they’ll be hated for it. And others won’t see that bigotry and either be hurt OR assume that it’s okay and they can do it too.

Third, this: “we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on” seems like a facile argument. People choose what to spend their time and brainspace on. Maybe this topic is not important to Yagoda, but it’s important to other people. I don’t understand how some people spend hours of their week watching sports or memorizing pi to however many digits, but the fact that I think those things are not important (to me) does not mean they are globally unimportant.

Also, it takes two minutes to read an article about something bigoted someone said. That is, all in all, an utterly negligible amount of time even for the busiest of us. But if it’s not important to you, by all means, don’t waste your time on it!

In short, I’m okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important to him and therefore he won’t spend time on it. I’m not okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important period, and therefore nobody should read or write about these things or pay any attention to them at all.

Fourth: “Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.” The fact that Yagoda does not believe that the examples he listed are commonplace and not merely anecdotal really says something. Namely, that he probably hasn’t been listening very much to the people who are targeted by these types of bigotry. He probably also hasn’t been reading the academic research on it, which suggests that these types of bigotry are very common.

People who choose to be “skeptical” (read: hyperskeptical) that bigotry exists and is worth discussing tend to keep raising the standard of “evidence” they’d need to believe us. One racist comment or allegation of sexual assault isn’t enough to show that there’s a problem, sure. How about dozens? How about hundreds? How about every woman and person of color experiences little acts of bigotry based on their gender and/or race, all the time, for their whole lives? What happens online is just one piece of that puzzle.

Fifth, Yagoda does not acknowledge the fact that many people flat-out deny that such bigotry still exists until they see evidence (and even then they sometimes try to explain it away). When I post online about some sexist or homophobic thing I’ve been targeted by, even among my progressive friends there’s usually at least one person who comments with something like “wow I can’t believe someone would say this! it’s the 21st century wow!” Yes, it is, but yes, they did.

Anti-racist Doge to the rescue!
And while Yagoda acts like every time people post one of these things, everyone unanimously comments “wow much stupid such dumb so racism,” that’s not the case at all. People disagree that it’s a big deal, that it’s “really” bigotry, that it’s worth talking about. A common refrain (which Yagoda echoes here) is to call it “stupid” rather than “bigoted,” as in, “Oh, they’re not racist, they’re just being stupid.” What? Okay. They’re being stupid in a racist way, then. That better?

Not talking about bigotry, whether it’s slight or severe, only serves two purposes: making bigots more comfortable and preventing anything from changing. Those are the only two. Bigots do not magically become not-bigots just because we don’t pay attention to them. There are better and worse ways of talking about bigotry, but not talking about it is not an option we should choose.

All of that said, Yagoda makes some good points. First of all, if indeed anyone is engaging in linkbaiting, they should stop. Linkbaiting is, as I’ve written here before, condescending and harmful. Write about bigotry because you think it’s important to write about, not (primarily) to draw pageviews.

Second, “confirm[ing] one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents” is a problem that I see, too. Folks on all sides of the political spectrum often have trouble seeing their ideological opponents as anything other than an unadulterated identical mass of poop (blame the outgroup homogeneity effect). Sometimes I’ll post something about someone’s abhorrent views and someone will respond with “Oh yeah well I bet they oppose abortion too!” or “I bet they don’t even think people should have food stamps!” Sometimes this is accurate, but often it is not. Political beliefs do fall into broad categories, but they can also be very nuanced. People can support comprehensive sex education and oppose abortion. They can oppose abortion and the death penalty. They can support abortion generally as a legal right, but forbid their child from getting one. They might oppose government spending on one social program but support it for another one. And so on.

Talking trash about terrible people can be a way to let off steam, and I’d never tell people they shouldn’t do it because it’s not my place to tell people how to respond to their oppression. However, talking about bigotry is more useful than talking about bigots, not least because it’s more generalizable. Discussing a picture of someone in a horrible blackface Trayvon Martin costume (TW) isn’t just an opportunity to make fun of a racist person; it can be a way to teach people about why blackface is racist, why the murder of Trayvon and the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial was racist, and so on. (Related: what vlogger Jay Smooth refers to as having the “what they did” conversation rather than the “what they are” conversation.)

It’s important, I think, to expand the conversation beyond the original incident or tweet or soundbite that sparked it. If it really were just about a few teenagers posting racist shit on Twitter, that would still be a problem, but it wouldn’t be as big of a problem as the fact that they did it because our culture taught them that racism.

However, I don’t think it’s the case, as Yagoda implies, that most people who participate in SSSSS are just doing it to be like “LOL look at the stupid people LOL.” At least, that’s not what I see. We want to have these complex discussions.

There are actually two other issues with SSSSS that Yagoda does not mention. One is that the people called out are often teenagers, and their full names get spread all over the internet. While I’m not especially sympathetic to people who post terribly bigoted things online, is it fair for someone to be unable to get into college or get a job because of something they said when they were 14? I’m not sure.

The other issue is much more complex, and is best discussed not by me, but by blogger david brothers, who refers to racism-related SSSSS as “passive white supremacy” and explains why:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

Clearly there’s a lot more nuance here than either “calling out random people’s bigotry is always good” or “calling out random people’s bigotry is never good.” Yagoda himself writes in his piece how he ended up protesting a neighbor’s racist Halloween decoration. However, he does not elaborate on how his thinking about SSSSS evolved, or whether he only considers his own action reasonable because it happened offline as opposed to online.

Hopefully, as online activism evolves, discussions about how to respond to bigotry will become even more complex and fruitful. But what I don’t want is for criticism of the way some people handle these things to become an excuse for (or an endorsement of) doing nothing. Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution.

(How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On "Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome"

Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Header for Playboy's fake party guide.

If you were online at all last week, you probably came across a Playboy article called “Top Ten Party Commandments.” The article was in Playboy’s usual style, but rather than emphasizing your typical dudebro disregard for women’s feelings, opinions, and preferences, it’s all about how you can’t truly have a good time without consent and it discusses the cool initiatives different campuses around the country are doing to promote consent.

So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter.

I really like hacktivism like this, but it does have some negative externalities. I’ll talk about some of the pros and then some of the cons.

First of all, it gets attention. Someone who might not click on a link to an article called “Why Consent is Important” might click on a link to an article called “Playboy’s Top Ten Party Commandments.” That person would then be exposed to information and opinions they might have never considered before.

Second, a hoax like this answers the question every activist is tired of hearing: “Yeah, well, if the way things are right now is so bad, what’s your idea, huh?” Although I reject the idea that in order for criticism to be legitimate, one must have a ready-made solution at their disposal, the fake party guide does a great job of giving an example of the type of content a consent-positive magazine might publish. It shows that, in a world free of rape culture, lingerie brands might replace phrases like “Sure Thing” with “Ask First,” and college party guides might rank campuses based on which are the best at promoting safe and healthy sex, not which have the drunkest women.

Third, these pranks provoke a strong positive reaction that sends a powerful message to the companies they mimic. That message is, you don’t have to promote rape culture to sell products. We’re often told that this is “just what sells.” Maybe it does, but consent can sell, too. After the Victoria’s Secret prank, social media filled up with people praising Victoria’s Secret and announcing that they plan to go out and buy the new (fake) products. Likewise, before people figured out it was fake, they congratulated Playboy on taking this new direction.

Part of the fake playboy party guide.
A smart business will gauge the public responses to these hoaxes and act accordingly. Victoria’s Secret apparently said that they would “look into” creating a consent-positive lingerie line, although I haven’t heard anything else about that since December. Playboy, on the other hand, publicly stated that they had nothing to do with this hoax, and asked that it be taken down. Bad move.

The drawback of these pranks, though, is that many people will inevitably not hear the part about how it’s a prank; they’ll only hear the part about how X Company That Wasn’t That Good About This Stuff totally switched tacks and created some cool new product that doesn’t suck. I was still bursting people’s bubbles about the Victoria’s Secret months after it happened. Corrections aren’t as sticky as the original news story they’re correcting.

Furthermore, plenty of research confirms that it is really difficult to correct misinformation once it has been spread. From a guide in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective andcan even backfire (PDF).

And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.

What this means is that, even if a media outlet prints a correction (which some had to do after misreporting the Playbox hoax as genuine) and even if people actually see it (which they’re probably not very likely to, since it won’t spread virally like the original news did), the correction is not very likely to “stick.” And, even more worryingly, reporting the Playbox hoax accurately the first time might still lead people to misremember it later as being not a hoax.

But so what if people keep thinking that Victoria’s Secret and Playboy really created these products? Well, it’s always unpleasant when someone gets credit that they don’t deserve. But also, it skews people’s perceptions of how far we’ve come and what is left to be done. Major corporations like these still don’t really take public stands for consent; rather, they create products that negate its importance or actively promote rapey stuff. If people develop the impression that this is changing when it really isn’t, they might be more skeptical of efforts to make it change.

Although it bothers me that these pranks likely end up spreading misinformation, I still think that the pros outweigh the cons. But you may disagree.

Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

Making the Normal Abnormal

"They're Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!": On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!

For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.

The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.

For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”

Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)

Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kos says:

The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.

And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:

Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.

I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?

I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.

They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.

Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.

If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?

Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?

The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.

Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to? 

Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.

~~~

* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.

** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.

"They're Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!": On Activism and Appeals to Kinship