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.


Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?


[CN: homophobia, thought experiment-ish discussion of bigotry]

The topic of therapists refusing to work with particular clients due to differences in values is one that came up often when I was in graduate school, and continues to come up often as therapists–many of whom come from traditional Christian backgrounds–confront the reality of practicing in diverse settings.

“Differences in values” usually refers to homophobic therapists not wanting to work with lesbian, gay, and bi/pan clients, but it can actually apply to tons of different marginalized identities: trans, poly, kinky, atheist, Muslim, and more. Differences in values can also impact therapeutic work with clients who are making decisions that the therapist strongly disagrees with for whatever reason, such as getting a divorce, getting an abortion, accusing someone of sexual assault, and so on.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, competent and ethical therapists occasionally choose not to work with particular clients for all sorts of reasons. They may feel that they lack sufficient knowledge or experience to help a client with a particular niche issue or disorder, and that they can’t make up for it with extra training quickly enough to avoid harming the client. They may be triggered by some aspect of the client–for instance, some therapists cannot work with convicted/admitted rapists, especially if pedophilia is involved. They may realize they’re too closely connected to the client within their community–for instance, the client is the parent of the therapist’s child’s best friend, or the client is dating a close friend of the therapist. (Although in these situations, openly discussing it with the client and setting some boundaries and expectations also goes a long way.)

Regardless, if a therapist chooses not to work with a client, it’s their ethical responsibility to refer the client to another professional who can work with them effectively. So it’s never just like, “Nope, can’t help ya, sorry.” And if you ever get that response while seeking therapy, know that you’re entitled to get some help finding someone else.

So choosing not to work with particular clients due to lack of knowledge/skill, personal triggers, and boundary issues is accepted in the field. How about choosing not to work with particular clients because you cannot accept their identities or lifestyle choices?

Continue reading “Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?”

Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?

"You Need Some New Friends!"

I posted this a few days ago for my Patreon subscribers. If you want to see my stuff before everyone else, consider subscribing. Even a dollar a post helps!

When I write about personal experiences with sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of bigotry, a common response is: “Wow, you need some new friends! I’m a [insert marginalized identity here] and nobody treats me this way!” (Bonus points for “I don’t let anybody treat me this way!”)

Charitably, I understand where this is coming from. I am seen as a young, possibly naive and vulnerable person who just doesn’t understand that some of the crap I’ve gotten from people isn’t inevitable and not everyone’s going to treat me this way. This well-meaning older person just wants to let me know that I can find better friends who won’t treat me in these crappy ways.

But there are a few wrong assumptions inherent in these statements, such as:

  • I am too young and naive to know that I can in fact expect people to treat me better
  • I have no people in my life already who treat me better
  • I fail to set boundaries and/or kick people out of my life when they treat me poorly
  • I need to be reminded that #NotAllPeople are bigoted
  • I am writing in order to discuss my personal problems and not broader, systemic problems

Ironically, I’m actually known (among people who actually know me, that is) for being pretty quick to set boundaries and not at all squeamish about ending friendships, relationships, and acquaintanceships in which I don’t feel that I am being treated with the respect I deserve. It’s an approach I advocate pretty freely, because it has set me free: free from shitty relationships, free from friends who passive-aggressively bring me down, free from imbalanced demands for emotional labor, free (mostly) from microaggressions. Obviously not everybody always has the option to just get rid of people who treat them poorly, but when the option is available, I always err on the side of taking it.

In fact, if I didn’t believe that it’s possible for me to be treated well, I wouldn’t be writing articles about how to avoid sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. The fact that I write articles about that kind of implies that I think “better friends” (at the very least) is a reasonable goal for marginalized folks to set for themselves.

Aside from the condescending nature of these comments–I can manage my personal relationships on my own, thanks–they tend to miss the point. If I write an article about men, women, and emotional labor and you respond with “Damn, girl, you need some better dudes in your life!”, you’re missing the point that the problem is not confined to a few crappy dudes I’ve gotten myself tangled up with. Yes, there are better and worse dudes out there, and I generally have the privilege to seek out the better ones, but that doesn’t solve the overall problem of gendered expectations surrounding emotional labor. I can seek out better dudes all I want; that won’t help other women.

You could argue that these responses are inevitable given that I’m sharing personal anecdotes and of course readers would be concerned about my wellbeing. But that’s a catch-22. When people write about bigotry and oppression without including personal anecdotes, readers have difficulty connecting these abstract concepts with concrete experiences that actual human beings have. When we do include personal anecdotes, readers start debating the merits of those anecdotes and giving us unsolicited advice rather than focusing on the actual issue under discussion. You can’t really win.

So I aim for combining the two–discussion of theoretical concepts along with personal anecdotes. Some folks still get caught up on the personal anecdotes and decide that I need help running my social life. Oh well.

Note, though, that when I write about the ways in which sexism, homophobia, ableism, and ageism have impacted my life, I’m not always talking about people who were my actual friends, and I’m not always talking about people who are in my life right now. Anyone I interact with in passing can potentially express bigotry towards me, and despite my relatively young age, I’ve been old enough to have friends and partners for quite a while now. There are a lot of people I used to be close with who are no longer in my life. There are a lot of incidents that I’ve analyzed years after the fact, once I’d developed an understanding of things like sexual assault, and realized were tied to systematic oppression in some way. (For instance, I realized at one point that all of my first sexual experiences as a teenager were nonconsensual. Don’t worry, concerned older readers, I haven’t spoken to that man in years and I’m quite aware that nicer men exist.)

Finally, the “get new friends” response concerns me because it’s so reminiscent of the “not all _____” response, which is weird because it’s usually coming from fellow marginalized folks. Some women think it’s really important to let me know that the men they date aren’t nearly as crappy as the men I’ve dated (by the way, most of the men I’ve dated have been wonderful, but blog posts about how great my exes are seem neither appropriate nor interesting). There’s a self-aggrandizement inherent in that response: “Well, I have a wonderful boyfriend who always does his share of the housework and never mansplains or questions my competence and always makes sure that sex is pleasurable for me too but also totally understands when I don’t feel like having sex that night.” For all that the commenter means to highlight the wonderful man/straight ally/supportive neurotypical friend/etc in their life, they usually come across like they’re trying to brag about their superior friend-finding abilities.

Imagine how hurtful “you need better friends!” would be if that weren’t an option that’s available to me right now. Because sometimes, for some people, it isn’t. Maybe the most they can do is try to gently nudge their existing friends toward a path of lesser bigotry, or do some excellent self-care to minimize the harm of that bigotry. “You need better friends!” is flippant and dismissive in this context. Not everybody gets to design a perfect social circle.

Besides that, we can’t all just platonic-Lysistrata our way out of systematic oppression. Even if all the bigots ended up being friends with each other and the rest of us all got to have wonderful progressive friend groups with absolutely no bigotry, those bigots would still have a disproportionate influence on our society and therefore disproportionate power to oppress us. (Psst: you can’t neatly separate people into categories like “bigot” and “totally not bigot” anyway.) For instance, my friends and I are definitely absolutely not friends with the Republicans in our state legislature, and yet look.

Some people choose to cut bigoted people out of their lives. Other people choose to keep them around and try to make them better. Most people choose on a case-by-case basis. Regardless, “just get new friends” isn’t an appropriate response to someone sharing their experiences with bigotry. As uncomfortable as it can be to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t just swoop in and fix someone’s problems for them, it’s necessary.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

"You Need Some New Friends!"

"But that applies to EVERYONE"

Every so often when I’m talking about some niche issue, such as how to consensually have sex with an asexual person or how straight women can be better to their queer women friends, someone who is not a member of the marginalized group under discussion chimes in with, “But everyone should do that” or “But you shouldn’t do that to anyone.” No joke, once on Twitter I saw some trans people talking about how you shouldn’t ask them about their genitals, and someone was like “And you shouldn’t ask cis people about their genitals either.”

Okay, I mean, yes. I’m happy to grant that many of these suggestions about how to treat people with particular identities should and do apply to pretty much all human interaction. Don’t touch white people’s hair without their permission either. Don’t ask cis people about their genitals either. Sure.

But the reason this type of comment always comes off as very All-Lives-Matter-ish is because there is a reason the original author has chosen to focus their remarks on a particular type of situation or person. What might that reason be? Some ideas:

  1. The issue is much more likely to affect the group under discussion.
  2. Cis people, how often has a stranger asked you which genitals you have? How often has a potential partner asked you which genitals you have?

    The world is an infinitely varied and complicated place, so I’m sure there exists a cis person somewhere who has had someone ask them, “So do you have a dick or a vagina?” I’m sure there are cis people who have, upon introducing themselves to someone, had that person suddenly ask if they have had surgery on their genitals. (How sure am I? Not actually that sure.)

    But if you ask trans people, they are much, much more likely to have had this experience, often multiple times. In fact, I suspect that any cis person who has had this experience, only had it because they were “read” as trans for whatever reason, and that plays into the exact same harmful ideas that impact trans people every day. There would be no such thing as reading a cis person as trans without the gender-essentialism that gives rise to anti-trans prejudice and discrimination. Just like a straight boy being bullied because he’s assumed to be gay, this can certainly hurt the cis person in question, and their feelings about that experience are valid. But when we’re talking about understanding and preventing the issue, we need to understand why it actually happened. More on that later.

  3. The issue is more harmful to the group under discussion.
  4. So, yes, it is pretty rude and inappropriate to touch people’s hair without their permission, because hair often feels like a part of one’s body and having it groped by random strangers can be rather violating. (Also, some people put a lot of work into getting their hair to look the way it does, so don’t put your greasy hands on it!) Some white people, especially those with curly or otherwise unusual/interesting hair, may indeed have had lots of negative experiences with strangers grabbing it.

    But not only are we much less likely to experience this sort of incident–which in itself means that it’s overall less harmful to us–but it would have an entirely different meaning to us, and that minimizes the harm, too. Touching Black women’s hair is an echo of the many other ways in which white people have historically treated their bodies and their selves as objects for their consumption. They also don’t have the same freedom white people do to set boundaries and ask the person to stop touching their hair, lest they activate the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Doing so can have dangers beyond social rejection.

  5. The dynamics of the issue are different for different groups.
  6. The principle of consensual sex is pretty much the same no matter who’s having sex with who. Sex almost always involves power dynamics (even when both/all people involved have the same gender, power imbalances may arise from other identities), and this can complicate consent when the person with more power is unaware that the person with less power is only saying “yes” because they feel on some level that they have to.

    Asexuality introduces another potential power imbalance into the mix, and brings along with it unique dynamics. For example, many people consider asexuality an “illness” that can be “cured” through good sex. Many people consider it “unethical” for an asexual person to date an allosexual person unless they agree to “give” them as much sex as they want. Different asexual people have different levels of interest in sex, different motivations for consenting to sex, different emotional responses to sex, etc.

    That makes articles like “How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person” absolutely crucial, because they dissect the dynamics that are unique to this situation (an asexual person and an allosexual person having sex) rather than broadly applicable across all sexual situations. Yes, at first glance it all sounds the same–get consent, check in during, etc–and so I can see why it’s tempting for people to brush it off with “Well everyone should do that.” But then you’d miss the nuances.

  7. The person leading the discussion is a member of the group in question and that’s the experience they can speak to.
  8. I don’t know what it’s like to be proselytized to as a religious person, to date as a straight person, to have sex as a cis man. So if I’m talking about various adverse experiences I’ve had with those things and how they might have been better, I can only speak to my experience as a Jewish atheist, as a queer person, as a woman. If religious people, straight people, and cis men can learn something from that and apply it to their own lives–if they feel validated by what I’ve said–that’s great, but that’s not who I’m writing for.

    So when I write about some negative experiences I’ve had with straight women as a queer woman and folks immediately rush to be like “well nobody should ever do that to anyone regardless of identity,” it feels very dismissive. Of course nobody should ever do that to anyone. But I’m not anyone, I’m me, and I’m situated at one particular intersection of identities. That location in part determines which sorts of experiences I have, and I don’t want that to be erased. I want you to see where on the map I am.

“But that applies to everyone” can obviously be a true statement. It’s pretty rare that we would want to treat people differently depending on their social identity. But the fact is, whether we mean to or not, we do treat them differently. That’s been scientifically proven over and over. Likewise, all lives should matter, but they demonstrably don’t, so activists focus on those that we do not treat as though they matter.

Many, many excellent ideas and practices emerge from communities of queer and trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. Many of these ideas and practices would be very useful for dominant groups to adopt. Why don’t cis hetero couples ask each other which words they prefer to use for their genitals and other body parts? Why don’t neurotypical people use color-coded communication badges to make socializing at conferences easier? (I encourage them to, provided they don’t act like they came up with those awesome ideas on their own.)

But that doesn’t mean that marginalized people don’t get to talk about their own experiences and issues as they apply to them specifically, rather than to everyone universally. If you liked something one of us wrote about a niche issue and feel that it’s applicable more broadly, why don’t you write your own article rather than complaining that our writing wasn’t broad enough? Maybe it wasn’t for you.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

"But that applies to EVERYONE"

On "Obvious" Research Results

There is a tendency in my social circles sometimes to dismiss social science results that seem “obvious” and aligned with our views with, “Well, duh, why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation].”

I’ve seen it happen with studies that show that fat-shaming is counterproductive, and studies that show that sucking up to abusers doesn’t stop abuse, and probably every other study I’ve ever written about here or posted on Facebook.

To be honest, I’m often having to suppress that initial response myself. It is infuriating when we’ve been saying something for years and now Science Proves It. (Of course, science doesn’t really “prove” anything.) It’s especially annoying when some of the some of the same people who deny my experiences when I share them are now posting links to articles about research that says that exact thing, without any apology for disbelieving me.

At the same time, though, I try to separate my frustration from my evaluation of the research. In reality, the fact that a result seems “obvious” or “common sense” doesn’t mean that the study shouldn’t have been conducted; for every result that aligns with common sense, there’s probably at least one that completely goes against it. Considering the fact that negative results have such a hard time getting published in psychology, there are probably a ton of studies sitting around in file drawers showing no correlations between things we assume are correlated.

Moreover, research is important because it helps us understand how prevalent or representative certain experiences are, and listening to individuals share their stories isn’t going to give you that perspective unless you somehow manage to listen to hundreds or thousands of people. (Even then, there will probably be more selection bias than there will be in a typical study, in which the subject pool at least isn’t limited to the researcher’s friends.) I will always believe someone who is telling me about their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that I will assume that everyone who shares a relevant identity with that person has had an identical experience. That would be stereotyping.

So, sure, to me it might be totally obvious that people who make creepy rape jokes are much more likely to actually violate boundaries–because I’ve experienced it enough times–but my experience may not have been representative. It is very much still my experience, and it is very much still valid and I have the right to avoid people who make creepy rape jokes since they make me uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a broader trend. (Of course, now I know that it probably is, because multiple studies have strongly suggested it.)

The weirdest thing by far about the “Why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation]” response is that, well, they did. That’s literally what they’re doing when they conduct research on that topic. Sure, research is a more formal and systematic way of asking people about their experiences, but it’s still a way.

And while researchers do tend to have all kinds of privilege relative to the people who participate in their studies, many researchers are also pushed to study certain kinds of oppression and marginalization because they’ve experienced it themselves. While I never did end up applying to a doctoral program, I did have a whole list of topics I wanted to study if I ever got there and many of them were informed directly by my own life. The reason researchers study “obvious” questions like “does fat-shaming hurt people” isn’t necessarily because they truly don’t know, but because 1) their personal anecdotal opinion isn’t exactly going to sway the scientific establishment and 2) establishing these basic facts in research allows them to build a foundation for future work and receive grant funding for that work. In my experience, researchers often strongly suspect that their hypothesis is true before they even begin conducting the study; if they didn’t, they might not even conduct it.

That’s why studies that investigate “obvious” social science questions are a good sign, not a bad one. They’re not a sign that clueless researchers have no idea about these basic things and can’t be bothered to ask a Real Marginalized Person; they’re a sign that researchers strongly suspect that these effects are happening but want to be able to make an even stronger case by including as many Real Marginalized People in the study as financially/logistically possible.

As I said, I do completely empathize with the frustration of feeling like nobody takes our experiences seriously until they are officially Proven By Science. I also wish that people didn’t need research citations before they are willing to accommodate an individual’s preferences for the sake of inclusivity or just not being an asshole. (For instance, if I ask you to stop shaming me for my weight, you should stop doing it whether or not you have seen Scientific Proof that fat-shaming is harmful, because I have set a boundary with you.)

However, if we take individual experiences as necessarily indicative of broader trends, we would be forced to conclude that, for instance, there is an epidemic of false rape accusations or that Christian children are overwhelmingly bullied in the United States for their religious beliefs. Certainly both things happen. Certainly both things happen very visibly sometimes. Both are awful things that should never happen, but it is, in fact, important to keep in perspective what’s a tragic fluke and what’s a tragic pattern, because flukes and patterns require different prevention strategies.

I’ll admit that a part of my discomfort with “well duh that’s obvious why’d they even study that” is because I don’t want the causes I care about to become publicly aligned with ignoring, ridiculing, or minimizing science. We should study “obvious” things. We should study non-“obvious” things. We should study basically everything as long as we do it ethically. We should do it while preparing ourselves for the possibility that studies will not confirm what we believe to be true, in which case we dig deeper and design better studies and/or develop better opinions. I find Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Litany of Tarski to be helpful here:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Even if your experiences turn out to be statistically atypical, they are still valid. Even if it turns out that fat-shaming is an effective way to get people to lose weight, guess what! We still get to argue that it’s hurtful and wrong, and that it’s none of our business how much other people weigh. Knowing what the science actually says at this point is the first step to an effective argument. Knowing what the possibly-faulty science is currently saying is the first step to making better science.

On "Obvious" Research Results

"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!


"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against "Over-Sensitivity"

My newest piece at the Daily Dot examines the backlash against “over-sensitivity” online.

A group of Columbia University students have ignited the latest battle in the online war over trigger warnings by asking professors to include them before teaching classics that feature detailed rape scenes, such as certain Greek myths. Predictably, their own classmates have responded with insults and thinly veiled rape threats in the comments sections of the Columbia Spectator story.

Lest it seem that these students are asking for some extreme and unreasonable accommodation, consider this: Have you ever had a friend invite you to see a movie and asked them to warn you if the movie has graphic violence in it? If so, congratulations, you’ve asked for a trigger warning. It’s unlikely, as Michael E. Miller writes in Post, that trigger warnings are a “treatment [Greek myth] never had before.” Surely someone has at some point handed their friend a book of Greek mythology and said, “Watch out though, there’s kinda a lot of rape in there.”

The outrage over trigger warnings (in college syllabi and elsewhere) is just one example of the online backlash against supposed “over-sensitivity.”

Microaggressions, which have long been discussed in academic circles but recently made more well-known by college students’ awareness campaigns, are another frequent target. National Review referred to the effort to reduce microaggressions as “thought police.” Reason advised voters to be “less sensitive” to microaggressions. The Atlantic offered some helpful advice: “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro.” The message seems to be that what you don’t think about can’t hurt you.

When I read any one of these many panicked screeds, what I see on the surface is fear that things that have always functioned a certain way (i.e., college classrooms, corporate offices, online comments sections, and casual conversations) will no longer be able to function that way. Now we have to be “sensitive.” Now we can’t make lewd comments about a female colleague’s body. Now we can’t ask an Asian classmate which “type of Asian” he is.

But it goes deeper. People are worried that they’ll have to care about all these problems they never even knew existed, that they’ll be seen as bad people if they do not care, and that they won’t know all the right words to say and will say the wrong words instead. And that’s a real fear.

But it’s a fear few want to acknowledge, because it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you. So instead, it becomes about how college students are So Whiny And Coddled These Days and how will we ever be able to have a conversation if we have to be So Sensitive all the time?

Read the rest here.

Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against "Over-Sensitivity"

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

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.



1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism