Responding

Brief post today, as I write a not-so-brief paper and study for finals. 

I’ve been writing a lot about what not to do with respect to mental illness disclosure, so this quote from Jesse on how to respond when a friend shares, is a useful counterpoint.

So the best thing to say forever and always (no matter how repetitive it sounds) is “I love you, I care about you, and I am sorry you struggle with this. I hope to see you get better/am glad to hear that you are recovering.”

Brilliant and multipurpose.

How To Respond Badly

Sharing problems is hard to do. Our society values being “drama-free” over dealing maturely when drama–as it inevitably does–happens. We’re supposed to fix it ourselves, or just ignore it. Because that’s what you do, right? (If I ever meet whomever made up the stupid rules of society, we are going to have Words.) As a result, we somehow manage to avoid talking about how to respond helpfully to someone with capital ‘B’ Bad News. We’re self-indulgent creatures, after all, and we’ll do all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid staring a situation in the face and recognizing that it’s just rotten. It’s less bad than you think it is! It’s fixable! You’re going to be fine!

No.

Some things are terrible, and all you can do is sit with them and look at how horrible they are. People hurt and die and damage each other for no discernible reason.
It’s just true.
It just happens.
Want to make it hurt less? When someone tells you something rough in their life, don’t do any of these:

Explain how you totally don’t have that problem.

Please, take a few seconds to picture this conversation for me:

Jane: I just got hit by a car! Can you come to the ER so I can have someone there to listen and hold my hand and make sure everything goes okay?

Jeff: Oh, that sucks! I totally look both ways when I cross the street, and I had a near miss last week with this awful driver, but Sally pulled me out of the way. In fact, I’ve never been seriously injured. I never want to be in that much pain or dealing with doctors, and I’ve heard that getting bones set is just miserable!

This is unlikely to the point of hilarity, right?

Right?

A lot of human interaction is trying to relate to each other, and when you simply cannot understand why someone has to deal with That Awful Thing that makes no sense, it’s quite easy to shift gears from sympathy to “but that’s never happened to me!”.

I catch myself in it all the time. One second I’m agreeing how awful it is when professors play favorites, and then suddenly I’m talking about the way my sociology professor always learns everyone’s names. That is the conversational equivalent of ignoring the bleeding person in front of you while you make sure you haven’t broken a nail.

Make an only-slightly-related joke to diffuse tension!

Disclaimer: this could actually, maybe, possibly work for people with a radically different sense of humor and conversational skills than me. I just haven’t met anyone like that. Ever. So factor that into your strategic deployment of humorous non-sequitors. 

When I’ve geared myself up to disclose something, it’s an emotional experience. I often practice before, write down important things, talk it over with trusted friends, and then stress, stress, stress. Sometimes that last step is so overwhelming it inhibits me entirely. So when I say something that makes me feel like I’ve been tangled up in knots, it’s a big deal.  Trying to rearrange my face into a pleasant laugh is so far down on the list of appealing activities it’s spending time with the penguins of Antarctica.

Give me advice I didn’t ask for.

I have to pause here, dear readers and tell you about one very well meaning acquaintance, who, upon hearing me off-hand mention that I was recovering from anorexic tendencies, looked very distraught. They stopped in their tracks and said, with a deadly serious expression, “That’s really bad! You should really try to eat more!” 

Luckily, they caught me on a very good day, and I burst into hysterical laughter instead of uncontrolled sarcasm. Eating more! As a solution to starving myself? Could it be?!

We’d all like to think we’re offering The Best Advice You’ve Never Heard Before. It’s going to fix every problem and cure cancer. Nope! By the time you’ve nerved yourself up to share something that leaves you vulnerable, you’ve probably…you know…thought about fixing it some.

We live in an individualistic society, and being strong and independent is valued. (If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they didn’t want to seek help for a medical or psychological condition because they were going to figure it out/push through it….I’d have really saggy pants.) Commit some variation of this phrase to memory:

That sounds [synonym for bad]! I’m really sorry. Do you want to talk more about it, or be distracted, or are you looking for suggestions for dealing with it?

The subtext: I heard you, I care about you, and I care so much that I’m going to do exactly what you think would be most helpful. And if that advice is completely new or original and you just cannot stand to let it go unsaid, begin here:

I think I might have an idea that could help. Do you want advice?

And then, if they say no, please, please, for the love of cheesecake and chocolate, please keep it to yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about your friend who hurts and needs you to listen to them and their needs. Your need to say some words is trumped by their need to be heard.

The Friend Manual: Part I

Part II
Part III
Part IV 

I am a friend to some lovely brilliant people with mental illness. I also have my own experiences with persistent brainfail, and some really wonderful friends who show up and give me hugs, talk me through the worst nights, and know that when I say I’m not doing so well and need space…I really need space right then and there.

I also have acquaintances who cannot do this. For them, when I want to say “I am incapable of normal interaction right now, please come back later.”, what actually comes out of my mouth is “Oh man, I have a really bad headache.” I am sure that these people, who have always meant well–and include Don’t You Know That’s Bad For You Person and Sometimes I Forget To Eat Too Person–would be shocked, shocked to hear that they’ve said tactless things. After all, that’s how it works–you don’t realize.

Don’t want to be that person?
Have a friend with mental illness?
(Chances are, you probably do.)
Want to make your friend feel like a valued part of society that you care for? If the answer to this is no, artist Ologies has this for you.
With that idea in mind, I’ve put together some basic  ideas for being the best human being you can for someone who’s just told you they have Disorder X.

A Most Important Caveat: It may be that your friend has no interest in discussing anything past the original disclosure. Please make sure to continually check that they are comfortable answering questions….and emphasize that they can tell you to stop at any time, or refuse to answer personal questions they are uncomfortable with. When I feel that I cannot leave or postpone conversations once they’ve begun, I will do anything to prevent them from starting in the first place. Safe spaces aren’t safe when they don’t have an exit.

1. Words Matter More Than Anything
So they found the words to tell you how they feel? Pay attention. Words are the best way we know to get others inside our heads, and the words they use to describe their experience are the most important tools they are giving you. She feels fragile? That’s not the same as depressed. So he is feeling depressed? That is not called feeling sad. I feel most understood and valued and listened-to when I hear someone work within the bounds of how I’ve described my feelings.

You said you were feeling like you had no momentum. Do you still feel like that? Will you feel better if I take you out to dinner and we catch a movie? Or would that make you feel like you have to pretend to be enjoying yourself?

2. Do. Not. Assume.

I know that one of the most basic human instincts is to relate to one another by shared experience. Do not try this.

So, you had that one friend with bipolar disorder that one time back at that one place? Cool story, bro. I can assure you that I am not that friend. In this particular example, there’s the problem that there’s two expressions of bipolar disorder. Didn’t know that? That’s cool. You don’t have to. All you have to know is that I am Me, and that Me is not the same as That Other Person With Disorder X.

3. You Don’t Have to Be Their Therapist

You know them so well, and if you could only get them to consider… No.

Stop right there.

I get it, and you do have a special frame of refernce, but Stop It. Now. Make like a pumpkin and squash that feeling.

4. No, Really, Please Don’t Try to Be A Therapist

If you’re my friend, we have a give-and-take. Sometimes I listen to you talk about that one time you tried to explain an Important Thing to your mom/boyfriend/girlfriend/professor and they Just Didn’t Get It, and sometimes you listen to me grouch about my stressful day at work. We trade off on this, and if we didn’t, I would be a bad friend, and it would be totally fine if you called me on it, or just decided to find the right kind of friends.

This is not how therapy works. Therapists and counselors and psychologists get paid the fancy money to do things like get mad when their clients don’t do their homework and ask really personal questions, and as a result, their clients can expect that they will be given attention, that their problems will be the focus, and that if they don’t seem to be getting the right kind of help, they can fire the therapist. The friendships are far more complex, and as a result, you don’t get to fire your friends, and you don’t have to pay them.

5. I Mean It. You Aren’t A Therapist.

Really, if there’s anything you take away from all these words, let this be it. It will be painful, uncomfortable, and probably downright annoying. You aren’t qualified, and I’d rather have my friend.

What you can do is offer to find local counseling centers. Take me to my appointments if I can’t get there, or give really big hugs when I leave them and I still feel bad. There are therapists out there, and lots of them. Possession of a dusty degree in psychology or that one textbook from freshman year Intro Psych does not somehow negate your Friend Identity. Even if you were a therapist, you should never ever try to treat your friends. So really. Don’t do that.

I started this post, and suddenly I was sitting around with two thousand words on my computer. Part II will be coming soon–in the meantime, leave me suggestions for things I have left out or could have said better!

Video Dragon*Con 2011: Do Be a Dick

This is the talk I gave at Dragon*Con last year, which was itself an expansion on the talk I gave at TAM9.  It’s about how to use emotions to your advantage when trying to promote a cause.  I talk about Prop 8, the importance of social justice in getting people to like atheists, and how to be a dick in an effective way.

The powerpoint and notes for the presentation are here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller/2011/09/06/do-be-a-dick-sometimes-emotions-and-skeptics/

Book Summary: “You play like a girl” by Elena Bertozzi

She teaches, makes video games, and writes novels? I’m in love.

For one of my classes this summer, I had write annotations/summaries for several books.  I enjoyed many of them and I thought that the annotations might be useful for other people, so I will be posting them here.  They’re somewhat rough, but considering how much everyone loves when someone at FtB posts about feminism, I doubt it matters.

Bertozzi, E. (2011). “You Play Like a Girl”: Cross-Gender Competition and the Uneven Playing Field. In G. Dines, & J.M. Humez (Eds.), Gender, Race, and Class in the Media: A Critical Reader (pp. 443-454). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Question(s) Investigated: What is the environment in video games like for women?  Does gamer culture encourage cross-gender competition?

Time Period: 2000s

Geographic Region: US

Subjects studied: Video games, competition, gender relations

Abstract:

Women play as many video games as men, but different ones, generally ones that involve less developed skill.  Because gamer culture and the culture at large are so gendered, even in gender-neutral gameplay, the gender of the players impacts the way that the game is played – especially when there is a lot of interacting with other players (444).  Civility is taught as something men should always show women, and violence towards women is abhorred (445), yet violence against female characters may be necessary when playing against women.

Men are also extremely hostile when they are beaten by a woman (446).  Women and girliness are associated with gayness and weakness and are to be avoided at all costs – to play a woman means that victory will be hollow and loss will be humiliating (447).  Women know this as well and it makes them uncomfortable when playing against men (448).Friendly open aggression between men is ok, but there’s no equivalent for women and no equivalent for inter-gender interaction.  Women do not use games to establish a dominance hierarchy the same way that men do; women use beauty not skill for their hierarchies (449).

The article ends with suggests as to how to make the gamer community and gaming in general more friendly to women and to crossgender gaming.  Normalize crossgender play, create a broader range of female character types, etc.

Resources used:

Alix, A. (2007) ‘Online Game Talk and the Articulation of Maleness,’ in Flow TV 5

DeBoer, K.J. (2004). Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently.

Levy, A. (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

Lucas, K. and Sherry, J.L. (2004) ‘Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation’. (this link is a pdf)

Taylor, T.L. (2005) Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture.

 

And here’s a video of her talking about teaching and play: http://www.uww.edu/news/videos/why-i-teach-elena-bertozzi ”

If there were more women involved in making games, then we would see a lot of different kinds of games. We will also have more women running corporations that run technology. We’ll have a female Bill Gates and a female Steve Jobs.

Book Summary: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

For one of my classes this summer, I had write annotations/summaries for several books.  I enjoyed many of them and I thought that the annotations might be useful for other people, so I will be posting them here.  They’re somewhat rough, but considering how much everyone loves when someone at FtB posts about feminism, I doubt it matters.

Susan J. Douglas is one of my new favorite writers.  She is clever, into pop culture, and one of the funniest academic writers out there.  Her book Enlightened Sexism is one I highly recommend if you are interested in television culture, Buffy the Vampire SlayerXena, or good writing.

Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

Question(s) Investigated: What do representations of women’s power in the media mean?  Is feminism’s work over because we see powerful women in the media?  How are women’s interests being harmed by the media?  What harm is done by spreading the belief that sexism is over and feminism’s work is done?

Time Period: 1990s-2000s

Geographic Region: US

Subjects studied: Media portrayal, stereotypes, equality, beauty

Place in the literature: This is a very recent book, but it is an important response to reactionary anti-feminism and claims that the world is post-feminist.  Despite many claims to the contrary, Douglas claims that feminism’s work is not done, and the lie that it is done has caused ground to be lost in the fight for equality.  Partially a call to action and partially a denunciation of those who claim that the fight is over.

Abstract:

CH1 – Teenage Girls
The focus here is that teenagers, particularly teenage girls, became an important demographic in the 1990s.  Beverly Hills 90210 became the most popular television show for young women in the 90s, along with shows like Melrose Place and Murphy Brown.  Depiction of women in these shows generally were stereotypical, either of superficial women who used sex to get power or women who were too busy with their careers to have lives. Women were always beautiful. Even in shows that were theoretically empowering, like Murphy Brown, employed tropes like motherhood was “natural” for women and careerism was not (40).

Interestingly, shows with strong female leads were highly rated, even when they did not have traditionally attractive women as leads: Roseanne, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote, and Grace Under Fire (43).

She also talks about Riot Grrrl, a rock movement from the early nineties that mixed punk with feminism, dealing with complex and troubling problems facing women, problems that were ignored by the mainstream.  The mainstream press did not appreciate that and were very dismissive, but the terms of the movement found their way into a sanitized mainstream version of “girl power” (45).

Douglas then goes on to talk about the magazine “Sassy,” which she is a fan of and which, frankly, I’m upset I didn’t have when I was a teenager, it sounds pretty amazing.  An article went backstage to reveal the codes used behind the scenes at Miss America: WC, H, BB for Weak Chin, Heavy, and Big Butt (48). The chapter also addresses the problem of being a teenage girl: “if they behave like true adolescents, they can’t be feminine, and if they adopt the mantle of femininity, they aren’t really adolescents.” (53).  The briefly powerful moments of Riot Grrrl and “Sassy” were immediately co-opted by major media outlets and tamed into something profitable and not good for women.

CH2 – Violent Women

Lorena Bobbitt in Vanity Fair

Framed within news stories surrounding destructive women like Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher, Tonya Harding, and Janet Reno, this chapter focuses on the anxiety around changing/evolving gender roles.  The stories in the media reflected themes in TV and film at the time (56).

“Enlightened sexism rests on that ever-quaking and shifting fault line about female sexuality: it should be exploited and stoked (especially to sell products) but it should be policed and punished (to keep girls and women in their place)” (57).

I was 8 when Amy Fisher was news, and I never heard anything about it.  I was 9 when the Bobbitt’s were news and there were lots and lots of penis jokes.  I didn’t realize how young they were, she was only 22 when she attacked her husband.  Also, this is the picture I found of her when Googling:

CH3 – Warrior Women
This chapter is about Warrior Women like Xena and Buffy with whom “we saw the proliferation of a new kind of heroine, a sexy, mouthy, physically violent ass-kicker whose duty it was to save the entire world from really monstrous evildoers” (77).  In the 90s, feminist concerns had moved from explicit discrimination, particularly in the work place, to sexual politics and more subtle discrimination and personal violence (79).

And then there was Charlie’s Angels, which brought back women using their sexuality to defeat men.  And then La Femme Nikita, which included the line “there’s no weapon as powerful as your femininity” (95).  Dark Angel emphasized that female sexual desire was dangerous, by having the lead go into heat (96).

CH4 – Feminism as Ugly
Focuses on media that dismisses feminism as a thing of the past or unattractive.  Clueless heralded the beginning of female narrated films, but those narrations came with a focus on “girly” things like fashion and whether boys wanted them.  And this happened at the same time as the warrior women (104).  The idea of essentialism, that women and men were fundamentally different, was promoted (105).

She goes on to discuss Ally McBeal, which managed to be both feminist and anti-feminist; Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, which were about balancing feminism with girliness; Down with Love, which implies that women aren’t really feminist they just want men to be good to them.

CH5 – Black Women
This chapter focuses on the black female power and how the media represents black women.  There’s focus on what she calls “Black Speak” and sass and powerful women’s ability to move from speaking white middle-class to speaking black.  This is escapist for white and black people.  The problem is that black women are represented as having power giving the impression that in the real world, feminism isn’t necessary.

Black women earn “62.5 cents to every white man’s dollar (in Louisiana it’s 48.9 cents to his dollar)” (130).  Even as representation of women got more complex in general, it embraced stereotypes of black women, such as in shows by Martin Lawrence (141) and crime shows generally (144).

Douglas writes at length about Oprah.  “Oprah and her audience construct a fantasy, a utopia where white and black women come together as allies and friends. And how many black women, besides Oprah, have launched a magazine named after them, featuring herself on the cover every month, and have it be a hit with white women?” (147).  Although Oprah herself is committed to helping people, she focuses on individual self-improvement in a world where not everyone with the will to succeed necessarily will, these problems “can’t be overcome simply by pulling up your bootstraps or finding your spiritual center” (150).

CH6 – Sex in America
This chapter is about American sex culture and how it focuses on women and very young ones at that.  There is a “culture that is prudish and pornographic – how’s that for a contradiction to navigate?” (155).  She introduces the idea of the “sexpert”, someone who is an expert at sex and openly talks about it – sexual empowerment got twisted into self-objectification (156).

Then she goes on to talk about very young girls who are exploited by the culture, including those on Toddlers & Tiaras (she drops the ampersand for an ‘and’) and the tragic case of JonBenet Ramsey (157-158).  She also addresses how horrible Cosmo and Maxim are in their advice to women.

CH7 – Television
According to her, “a close look at reality TV reveals it to be the ground zero of enlightened sexism” (189).  She discusses several different television shows and then, from pages 198-210 offers the top 10 sexism in action:

  1. Women are to be judged first and foremost by their appearance

“if you’re beautiful, you have it knocked – all else will follow. But at the same time they show us that we can never be beautiful enough… such shows provide an excellent selling environment for the multibillion-dollar diet and beauty industry…” (201).

  1. Women need to compete over men
  2. Women can’t get along with one another and will stab each other in the back
  3. Women are overly emotional and obsessed with relationships
  4. Women should be sexy, but not overly sexual
  5. The worst thing a woman can be is a bitch: strong women are bitches and rich women are bitches
  6. African-American women are lazy, threatening, have a chip on their shoulder, are not marriage material, or all of the above (except for Tyra Banks)
  7. Women (especially blondes) are shallow, materialistic, and live to shop
  8. Housework and child rearing are a woman’s domain
  9. Lesbians? What lesbians?

Reality TV resurrects these stereotypes, leads to approval of them, lets women know how they are judged on appearance.

CH8 – Dieting
This chapter is about the rise of diet culture and the mean girl culture.  Women failing to live up to the ridiculous standards of beauty, requiring extreme thinness and giant breasts, has lead to them being angry, and they turn that anger inward and towards each other rather than at the media (220).  She complains about the increased spending on cosmetic surgery and the focus on cosmetic surgery in television – I would point out that, like many medical fields, the technology and results have improved massively over time and the costs have come down, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to entirely blame this growth on a change in the media landscape.  It is certainly based on a beauty ideal that is unattainable, but that ideal has existed all along.

She then goes on to address the mean girl phenomenon, something that isn’t new and isn’t particularly widespread, despite the focus on it.  She argues that the focus is to create the idea that women themselves are the problem, not the culture, and women need to be put back into their place because they can’t do that for themselves (236-237).

CH9/CH10 – Celebrity Culture
These chapters are about celebrity culture and how obsessed the media is with controlling the femininity of women celebrities and politicians.  Magazines tear women apart for being too fat, too thin, too controlling, lacking children, lacking a husband, aging, and just about anything outside of the cultural model of perfection for women.  “Losing your man is a tragedy, but remaining childless is a thermonuclear disaster” she says of how magazines cover women’s family planning choices (259).  Meanwhile, women with political power give men like Tucker Carlson castration anxiety (269).  She then goes on to talk about the representation of female power in fictional television, and how it focuses on women who are in typically male jobs and not very feminine, rather than focusing on jobs where women usually work (279-280).

She also writes about the lack of representation of lesbians in the media, with the exception of the occasional straight girl make-out session (290).  She mentions Ellen and Rachel Maddow, but argues that their sexuality remains in the background, but I think that this isn’t true – they both speak often about LGBT issues and certainly their sexuality more openly impacts what they report on than most people with talk or news shows.  Her point about fictional representation stands, though.  The root problem is that lesbians are politicized and anti-consumerism (291).

Resources used:

Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Rosalind Gill, Gender and the Media (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007).

Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism (London: Sage, 2009).

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

A. Susan Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27 (Summer 1999).

Dawn Heinecken, The Warrior Women of Television (New York: Pete Lang, 2003).

Kristal Brent Zook, Color by Fox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Laura S. Brown, “Outwit, Outlast, Out-Flirt? The Women of Reality TV,” in Featuring Females: Feminist Analyses of the Media, ed. E. Cole and J. H. Daniel (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2005).

Jackie Stacey, “Feminine Fascinations: A Question of Identification?” in The Celebrity Culture Reader, 252-85.

Amanda Lotz’s work in general

No Profanity Ordinance? Bullshit.

Today I read a news story in The State and WIS that said the Columbia Police Department is going to be enforcing a “no profanity” law within the city limits.

The police spokeswoman said: “If they want to curse, do it in their own home. Why do you have to do it in park where they are other children, other people who will. This, it’s just quite frankly, pretty rude.”

Rudeness is not illegal and no one has the right not to be offended. Furthermore, there is no clear definition of what is considered profane. There is no list of forbidden words, phrases, or subjects available to anyone that I am aware of. Or is it like pornography, we are just supposed to know it when we see it? How can they justify this, or is it just an effort to put up signs to stop people complaining at meetings?

Furthermore, based on the ordinance that they are citing, I simply do not think that someone dropping an F-bomb qualifies as Disorderly Conduct as it is defined in ordinance 14-91, the ordinance listed on the sign.

It shall be unlawful for any person within the city limits to engage in the following conduct, knowing or having reasonable grounds to know that it will tend to promote or provoke a fight, assault or brawl.

Am I to believe that simply cursing within earshot of someone is attempting to provoke a fight? Is that something any reasonable person thinks? The ordinance is clearly NOT about profanity — the term “profanity” does not appear at all — putting that on a sign is an absurd stretch.

A law banning profanity would be unconstitutional, but the law they cite doesn’t even do that! They’ve just made it up!

My Talk about Emotions in Rhetoric

I gave a “sermon” at the UU in Columbia at the end of September and they’ve gotten around to putting it up on their website. If anyone is interested in listening to me talk about rhetoric, emotions, and Prop 8… here’s yet another opportunity!

UUCC-sermons-2011-Q3-Jul-Sep – UUCC-2011-09-25 – eSnips.

It looked exactly like this except nothing said TAM

Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics

This is the paper I wrote as a reference to what I was going to talk about at Dragon*Con, which was itself an expansion on the paper I submitted to TAM9.  What I did at D*C was longer, more conversational, and a bit sillier than this paper is, but it will give you the basic thrust of what I talked about.

My background is in film and media and I’m currently getting my PhD in Mass Communications. I’ve worked in Hollywood, I’ve worked in South Carolina, and other horrible places in between. Film is a powerful medium because it speaks not only in images but also in emotions, and emotions are what I want to talk about today.

When I think about films that I saw long ago, I rarely remember the plots or the character names, though I often remember the actors. What I mostly remember are the moments of extreme emotion in the film. I remember the shower scene in Schindler’s List, the reuniting of the sisters in The Color Purple, the death of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the pain and horror of Sara when she is reunited with her father and he does not recognize her in A Little Princess. We are drawn into movies for many reasons, but they tend to stick with us because of their emotional power.

Movies use a lot of tricks to get this to happen, they use music and lighting, they use editing and writing, they use actors that are famous and that we’re already emotionally attached to, and they use the close-up. Think about how close you have to be to someone to see them as close as you see someone in a close-up. Most people only ever see their family and their lovers that close. The art of false intimacy! I say this merely as a preamble, to show you how easily one can get caught in emotions and to show that emotional manipulation is something that any filmmaker, and furthermore anyone who is trying to engage an audience, should be using.

Last year at TAM, Phil Plait (who I love!) gave a talk about how to successfully argue, and his broad theme was Don’t Be A Dick. As a smart ass, I took this rather personally — I’ve mostly moved on, but I’ve spent the year trying to distill why exactly it got under my skin and it is this: nice doesn’t always work and mean is an effective tool when wielded correctly. Being a dick triggers an emotional response, but not always the one you’re looking for, it is important to use emotion with intent.

What Phil Plait was absolutely right about was this: the skeptic movement doesn’t always take emotion into account when it argues, and it should. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a dick, of course, one can very easily use emotion without invoking dickitude, but being a dick is a tool (lol) in an arsenal of emotional weapons. This doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job, in many circumstances being a dick is not going to get the reaction you’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean it never will.

There are two things I want to cover today: why dickishness can work and why emotions are important. These things are interrelated – insults are almost always emotional, and not necessarily negative. An insult brings about different emotional responses in the insultee, the audience, and the insulter themselves. Emotions are not easy and are less scientifically certain than logic, but they are essential to making good arguments.

My Favorite Slide Ever

To bring in someone else’s opinion on the issue, I’ll refer to Aristotle. There are three essential parts of any rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos – logic, ethics or integrity, and emotions. I think skeptics really have the first one covered; logic will never be our weak link. Ethos we struggle a little bit more with, not because we’re not ethical, but because oftentimes we are perceived as unethical, particularly the more atheistic your arguments are. This is slowly changing, the more we get out there and spread the message the more people realize we aren’t eating babies. Emotional arguments are an important way to rehabilitate the image of someone, though they are also easily used to undermine someone’s character.

We often see this in ad hominem attacks, these attacks undermine credibility without actually talking about what someone is arguing. To most humanists, and I would guess to most people in the audience, the ad hominem is generally immoral because personal traits shouldn’t be relevant to an argument. And, in terms of being strictly logical, that’s true.

Except, that’s not always emotionally true. When Ted Haggard is railing about the immorality of gay sex and is then engaging in it, that sort of hypocrisy should be exposed. This is a form of ad hominem tu quoque (you also), it remains logically fallacious, just because Ted Haggard had gay sex doesn’t mean his argument that gay sex is bad is incorrect, it just means he’s a hypocrite. But most people care if someone’s a hypocrite a lot more than they care about logic.

This is at least partially why there’s been a large push in the movement towards charity and embracing ideas beyond the traditional scope of skepticism. It’s almost an attempt to rehabilitate the ethos of the skeptics. The Foundation Beyond Belief, for example, does do a lot of good for the world, but it also promotes an image that gives atheists more credibility. In the same vein, there’s also a push from many in the movement, such as Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Debbie Goddard, and others, to approach more meaningful topics that maybe fall outside the “traditional” range of skeptic issues. How can we develop credibility among people who are not in any way served by us? Why don’t we address issues that are important to people who aren’t a part of the movement, like drug laws and the insane number of black men in prison? Like abstinence only education and the wage gap? I admit that I am very strongly in favor of this, and am therefore biased.

Finally, there is pathos, the emotional side of things. Obviously, all three, logos, ethos, and pathos, are interrelated, but when you focus exclusively on logic you’re still impacting ethos and pathos, you’re just not doing it intentionally. It’s easy to understand how skeptics drop the pathos part of arguments, skepticism is about rationality after all, but my main argument here is that it’s completely irrational not to take emotion into account. Have facts, by all means, have all of them you can find, be smarter than the other guy (or gal), but use emotion to your advantage.

The trouble is that people are not rational. It’s the reason we have trouble winning lawsuits, and it’s the reason that Separation of Church and State groups like the SCA are moving away from Establishment Clause cases, which argue abstract philosophical ideas, towards equal rights cases, which are about people being mistreated. You have to take into account how people already feel AND get people to respond to your arguments emotionally.

Using emotion doesn’t mean lying, it means rationally taking into account the fact that humans don’t respond solely to logic. That’s what makes us human, and we should be glad of it, not try to suppress it. And if we know it’s there, we’re foolish not to take advantage of it, because our opponents are already masters of emotion and therefore have a huge advantage. With facts you have what’s wrong, but with emotion you have why someone should care.

One of the greatest dicks of all time, Cicero, was the king of rhetoric. Cicero is an interesting case study, despite his Machiavellian emphasis on how pliant people are when you’ve appealed to their emotions (or perhaps we should say Machiavelli was Ciceronian?), he is also recognized as one of the fathers of the humanist movement. Civic humanism, the devotion to a public life of trying to make the world a better place for the people who have to live in it, is modeled almost entirely on Cicero’s own dedication to education and ethical politics. Cicero believed that man is set apart by reason and speech, which allows for the formation of society.

Cicero recognized an important distinction that we should recognize as well, when you’re arguing in public, you’re not simply arguing with a person, you’re putting on a display for an audience. This is true regardless of the medium. Obviously I am giving a display to an audience here (Ed. Note: pretend you’re at Dragon*Con), but I could easily insult someone in the front row and make you the audience hearing my insults. I could also insult you and make you both the insultee and audience. This is true of debates that go on onstage, of conversations you see on television shows like Bill O’Reilly or The Daily Show. This appeal to the audience is true even when things are recorded without an audience for broadcast, and true for any argument in any public space.

This is true when arguing on YouTube, or on a blog, or on an online forum. An argument in these places isn’t just meant for one person, though it may be aimed primarily at them, it is aimed also at convincing other readers of your point. It is perfectly possible to make a mean argument that the supposed target will completely ignore but that will convince others that you are right.

Among the many speeches Cicero gave, many were devoted to tearing apart the character of Mark Antony. These speeches were not meant for Antony, they were meant for the audience – the senate and the public, who proceeded to consolidate their support for Cicero. Insult worked here to speak truth to power, but primarily to weaken support of the power in question.

Insults are also entertaining, how else explain the popularity of House MD and Yo Mamma jokes? People enjoy insults as comedy, as clever, as signs of intellectual superiority. An insulter is not necessarily a bad guy – insensitive perhaps, but often the bringer of truth in an entertaining way. When House calls someone a liar, he does so with the kind of flourish that makes you like him – we like him because he’s confident (to the point of delusion, perhaps) and because he is a dick. He is not afraid to speak the truth, preferably in the form of a putdown, and preferably against the prevailing “good manners” of the day. To someone’s insistence on humility, he says:

Humility is an important quality. Especially if you’re wrong a lot… Of course, when you’re right, self-doubt doesn’t help anybody, does it?” (#109)

The entertainment purpose here shouldn’t be underestimated. If you think of the rise in attention to atheists and the massive rise in attendance to skeptic or atheist conferences in the past few years, you can attribute a lot of that to the increase in how entertaining atheists are. To get media exposure one doesn’t need to be right, unfortunately, they just need to be interesting – viewers equal dollars, and almost all of the media has a bias towards whatever makes them more money. Insults are entertaining, and therefore get coverage. And coverage means awareness, and awareness means people can’t pretend we don’t exist – whether they agree with us or not.

I know there’s been a big hullabaloo over the tone atheists take on billboards and so forth, but how much coverage has that earned atheists in the news?

Thomas Conley’s “Toward a Rhetoric of Insult” has brilliant insight and analysis on the cultural impact and importance of insults. One of his most interesting insights is that for an insult to work, the people in the audience have to share the same worldview and values as the insulter – an insult is inherently stating that the speaker is morally or otherwise superior and that anyone in the room, including the insultee, should hold to the same moral standards that the insulter is referencing.

For example, if HL Mencken, insulter extraordinaire, says of Warren G. Harding:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

He is appealing to the idea that everyone thinks that bad English, wet sponges, and barking dogs in the middle of the night are bad things indeed. Even Harding himself would have to agree.

Insults can also be powerful motivators, think of coaches and drill sergeants, or to take a less warlike example, think of sororities and fraternities, which put people through hazing before joining. This creates, strangely, a very tight bond between the insulters and insultees.

To quote Thomas Conley directly:

[O]ne side of insult calls for shared values and beliefs, rests on a kind of intimacy between insulter and the one being insulted, and can be a way of reinforcing social bonds, not just asserting alienation. Insults can be viewed as indirect celebrations of public virtue and as an implicit recognition of the ubiquity of hierarchy. And insults can be a method of motivating people to do their best-what, I suppose, we might call “the noble insult,” like the “noble lie” in Plato or Quintilian. Finally, insults can be a powerful mode of truth-telling.

There is, perhaps, a huge gap between a troll on a website and Christopher Hitchens, though I suspect many Christianists would accuse Hitchens of trolling them. But the spectrum of dicks doesn’t mean that you either have to be Hitchens or you can’t be a dick, it means that context matters (of course!) and that you should at the very least be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish through the way you’re speaking. This is the art of rhetoric generally, but there is a place for being a dick within that art, precisely because of the skillful way in which dickishness can elicit emotional responses.

So, we’re back to the broader point, emotions good! Use them!

People respond to personal stories, people respond to emotional appeals, and if that doesn’t feel right to you, all you have to do is look at Prop 8. Dave Fleischer did an in-depth case study of the Prop 8 campaign, and what follows is an analysis of the importance of emotion in the arguments, and how the gay marriage side failed to emotionally connect with voters.

The gay movement and the atheist and skeptic movement have a lot in common. Like LGBT, atheists and skeptics are usually an invisible minority in the United States. We face a culture that is subtly and not so subtly biased against us, and we face the fact that people are always shoving their woo down our throats. Like LGBT, no one has to know we’re atheist, we can remain “in the closet”. And the more we do so, the more the untruths and false stereotypes about us are allowed to persist. I say this not to encourage people to out themselves, though they should, but because this is the emotional groundwork laid before we even get to the table. It’s an uphill battle, but we already know what’s there.


For those who don’t follow gay rights issues, I’ll give a brief background of Prop 8. In 2000, a ballot initiative called Prop 22 easily won the popular vote and was created as a law, which for these purposes is less effective than a constitutional amendment. In 2004, San Francisco began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which led to a long series of court battles and in 2008 the California Supreme Court said that same-sex couples had the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples, making Prop 22 invalid. Gay marriage in California began in June 2008, but on the ballot that following November was a constitutional amendment that would take that right away.

Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment for the California Constitution that said that marriage was only between a man and a woman. California, unlike the US as a whole, only requires a simple majority to amend its constitution. The campaign was the most expensive campaign in the history of propositions, and second only to the Presidential election in 2008. The gay rights side failed, and the amendment was passed. 18,000 gay couples got married in the window between the overturning of Prop 22 and the enforcement of Prop 8.

Yes = Protect Kids, No = Something about fairness?

The No on 8 campaign was, in many ways, a horrible mess for the LGBT crowd. Not because it wasn’t well-funded, even though their opposition had a seemingly endless supply of money courtesy the Mormon Church, No on 8 was outspending the anti-gay marriage crowd 2:1, even 4:1 in the final week of the campaign. Their problem was that they let the Yes on 8ers have the most emotional capital in the game. For weeks, Yes on 8 had the major advantage of having better emotional messages without facing effective counterarguments.

The shocking thing is that Yes on 8 didn’t even come up with a SINGLE emotional appeal that hadn’t been used thousands of times before this campaign, the gay rights crowd could have easily guessed what they were going to do ahead of time, and most certainly should not have been surprised when those same Anita Bryant tactics were used once again. There had been many previous campaigns headed by NOM, the Catholic Church, and the Mormons against gay marriage in the decade preceding Prop 8, and the anti-rights crowd used the same tactics they always had.

No on 8 had resources, but their ads weren’t effective because they didn’t use pathos. One of their biggest ads was called Conversation and it was two women looking at photos saying that they weren’t too fond of gays, but taking away “fundamental rights” seemed sort of wrong.

This ad was so ineffective, it actually got pulled early. Why? Because it was boring. And because it made no arguments to support its assertion that gay marriage was a fundamental right. There was no emotional appeal, just a moral appeal to something people weren’t sure was moral or not.

The most effective ads the Yes on 8ers used played on the fear of the voters, and most particularly on the fear of parents. In fact, their most effective ad was called Princes, and it was a child coming home from school telling her mother about how she learned at school that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess. Then a man says “Think it couldn’t happen here? It already is.”

This played on the subtle message that gay marriage was going to pervert childhood in some way. That’s all they had to do, was just imply it. There’s a similar bias against atheists — all someone has to do is hint at it for it to be negative. And the worst part is that these horrible stereotypes just aren’t true. This ad pulled the support of some 500,000 parents who had been on the No on 8 side — half a million parents switched their votes.  Had they voted the other way, No on 8 would have won.

The ad that most changed public opinion back towards LGBT equal rights came too late in the campaign, and it was just a direct rebuttal to the Princes ad — it unfortunately came out weeks later because the No campaign had been unprepared, but it did come out.

The numbers show that the ad was effective, so even if someone catches you unprepared with an emotional message, you can still reply. It’s not nearly as effective as defining the emotional stakes of the discussion yourself, but it’s so easy to get out on front on these issues when you know that they will be coming.

What this means for skepticism and atheism is this: If you were promoting skepticism on a billboard, which would be the stronger message: “Homeopathy is minuscule amounts of questionably useful substances diluted beyond a trace” or “Homeopathy kills, it’s not medicine, it’s fraud”.

We’ve even got the clever “Homeopathy, there’s nothing in it” stickers, right?  I love these!  They’re delightfully nerdy, and if you’re a big fan of Moles then you’ll love it.  But it doesn’t resonate with most people and why should it? It’s just not that important in the scheme of things, unless you point out that it causes actual harm, not just that it violates all the known laws of physics.

If we protest saying “Under God” in the pledge, no one cares. It just feels petty to people, even though we’re right. If we talk about a kid being bullied by teachers for not saying it, on the other hand, people are more likely to care. Think the “It Gets Better Campaign.” If you can point to harm, particularly to children, that works. Scientologists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaxxers all deny potentially life-saving medical treatments to children. Talk about perfect targets for insults.

Psychics and Faith Healers, two categories of charlatans I can’t tell apart, have had some of this leveraged at them. James Randi has effectively used the emotion of humor to reveal just how pathetic people like Uri Geller are, teaching through mockery — which is kind of dickish, just to bring this full circle. Earlier this year, atheist and mentalist Derren Brown released a special about faith healing, humorously skewering these people as frauds, grifters and scoundrels (and not the fun Han Solo type).

He exposed their tricks – the facts of the case, if you will – but he focused on emotion as well. These healers aren’t just bilking money from little old ladies, they’re bankrupting them. They’re killing them and blaming their illness on lack of faith. They’re not just tricksters, they’re not just giving false hope, it’s much worse than that.

We need more of these exposures. We need more personal stories of people who have been taken advantage of and who have been hurt by pseudoscience and irrational beliefs. We need to be getting more involved in the community, to be doing public acts of charity, to be engaging with issues that matter to people who aren’t skeptics, who aren’t atheists.  We need to be thinking about how to use emotion, we need to recognize that we’re using it whether we intend to or not, and we need to recognize that there are different tactics and, most importantly, room for people who have different tactics.

It’s hearts and minds, right? We’ve got the facts to win their minds, now let’s not be afraid to use emotional rhetoric to win their hearts as well.

Going Back to School & Dragon*Con: I’m Speaking Monday at 1PM

And you can watch!  Here.

I’ve had a craaaaazy couple of weeks here.

The bizarre tale.

I’ve been thinking about going back to school for a while – I browsed through different PhDs online for film or creative writing and I looked at law school, but the first two seemed impractical and as I didn’t think I could get a full ride to Stanford, the last one didn’t seem to have a lot of appeal. A month ago I saw a program at USC (South Carolina) in Mass Communications, which is right in line with my interests and previous degrees, so I applied for the spring semester of 2012, being the next semester available.

I got a phone call on the Tuesday before the Thursday that class started, asking me why I applied for the Spring Semester (because it was the next one to apply to!) and, if they could get me funding, would I be at all interested in coming this fall. I said, “Sure, if you get me funding,” as I am not made of money.  So then I talked to him on Thursday, which was the first day of classes for the semester, and he asked me to come down and talk to everyone. So I spent 2 hours interviewing, meeting, being grilled on stats — all at the end of the first day of classes.

I got offered a graduate research assistantship and had about 6 hours to decide if I could do it or not.  And so I am a future doctor and my life exploded into massive amounts of chaos that are slowly pulling themselves back into vague order.

I had about 247 administrative type things to do for the University, had to figure out how to do two weeks notice at my job and go to school at the same time, and prepare for speaking at Dragon*Con, and catch up on all the school stuff I had missed.