How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

Occasional Link Roundup

I’m on spring break! I get to read a lot! Enjoy.

1. Chavisory talks about emotional discussions:

It took me a long time to learn that almost whenever someone tells you that you’re being “too emotional,” what they mean is that you are being perfectly appropriately emotional about something that they simply don’t want to have to acknowledge or think about.  That being emotional is not a disqualification from argument.  Being emotional is human.

Un-emotionality is not the equivalent of having a rational argument, or a reliable indicator that someone does.  It is not the same as having a grasp of facts or science or of the actual conditions under discussion.

2. Kaoru takes one for the team and fact-checks A Voice For Men:

The MRM has some legitimate concerns, but they will ultimately fail to have any sort of major impact on them because they are more concerned with trolling feminists than actually addressing the systematic problems that result in what they’re concerned about. That, and those legitimate problems are buried beneath pointless garbage like how unfair it is that sometimes they have to take paternity tests.

3. Mia McKenzie on the Steubenville verdict:

​I, unlike many people reacting to today’s verdict, am not just thrilled to death that two 16-year-old boys are going to jail. What they did was terrible. There is no excuse. They have to be two seriously fucked-up kids to have done what they did. But what I know for damn sure is that jail does not fix broken people. It only breaks them harder.

The fact is that once these boys enter the prison system, even ​in juvenile detention, chances are that they will return to it. It will, with little doubt, fuck them up more than they are already fucked-up. They will not likely emerge from prison as two well-adjusted men who respect women and understand that sexual assault against them is not okay. That’s not what prison does for people.

4. Patrick explains one of the ways in which Dan Savage misunderstands and promotes harmful stereotypes about bisexuality, and connects it to the ongoing debate in Minnesota about marriage equality:

Biphobia in the queer community legitimizes homophobia in the dominant culture. Kicking out the bisexuals doesn’t help you, it hurts you. Telling half of the LGBT population that they don’t belong just shrinks our numbers and takes power away from all of us. Biphobia by leaders in the gay and lesbian communities allows straight haters to use biphobia as a wedge to divide us – and these people are experts at using wedges.

5. Janet D. Stemwedel has one of the best takes on the PyCon incident that I’ve seen:

There has been the predictable dissection of Adria Richards’ every blog post, tweet, and professional utterance prior to this event, with the apparent intention of demonstrating that she has engaged in jokes about sex organs herself, or that she has a history of looking for things to get mad about, or she’s just mean, and who is she to be calling other people out for bad behavior?

This has to be the least persuasive tu quoque I’ve seen all year.

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people — people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves — then we are screwed.

 

6. Leopard writes about the stereotype that women need to be “spoiled” and “pampered”:

An extremely pervasive idea exists in society— that women are to be pampered, especially by the men in their lives. Everywhere you look, adverts for flowers, chocolates and jewellery encourage men to ‘pamper her’, ‘spoil her’, ‘indulge her’, and even on International Women’s Day yesterday, which originated in 1909 to promote gender equality, my Facebook feed was full of friends and acquaintances talking about what they, or someone else had done for IWD, which usually boiled down to (you guessed it) giving/receiving flowers, chocolates or cards, stripping the day of all political meaning.

7. Kate Harding says extremely sensible things about feminist women who change their names when they get married:

Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice. That’s all. I assume it was the right choice for you, or you wouldn’t have done it, and that’s fine! But feminism is not, in fact, all about choosing your choice. It is mostly about recognizing when things are fucked up for women at the societal level, and talking about that, and trying to change it. So sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.

8. That Monsanto Protection Act everyone’s been up in arms about? Not really a thing. Although we should absolutely keep criticizing the shit out of Monsanto.

9. Captain Awkward gives a bunch of great advice to someone who wants to be less negative and critical:

There’s this fallacy that “authenticity” always means talking about things with the most negative, critical eye.  Not sharing every opinion that you have does not equal “being fake” or “lying.” Every dinner party doesn’t have to turn into a Platonic discussion of What is the Good?

10. I’ve just discovered this brilliant blog about asexuality and found this slightly older post about the concept of “platonic love”:

The “romantic-sexual/platonic” love dichotomy leaves no room for the real emotional nuances people experience in their attachments, and I think that it often causes us to live with simplified relationships not because we want to or because we have simple desires and feelings but because we have no experience, cultural context, or language to accommodate a complex social life or set of relationships. This is why language is so important. This is why words and labels matter. How can you have the kind of relationships you want with anyone, if you don’t even have the words to accurately express how you feel?

11. Keely writes about the sex-negative messages she received as a teenager and how they may have contributed to an unhealthy relationship she had:

if the background noise of my life at 16 or 17 or 18 had contained the kind of overt positive messaging about feminism and boundaries and consent, the kind of messaging that I am trying to spread around in my little bubble and that I am seeing more and more of all the time…. that would have mattered. It may not have changed everything–my bad relationship became toxic for a variety of reasons, and sex was only one of them. But it still would have taken that much less time to shake the toxic beliefs that helped keep me with him.

12. Elyse criticizes the “love your body” narrative:

But here’s the thing… It’s okay to not love my body. It’s okay to not even like my body. They’re my feelings and it’s my body and I will use those feelings to feel however I want to about my body. I don’t need you to tell me how to feel.

We don’t have to find ourselves beautiful. Beauty is not the one thing that makes us and our bodies worth loving. We don’t have to distort an already fucked-up definition of beauty, and pretend we fit into it, just to feel like we are people worthy of being loved.

13. Ana Mardoll explains why she doesn’t call herself a feminist offline:

I live in a community where I have on more than one occasion been forced to haul out the words “because my husband doesn’t like me to” in order to get out of situations where I was being bullied and pressured into doing things that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. After saying firmly and repeatedly that I didn’t want to do these things, that I wouldn’t do these things, and that I didn’t feel comfortable being repeatedly asked to do these things — all to no avail — I dragged out the magic words that I hate-hate-hate to use. “My husband doesn’t like me to” is the mantra that evaporates every objection in my community; a protective cloak that I resent being forced to wear by a community that considers my own consent to be meaningless even as it values my husband’s consent not for who he is but for what he represents.

14. If the atheist group on Kiva reaches 25,000 members by Sunday, it’ll get $10,000 in matching loans! Signing up is free and you get $25 to loan out just for joining. More details at Crommunist’s. Do it! There’s literally no excuse not to. :)

I’m Going To Rant About Those Little Equal Sign Facebook Profile Pics Now

profilepics

Sources: here and here.

I get it. The cute little red equal signs all over Facebook today are an easy target. It’s not Real Activism. It doesn’t actually help anyone. Get off your ass and Actually Do Something for the cause. Right?

Yes, nobody should fool themselves that changing their profile picture will convince the Supreme Court to disregard Charles Cooper’s embarrassing performance today, and nor will it bequeath to Justice Antonin Scalia the empathy for his fellow human beings that he is sorely lacking. (By the way, Scalia, there is a scientific answer to the question of same-sex couples raising kids, and the answer is that you’re probably full of poop.) It will not magically make religious conservatives support queer rights. It will certainly not solve the serious, life-threatening issues that the queer community faces–issues more urgent than marriage rights, issues nevertheless ignored by many mainstream LGBT organizations.

I am also, needless to say, completely sympathetic to the arguments of people who chose not to use the profile pic because it’s the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, which is an organization I no longer support, either, and have recently stopped donating to.

But I’m not so sympathetic to the argument that posting the pic “does nothing.” First of all, you don’t know that a given person who’s posted it is literally doing nothing else to promote queer rights. And second, yes, it does do something.

It’s pretty damn cynical (and not exactly kind to one’s friends) to just assume that not a single one of the people who changed their profile pictures today has done anything else to support queer rights. None of them have voted. None of them have donated any money to any organizations. None of them have contacted any representatives. None of them have ever supported a queer friend who was coming out or facing bigotry. None of them have argued with anyone about queer rights.

Does changing one’s profile picture to reflect a cause they believe in negate everything else they might have done to support that cause?

It’s as though some people see others doing something small–changing a profile picture, posting a status–and then assume that that’s all they do about that particular issue. Probably not.

On Facebook, a bunch of friends shared this status:

Lots of comments about slacktivism tossed around today. I see on my feed people who contribute financially to the cause of equality; people who bear the brunt of homophobic bigotry; people who speak out in blogs, videos, social networking, newspaper editorials, and essays; people who encourage and motivate their gay friends when the crap gets to them; people who stay in contact with their representatives in government; and those who work for their candidates, attend meetings, and keep like minded thinkers informed. But I don’t see any slacktivism, not on this feed.

On that note, it seems that the people complaining about “slacktivism” today don’t necessarily realize that many of the people posting the profile pic are themselves queer. While it’d certainly be nice if all queer people “actually did something” about homophobia, many of them don’t have that option. For many of them, simply getting through the day is resistance.

Which brings me to my second point: that posting the profile pic does do tangible good. How do I know? Because people said so. I saw tons of posts today from queer friends talking about how good it feels to see all the red profile pictures, because it tells them that there are so many people who want to support them–who aren’t perfect allies, maybe (but then, who is?), but who care how the Supreme Court rules. For one gay woman who wrote to Andrew Sullivan, it made a huge difference.

Helping a queer person feel loved and accepted matters. It matters just as much as donating to a queer rights organization or marching in a protest. Perhaps it even matters more.

And also? If you’re queer and you don’t feel this way about the profile pics at all, that’s okay too. It doesn’t have to matter to you. But it matters to many of us.

I don’t care if you’ve chosen not to change your profile picture. Seriously. I don’t care what your reasons for it were. I’m not judging you. I’m not going to look through my friends list and convince myself that everyone who didn’t change their profile picture hates gay people or whatever.

But it unquestionably felt nice to see so many red squares on my screen every time I checked Facebook today. Probably not for any “rational” reason. It just felt nice to know that all these people are paying attention to what’s going on, that they care about what the Supreme Court decides and they care in the direction of equality.

Maybe most of these people really haven’t “done anything” for queer rights other than change their profile picture. That’s actually fine with me, because not everybody needs to be an activist, and it’s enough to know that all these people are part of the majority of Americans who now support same-sex marriage.

And if you’re not part of that majority, you probably went on Facebook today and saw all the people who disagree with you and who aren’t going to take your shit anymore. Maybe you argued with someone who had changed their profile picture. Maybe we even started to convince you.

I think it’s vital to embrace all kinds of activism, from the easiest and least risky to the most difficult and dangerous. It’s important not to lose sight of the concrete goals that still need to be accomplished, and especially to discuss how the conversation about marriage equality marginalizes certain people and ignores certain issues. But it’s also important to recognize symbolic gestures for what they’re worth.

Being part of a minority–and being an activist–can be lonely, stressful, and discouraging. But today I felt supported and cared for. That matters.

All These Years I Thought I Was Just Lazy

[Content note: eating disorders/weight loss stuff]

My arms are on fire. When I woke up this morning I felt the burn immediately. I’ve been stretching and moving them around all day, simultaneously wincing and savoring the feeling because it tells me that I’m getting stronger.

I’m on spring break right now and have been taking advantage of the sudden free time by going to the gym every day. It may not sound like a big deal, but for me it is–with the exception of a few random workouts, I’ve been largely avoiding the gym for at least three years.

When I was in high school it was a different story. Back then going to the gym was punishment. I felt that I’d done a lot of things that I deserved to be punished for; not looking right being the main one. I was furious with myself because no amount of exercise seemed to be enough to make me look the way I wanted to, so I combined that with brief spurts of severe caloric restriction. That didn’t help, either. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of hunger.

So I went to the gym and took my fury out on my body. At least, that’s how it felt to me psychologically. In reality, of course, exercise within reason is good for you. But I couldn’t feel that. Working out for me was only about two things: 1) losing weight, and 2) punishing myself for not losing enough weight quickly enough.

Then I stopped. Partially because I got too busy to make it to the gym, but also because I realized that, at the time, the only way to recover would be to give up on exercise for a while. I still did stuff like walking, swimming, and biking in the summers, but that was only because I find that stuff fun, not because I was trying to work out.

And, to be sure, whenever I attempted exercise for its own sake, I quickly fell back into my old mentality of “needing” to lose weight at all costs. Along with exercising came calorie counting, bending over naked to assess the gap between my thighs, pinching my stomach mindlessly while sitting in class and trying to hide it, freaking out when my jeans came out of the wash a bit too tight, dreading buying new clothes, and on and on and on.

So I’d inevitably stop going to the gym after a few days. When it feels like that, it’s not at all worth it.

But when spring break started a few days ago, I decided to try it one more time. And this time, it worked.

This time I look forward to it. This time I keep eating whatever the fuck I want. This time I don’t even touch the scale in the locker room. This time I don’t tell people about my workouts if I know they’re going to preemptively congratulate me on the weight I’m going to lose. This time I get to do the exercises I feel like doing, not the ones that burn the most calories. This time I get to do what I thought was impossible–see exercise as a treat, not a punishment.

And let me tell you something. I am fucking furious that this–the ability to feel such joy and pleasure from exercising, to focus on how my body feels rather than how it looks–was taken away from me for so many years. I don’t mean literally taken away. Nobody forbade me from choosing to exercise because it’s good for you. But the way we talk about exercise, both among the people I knew and in our culture in general, precluded that. It’s almost like we lack the language to talk about working out without also talking about losing weight.

And when I go to the gym now and see signs advertising personal training programs to make you “Lose X Pounds in Just Y Weeks!”, it makes me sad. Not because it affects me anymore, but because I know what it’s like to walk into the gym and know in the back of your mind that you are there for that reason only. Not because you’ll feel good. Not because you’ll sleep better at night. Not to feel your muscles ache the morning after. Not to finally be able to run a marathon or bike to work every day without being exhausted or just so that you never have to ask anyone to help you carry things. Not to make friends with people who like doing the same stuff you do. Not because it helps keep depression at bay. Not even because it’s a better way to pass the time than sitting around looking out the window.

Only, only to watch the numbers slip further and further, not even knowing when you want them to stop.

For all these years I thought I didn’t exercise because I’m lazy and pathetic. I never thought to ask myself why someone who somehow has the wherewithal to do well at a competitive university and write 1000-word blog posts several times a week suddenly finds hidden reserves of laziness whenever the question of exercise comes up.

I wasn’t lazy. I straight-up didn’t want to, because I’d never found a way to think about exercise, let alone actually do it, without feeling waves of shame, inadequacy, boredom, and misery.

Now I have. Maybe because enough time has finally passed, or because of feminism, or because of the fantastic friends I have who work out and make it clear that for them, it’s got nothing to do with weight.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not hoping to lose weight at all, or that I won’t be at least a little bit happy if it happens. I’m not sure that’ll ever completely get out of my system. But even if I lose absolutely zero pounds, it won’t feel like working out is all for nothing. If a doctor told me right now that there is absolutely no chance that I’ll lose any weight given how I’m exercising and eating, I’d keep doing it anyway.

Two years ago, I would not have done the same thing.

For me, personally, that’s as close as it gets to silencing the countless voices telling us to be thin and perfect. That’s as close as it gets to declaring victory.

Not All Beliefs Deserve Respect

“I’m not trying to be ‘that douche’ but it kind of pisses me off that people here accept other’s beliefs only if they’re liberal. What if I tried to post advertising all over about why ‘I’m not an ally’ or why I think abortion is about the most disgusting crime someone can commit? I hate that I feel like I have to hide who I am, because I know I will be judged. Probably won’t even get this posted for that reason exactly.”

This is from a Facebook page at my partner’s school where people anonymously submit confessions. In the comments, people trip over themselves to assure the OP that they respect conservative beliefs and that it’s “ironic” how closed-minded some liberals are towards conservatism.

It’s definitely not the first time I’ve come across this sort of sentiment. Many people of all political orientations seem to think that being a liberal means “respecting” and “accepting” everyone regardless of their beliefs or actions. I can see how they might get that impression, given that liberals sometimes try to frame themselves as more caring and accepting than conservatives (hence the “bleeding-heart liberal” stereotype).

However, liberalism actually has nothing to do with accepting anyone’s beliefs. Traditionally, it meant valuing ideals such as liberty and equality, replacing monarchy and feudalism with democracy and private property, and so on. (Note: this is intentionally simplistic.)

Nowadays liberalism admittedly has a broader meaning. At least in the United States, liberals tend to see a role for the federal government in ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and that vulnerable people receive assistance, and they tend to be associated with the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the opinions and beliefs of others, American liberals (like most Americans) tend to believe that everyone should have the right to express their opinions. The government may not infringe on that right, and while others are not required to listen to your opinions or allow you into their private spaces in order to express them, most people would agree that a healthy society encourages the expression of all sorts of differing views.

But none of that means that I, an individual, am required by virtue of my political orientation to respect and accept everything you think and believe.

Now, it’s important to draw a distinction between respecting/accepting people and respecting/accepting opinions. Political orientations, like all labels, take on a lot of value for us, and sometimes when someone rejects your labels it feels like they’re rejecting you. But that’s not necessarily the case. I reject conservatism but I do not reject my conservative friends and family; I reject all religion but I do not reject my religious friends and family. The reason I am able to keep up relationships with these people despite our vast disagreements is because I am able to see them as more than just their labels, and they are able to see that my rejection of their beliefs and opinions does not constitute rejection of them as people.

At this point a hypothetical conservative might ask why “rejecting” homosexuality doesn’t work the same way. Here’s why. I don’t reject conservatism and religion because I find them icky and weird; I reject them because I think they’re harmful to society. Politics and religion affect us all, so it’s reasonable that we might have opinions about the political and religious beliefs of others.

But someone else’s homosexuality does not affect you in any way. If you find yourself having strong opinions about what someone does in their bedroom with consenting adults, that’s a problem with you, not with those people and their behavior. If anyone ever managed to present a strong argument based on evidence and reality for why homosexuality is harmful, I’d reconsider that position, but I’ve yet to see one. In contrast, there are strong arguments based on evidence for why conservatism and religion are harmful. You might still disagree that they’re harmful and find contradictory evidence showing that they’re helpful, but you can’t deny that good arguments against them exist.

I can divide opinions into three general categories: the ones I agree with, the ones I disagree with but can still accept as valid, and the ones I disagree with and cannot accept whatsoever. The latter category includes opinions such as these: same-sex couples should not have the right to marry. Racism is no longer a thing. Women who dress revealingly or drink alcohol are “asking” to get raped. There is no climate change currently occurring. Homeopathy works. Abortion is murder. People with mental illness should just snap out of it. I refuse to “respect” or “accept” these opinions because they are either barely-concealed attempts to impose religious ideology onto a supposedly secular society, and/or because they are contradicted by all of the available evidence.

That middle category, though, are opinions that I definitely disagree with, but I can sort of understand where they come from and appreciate the thought process that led to them. For example: the government should not mandate insurance coverage. People shouldn’t eat animals or animal products. Government intervention is inherently problematic. That soda ban in NYC was a good idea. We should ditch the Constitution. We should ban third-trimester abortions. Libertarianism and socialism tend to fit into this category for me, except when taken to extremes.

The reason I mention this is just to illustrate that disagreeing with an opinion doesn’t necessarily mean finding it ridiculous and dangerous. It’s entirely possible that someone would look at different evidence, or look at the same evidence in a different way, and come to conclusions that I disagree with but can accept and even respect. But you can’t just throw out any opinion, no matter how ridiculous, and demand that it be taken seriously and respected, not even by liberals who you think are supposed to be “open-minded” and “accepting.”

To bring it back to the anonymous comment that spurred this post, I cannot respect someone who wants to proudly state that they’re not an ally to LGBTQ people. (You don’t have to be an ally, sure, but that’s nothing to shout from the rooftops, you know?) And as for abortion, if you really think that’s “the most disgusting crime someone can commit,” you need to check your priorities. What about sexual assault? What about child abuse? Sorry, I do not “respect” those two opinions. I refuse to.

It’s worth noting, too, that it’s much easier to “respect” dissenting opinions when they do not have an immense detrimental effect on you personally. As I wrote in my post about ending friendships over political differences, sometimes what someone considers “just an opinion” hits too close to home. A straight person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman only, but a queer person may not be able to respect that. A neurotypical person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that mental illness is a sign of weakness, but a non-neurotypical person may not.

With this issue, as so many others, the difference often comes down to privilege.

I have complete sympathy for anyone who is bullied, harassed, or made to feel subhuman because of their political beliefs, even if I disagree with them. (Not only do I think that treating people this way is morally wrong, but it’s also a terrible way to get them to change their minds.) It’s difficult to be a minority of any sort, including political. I know because I’ve been that awkward conservative kid at a liberal school, wondering if everyone’s going to judge me the second I open my mouth about politics.

I have sympathy for those who feel that way, but I do not have sympathy for those who expect others to “respect” and “accept” their beliefs no matter how ill-considered, dangerous, hurtful, and unrelated to actual reality they may be.

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

How (Not) to Respond When People Change Their Minds

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of changing one’s mind. For those of us who like to try to persuade people, it’s important to think about that process and how it happens and how to facilitate it, but even someone who doesn’t spend most of their free time yelling on the Internet like I do might occasionally hope to change a friend or family member’s mind about something.

Obviously, everyone changes their mind on things at some point. Just within the last four years, I’ve gone from being very conservative to being too left-wing to support the Democratic Party in good conscience. I’ve switched my career plans from being a journalist to getting a PhD in sociology to getting a PhD in clinical psychology to getting a master’s in social work. I’ve ended a few friendships and relationships that I once hoped would last forever. Ive revised (to put it mildly) my opinion that feminists and atheists suck (hi FtB!). I’ve also stopped believing that I’m unfit to live in this world and that my entire life is a waste of time and resources, because I’ve (mostly) stopped being depressed. Perhaps the only major things that have stayed the same are that 1) I cannot live without writing, and 2) I fucking love New York City and intend to move there.

So, that’s a lot of mind-changes. That’s a lot of admitting to people I was wrong about things that range from extremely personal to extremely, well, not. That’s a lot of seeing how they react to these changes in my thinking.

The worst thing you can say when someone changes their mind about something, whether it’s about a political position or a career goal or a restaurant, is something like this: “What?! But that’s not what you were saying a week/month/year ago! Make up your mind!”

If that sounds like an outlandish reaction, I assure you it’s not, because I’ve gotten it very often within the last four years. It’s hurtful because its “Gotcha!” tone makes it sound like the person’s desperate to catch me in the act of being a hypocrite or a flip-flopper rather than actually trying to understand my point of view and how it’s changed.

Another crappy way to react when someone changes their mind, particularly when they change it in the direction that you were trying to convince them, is, “Told ya so! I knew you’d come around!” This is just annoying because, first of all, “I told you so” is a pointless and snide thing to say in almost any circumstance, and second, most people hate being told that you knew all along how they were going to act or think. Even if it’s true! It presumes that you know them better than they know themselves and that you were just sitting there biding your time until they came to the decision that you wanted them to come to.

In a way, these two reactions are opposite extremes. The first is incredulous and skeptical and assumes that people don’t typically change their minds. It forces the person into the position of justifying and proving the change in thinking that they’ve undergone. The second is self-assured and know-it-all and assumes that people always change their minds when you personally want them to. It forces the person into the position of justifying their previously-held opinion and trying to convince you that their change of heart was really something they thought through themselves as opposed to just taking your arguments on faith.

Both of these reactions will discourage people from admitting to you that they’ve changed their minds. They might even discourage people from changing their minds at all. That’s why they’re harmful.

A better way to respond when you’re confused by someone’s mind-change would be something like, “I remember you felt differently about this before. Did you change your mind/What made you change your mind?” A better way to respond when you’re not confused is, “Glad to hear you changed your mind!” That’s it. Don’t try to “catch them in the act” or snark at them for “finally coming around.”

What’s interesting is that even though we’ve all at times tried to persuade people to agree with us, there’s sort of a stigma on changing one’s mind, especially in the realm of politics. Politicians are encouraged to be ideologically “consistent” (which apparently means keeping the same opinions forever and ever) or else they’re derided as “flip-floppers” (see: John Kerry). Even we ordinary citizens may feel the pressure to keep supporting the same policies, parties, and politicians rather than reevaluating our opinions.

But ultimately, isn’t that kind of harmful? Isn’t being right more important than being stubborn?

Honestly, I love changing my mind. Not just about politics, but about everything*. Yes, I think that everything I currently believe is correct, but that might just be because I haven’t heard a good argument against any of it yet. I love hearing a thought-provoking counterargument and being inspired to reconsider what I thought was right. I want to keep improving and fine-tuning my opinions. So I have little reason to be ashamed to admit when I’ve changed my mind, but reactions like the ones I’ve described above sometimes make it difficult.

There’s a lot that goes into the art of persuasion, and the reaction that you have when someone finally changes their mind might seem irrelevant. They’ve changed their mind, after all! But being kind, supportive, and empathic throughout that entire process, even when it seems to have finished, encourages people to consider your arguments and to admit to you if they’ve decided to adopt them. It also encourages them to view changing one’s mind as a normal and even desirable thing to do.

The three little words that I wish I heard more–that I wish were easier for us all to say–are “I was wrong.”

*I’ll even change my mind about everything I’ve written in this post if someone disagrees well enough! :)

Come to Skeptech on April 5-7!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to a new student conference in at the University of Minnesota this April. It’s called Skeptech and it’s being organized by Campus Atheists, Humanists, and Skeptics (CASH) at the U of M and the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University.

The lineup of speakers is fantastic and includes PZ Myers, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Zach Weinersmith, the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (among many other really cool people).

There will also be a bunch of panels, two of which I’ll be speaking on! The first one is called “Sex in Cyberspace: Porn, OkCupid and the Internet“:

Dating online can be confusing. Grindr, okcupid, craigslist, and other media apps are all different ways technology has merged with sex and dating culture. How has this changed the way we hook up, the way we present ourselves, and how we relate to other potential partners? And what about porn—how can we be ethical consumers? And is online consent any different that “real life” consent?

The second is called “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism“:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

The organizers definitely managed to give me two subjects I have a lot of Feelings and Opinions about. I’m one of those people who’s endlessly frustrated by the way flirting and dating work online, and yet I somehow managed to meet my partner over Facebook (it’s a funny story). I think that the internet can be very empowering, particularly for people whose sexualities have traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized, but we also bring some of the worst parts of “the real world” with us when we go online.

As for the second panel, I find that I’m often having to defend the idea of online activism (it’s not all “slacktivism,” I promise!), but some of the most important activisty things I’ve done have happened mostly offline. I think that the internet can facilitate real-world action in ways that we take for granted sometimes, and I also think that it provides a space for activism for those who face serious social consequences for doing it out in the “real world.”

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now lest I give away everything I’m going to talk about at the panel, but if you have any thoughts on either of these subjects, go ahead and share them in the comments.

And, most importantly, consider coming to Skeptech if you can! Registration is free. :)

More About Justice and Less About Revenge: On Reading the Steubenville Coverage Too Early in the Goddamn Day

[Content note: sexual assault]

I don’t want to hear anything more about the “ruined futures” of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. The verdict did not ruin their futures. They ruined their futures, when they made the decision to rape someone.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how you shouldn’t drink if you don’t want to get raped. One could get blackout drunk every single day for a lifetime and they still wouldn’t get raped unless someone decides to rape them.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Jane Doe didn’t “affirmatively say no” and how Mays and Richmond thought they had consent. They said, “She is so raped right now.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Jane Doe has been known to lie. Her rape was caught on video.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how it’s only rape if there’s a penis involved. It’s rape if someone is made to participate in sexual activity without their consent.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how hopefully girls and women will “learn from this.” No. Hopefully those who think they can assault others with impunity will learn from this.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how hopefully Mays and Richmond will get raped in prison. This is rape culture.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how “dangerous” partying is for young women. 40% of rapes occur in the victim’s home; an additional 20% occur at the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. Only 24% happen in the early morning hours between midnight and 6 AM.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how “remorseful” Mays and Richmond were. They cried and begged for forgiveness only after the verdict came down. Sorry, that really doesn’t mean much.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how we need to crack down on teenage partying. Sure. But what we really need to crack down on is rape culture, violent masculinity, and the glorification of sports.

I don’t want to hear anything more about where Jane Doe’s parents were looking while she was out partying. Where were Mays’ and Richmond’s parents looking? Where was their coach looking? Oh, right, he said he “took care of it.”

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Mays and Richmond were “just kids.” Kids may not be ready for adult responsibilities and rights, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing when they assault someone.

I don’t want to hear anything more about how Mays and Richmond are just “sick,” how they’re “monsters,” how nobody you know would ever do something like that.

I don’t want to hear anything more about justice being served. I mean, yeah, let’s give credit where credit was due. But what will happen in just a few years when Mays and Richmond are released? Will they have changed? Is Jane Doe getting the help she needs? Are we doing everything we can to make sure this never happens again? That would be justice. Our work is not done.

Here’s what I want to hear more about:

What will this community do to support Jane Doe? What will it do to impart better values not just to its children, but to its adults? What will it do to ensure that being a football player gets you absolutely no special privileges? What will it do to try to help Mays and Richmond become productive members of the community without letting them off the hook for what they did?

I want to hear more about rape culture, violent masculinity, and the glorification of sports.

I want to hear more about how rapists rape because they know they’ll get away with it, not because the victim was “asking for it” or because men are too pathetic and driven by sexual urges to control themselves.

I want to hear more about what makes you a rapist and less about what makes you a victim, more about structures and less about individuals, more about justice and less about revenge.

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.