[guest post] A Purpose-Driven Life – Is God Required?

My friend Gleb Tsipursky wrote this guest post about a secular approach to finding a sense of purpose in life.

We need God for a sense of purpose in life, at least according to the vast majority of mainstream perspectives in American society. Moreover, research confirms that people with a strong religious belief generally have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose than those who do not. But is it really necessary to believe in God to have a purpose-driven life? Based on my research on meaning and purpose, and my experience in helping people find life purpose in my role as President of Intentional Insights, I will illustrate some science-based strategies that we as reason-oriented people can use to find a deep sense of life meaning without a God.

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(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan)

 

In a way, the American mainstream opinion is not surprising – after all, religious dogma generally gives clear answers to the question of life’s purpose. Moreover, it provides the main venue for exploring questions of meaning and purpose in life. According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans (1933), he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader.

But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. The challenge for modern individuals, according to Sartre, is to face all the consequences of the discovery of the absence of God. He argues that people must learn to create for themselves meaning and purpose.

Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” According to Epstein, “we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for a heavenly king or queen to bless us with strength, wisdom, and love. We have the potential for strength, wisdom, and love inside ourselves. But by ourselves we are not enough. We need to reach out beyond ourselves – to the world that surrounds us and sustains us, and most especially to other people. This is dignity” (93).

Likewise, Sam Harris, in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), states that “Separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is riven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit” (6).

Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose, which fall within the sphere that Harris refers to as spirituality and Epstein terms dignity, without belonging to a faith-based community?

In fact, research shows that we can gain a sense of meaning and purpose in life from a variety of sources. The classic research on meaning and purpose comes from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Holocaust. He described how those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives were most likely to survive and thrive in the camps. He conducted research demonstrating this both during and after his concentration camp experience. His research suggests the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving is to develop a personal sense of individual purpose and confidence in a collective purpose for society itself, what he terms the “will-to-meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself worked to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. He did so by helping prisoners in concentration camps, and later patients in his private practice as a psychiatrist, to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, thereby bringing to mind the meaning and purposefulness of their lives as already lived. According to Frankl, meaning and purpose can be found in any situation within which people find themselves. He emphasizes the existential meaning and purposefulness of suffering and tragedy in life as testimonies to human courage and dignity, as exemplified both in the concentration camps and beyond. Frankl argues that not only is life charged with meaning and purpose, but this meaning and purpose implies responsibility, namely the responsibility upon oneself to discover meaning and purpose, both as an individual and as a member of a larger social collective (Frankl).

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(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan) 

Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers. These challenges, according to Irvin Yalom in his Existential Psychotherapy, include: facing the reality and the responsibility of our freedom; dealing with the inevitability of death; the stress of individual isolation; finally, the difficulty of finding meaning in life (Yalom). These four issues correlate to what existential therapy holds as the four key dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms, based on extensive psychological research and therapy practice (Cooper; Mathers).

So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning. One intentional approach to gaining life meaning and purpose involves occasionally stopping and thinking about our lives and experiences: we can find an individual sense of life purpose and meaning through the lives we already lead. A great way to do so is through journaling, which has a variety of benefits beyond helping us gain a richer sense of life purpose – it can also help us deal with stress, process sorrows, experience personal growth, learn more effectively, and gain positive emotions through expressing gratitude.

Here are some specific prompts to use in journaling about meaning and purpose in life, as informed by Frankl’s research and logotherapy practice:

  1. What were important recent events in your life?
  2. Which of them involved stresses and adversity, and how can you reframe them to have a better perspective on these events?
  3. What did you learn from these events?
  4. What are you grateful for in your life recently?
  5. What was your experience of life meaning and purpose recently?

Try journaling about these topics for a week, and see what kind of benefit you get, what kind of challenges you run into, and what you learned about how this journaling can be adopted to your own particular preferences and needs.

There are a wide variety of additional strategies to gain meaning and purpose in life without belief in a deity. To help you learn and practice additional strategies, I developed and videotaped a workshop freely available online. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. I am also writing a workbook on this topic These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. I hope you can find our offerings helpful for your life, and am eager to hear any feedback you have to share about your experience!

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, Co-Founder and President at Intentional Insights. Intentional Insights is a new nonprofit that provides research-based content for reason-oriented people to help us improve our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns and reach our goals. Get in touch with him to learn more: gleb[at]intentionalinsights.org

No, You Don’t Need Rules For Polyamory

[What follows is an approach to polyamory that isn’t possible or appealing to everyone, which is why this isn’t a “you should do poly my way” article. It’s a “my way of doing poly exists and can work so please stop acting otherwise” article. I am not telling you what to do. I am telling you that I exist.]

There are two competing narratives about polyamory in the mainstream world: that polyamory is about indiscriminately having casual sex with a lot of random people, and that polyamory is about True Love and Soul Mates and raising children together and wedded (legally or otherwise) bliss.

Neither of these feels like it has any relevance to my life, though it might be great for other people.

Along with the latter usually comes the myth–often perpetuated by poly folks themselves–that polyamory means rules. Rules are necessary, I am told, to prevent jealousy, keep relationships stable, restrict them to certain bounds, and make sure that everything is “fair,” for that couple’s/polycule’s definition of fair.

I have watched as professors and therapists and writers who are not polyamorous themselves insisted to me that poly relationships cannot work without rules, in direct contradiction to my experience and that of many of my friends and most of my partners.

For instance, Dr. NerdLove, an advice columnist I otherwise respect, had this to say about the basics of nonmonogamy:

Rule #3: Establish Ground Rules
You want to establish certain rules regarding your relationship in order to ensure the comfort and safety of everybody involved. For some this means no sex in your marriage bed. For others it means that partners are only allowed off the leash once per year or on months that end in “Y’. You may both agree not to bring someone home with you, to only allow for outside partners while you are out of town or to not see the same person more than a limited number of times. If you have threesomes, you may forbid sex with your third except when everybody is present. These rules apply to both of you unless you agree in advance to a lopsided agreement. What’s good for the goose, etc.

[…]Rule #6: Both Partners Have Veto Power
If your partner is going to trust you with non-monogamy, you have to show that you’re worthy of that trust by giving him or her a certain degree of control. Even the most open of relationships will set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with, whether it’s close friends, co-workers or people that either partner might think are a legitimate threat to the relationship. Both partners can veto a potential playmate, no questions asked or answered. If your partner drops the hammer on someone then they’re off limits. Sorry. You have to show that you’re willing to abide by your partner’s comfort level. That’s part of what this trust business is all about.

My own approach to rules is that I’m skeptical of them and will not get involved with someone who prefers them or who has them in their other relationships, but I won’t insist that they are always bad or never work. (Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)

My purpose here is mainly to provide an alternate voice to the chorus of “you must have rules to be poly.” No, “the most open of relationships” do not “set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with.” Rules are not necessary for polyamory. I find them pointless and stifling. Not only do I not want to follow rules set by others, but I also don’t find it useful to try to restrict others with rules. It does not reduce my jealousy and insecurity; it makes them worse. It prevents me from taking responsibility for my own needs, boundaries, and feelings. It encourages me to artificially restrict the growth of new relationships out of fear that they might impact my other relationships. It prevents flexibility in relationships. And I am especially offended at the idea that I should practice “veto power” or allow anyone such control over me.

Everyone always asks–if I don’t use rules, how do I make sure my relationships are stable?

The answer is, I don’t. I let them develop (or not) as they will. But rules don’t ensure stability, either. Even monogamous couples break up all the time, often prompted by new interests. I find that if someone is really determined to do something, rules won’t stop them. And if they don’t, rules are unnecessary. And if my partner wants to do something that I don’t want them to do so badly, I should probably reevaluate either my preferences or the relationship.

What this looks like in practice is that, for instance, I might tell a partner that I prefer to know when they’re getting involved with someone new, because it’s really hard for me to manage the negative emotions that result when I don’t know what’s going on. They might then decide to always let me know when they’re getting involved with someone new–not because we made A Rule, but because they care about me and don’t want me to be sad. Or they might say they’re unwilling to do this and explain why. I might then decide not to be involved with them anymore, or to keep things casual. I might talk to them and see if there’s any other way we can make things easier on me. Or I might decide, with full knowledge of the situation, to proceed anyway and accept the negative emotions I may have.

So far it may be difficult to see how this is any different from using rules, but the difference becomes apparent if, for instance, my partner gets involved with someone but doesn’t tell me until later.

In a rules-based poly relationship, my partner has now Broken A Rule. The pain I feel at being blindsided by this new relationship suddenly becomes their fault, not my responsibility. Where before I may have acknowledged that this need to know comes from my own insecurities (which are perfectly normal and shared by many people, but still mine to deal with), now I would say that the pain is being caused by my partner’s failure to Follow The Rules. In this scenario, some poly people would even say that my partner has cheated. Even if they simply forgot to tell me. In this framework, it’s possible to cheat by accident. Not by losing your inhibitions, not by neglect, but by mistake.

In a relationship not based on rules, such as solo polyamory or relationship anarchy, this situation would be interpreted quite differently. If my partner previously indicated that they would try to tell me about things as they happen, I might remind my partner of those preferences and ask (non-judgmentally, non-confrontationally) what led them not to tell me about the new relationship until now. Maybe they forgot. Maybe they were feeling anxious about their own position in this new relationship and couldn’t bring themselves to share it with anyone yet. Maybe we just have different understandings of when a sexual/romantic relationship begins, and they didn’t realize I’d already want to know.

My main objective for this discussion isn’t necessarily to get my needs met, but just to understand my partner’s motivations and reasoning. I don’t automatically assume that my partner has done something wrong. Only when I feel that I understand their actions will I decide whether or not I need to ask for something from them.

The difference between treating my partners like potential cheaters and rulebreakers and treating them like people who have their own needs and desires that may not always be compatible with mine has made a world of difference in my relationships.

The lack of rules doesn’t mean that everyone does what they want without even considering a partner’s needs and preferences. For instance, even in relationships that lack the (in my opinion) horrendous “veto power,” there are plenty of instances in which someone might not get involved with someone after their partner expresses a preference against that. In a veto-based relationship, it works like this:

Sam: I want to hook up with Alex. Is that okay?
Glenn: No, I’m not okay with that.
Sam: Okay, then I won’t.

(Or, Sam decides they want to do it anyway, and their relationship with Glenn either ends or enters a very difficult period.)

In a non-veto relationship, it might work like this:

Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up.
Sam: Okay, it’s more important to me that you’re happy right now than that I hook up with this particular person, so I won’t.

Or:

Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up with them.
Sam: Hmm. I’ve really been wanting to do this for a while now. Do you think there’s a way I could help you feel better about it if I were to hook up with them?
Glenn: Maybe it would help if you tell me about the hook-up so that I don’t have to just imagine it and feel like they’re way better than me and stuff like that.
Sam: Okay, I’ll ask Alex to make sure they’re comfortable with me sharing those details with you. But also, I don’t really think of my partners in terms of who’s “better” at sex.
Glenn: That’s good to hear. I would also appreciate it if at least after the first time, you still came home and spent the night with me.
Sam: I can definitely do that!

While partners using a veto can still discuss these nuances, it’s much less likely to happen, because Glenn can just nix the whole idea and never have to actually address the reasons they’re feeling so bad about this possibility. This makes personal growth (and relationship growth) less likely to happen.

Furthermore, Dr. NerdLove doesn’t merely advocate always including veto power in poly relationships; he also states that the veto should be used “no questions asked or answered.” This seems extremely controlling and makes abuse much more likely to happen. If my partner can control my behavior without even having to explain or justify themselves in any way, then they are now free to “veto” my other potential partners for all sorts of horrible reasons, knowing that they will never have to tell me those reasons. They can veto a person for not being white. They can veto someone because they don’t want me dating someone of that gender because of sexist beliefs that they have. They can veto someone because they think I like them “too much.” They can veto someone because they’re having a bad day.

If you’re going to use veto power in your relationships–and this is the only piece of advice I’m going to give here–please be fully communicative about your reasoning.

(Or, you know, don’t use veto at all.)

At this point, someone also usually brings up STIs. If you’re poly, shouldn’t you have rules about using barriers with all/other partners, getting tested at regular intervals, and so on?

Not necessarily. This is where the difference between rules and boundaries becomes very clear. You are the supreme dictator of your body. You have complete authority over who or what touches your body, in what way, under which circumstances. If you say to your partner, “I can only have unprotected intercourse with you if you use barriers with your other partners,” that’s you setting a boundary for yourself, not setting a rule for someone else. If that person then neglects to use barriers with someone else and lies by omission to you about it, they are violating your consent. (And you are 100% allowed to make your consent contingent on certain safer sex practices.)

As unpleasant as it can be to acknowledge, rules will not stop someone who’s okay with violating your consent from doing so.

One more situation in which people typically try to justify rules and vetos is abusive partners. It can be extremely stressful and difficult–even vicariously traumatizing–to watch your partner be in an abusive relationship with someone else. It can be tempting, then, to use something like a veto to prevent them from seeing that person.

However, I think this is misguided for several reasons. First of all, the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they are extremely difficult to leave. (Otherwise you wouldn’t feel like you need to veto them.) If you force a person to choose between you and their abuser, they will likely choose the abuser. (In fact, friends of people in abusive relationships sometimes try these sorts of ultimatums and end up accidentally depriving their friend of a source of support.) Their abuser is also likely to try to turn them against you using familiar narratives like “Nobody Understands Our Love” and “They’re The Real Abuser” and “They Just Don’t Want You To Be Happy.”

Second, one of the most important things you can do for someone in an abusive situation is to help them feel empowered. Power is something that abusers take away from their victims. To empower someone, you have to help them see that they are strong and capable and can make their own decisions. Forcing them to break up with an abuser is a controlling move, even if it’s “for their own good.” Even if that move succeeds in ending this particular abusive relationship, it does not help the person avoid future ones, and may even make them feel even more disempowered.

Finally, while actual abusive situations are sadly common, including within the poly community, it is also true that people who want to end a relationship can confirmation-bias themselves into seeing it as abusive when it really isn’t. Maybe seeing your partner with someone else hurts so much that you find yourself grasping for “legitimate” reasons to wish it were over–after all, it might feel shameful to admit that you want it to end because you are jealous. If all you have to say to force your partner to end a relationship is that it’s abusive, you may be motivated to see it as abusive.

Someone should probably write an article about what to do when your partner is being abused by one of their other partners, and that someone should probably not be me. So I’ll move on to a few other really disturbing things in the Dr. NerdLove article that I’d like to address. For instance:

Like I said earlier: couples will frequently transition between different levels of openness over the course of a relationship, in both directions….This renegotiation can be initiated at any time and isn’t finished until both partners agree (as subject to Rule #2a.) The only exception is that either partner can close the relationship unilaterally for any reason. If, for example, only one of you is able to find an outside partner (as is often the case with hetero couples; the woman frequently has an easier time finding sex than the man does) and the other resents the one-sidedness of the arrangement, it is well within his or her rights to shut things down until a later date.

This strikes me as incredibly controlling to the point of being potentially abusive. Leaving aside for now the fact that people in an open relationship will have other partners–maybe even long-term, beloved partners–who will find themselves unceremoniously dumped once the relationship is “unilaterally” closed, why should someone have the right to control me just because they are sad that they are not having as much sex? How horrifying. If someone tried to “close the relationship unilaterally for any reason,” personally, I would break up with them.

Also:

If your relationship is open to any degree beyond oral (and possibly even before), condoms aren’t just a requirement, they’re a sacrement….By the by: this means you’re using condoms when you’re with your primary partner as well. Sorry. Once you step out of a mutually monogamous relationship, doing it raw is officially off the table.

This is also not true, and is not the experience of almost anyone I’ve been involved with. It is quite possible to safely practice sex without barriers as a poly person. It involves communication, trust, and plenty of STI screenings. Poly people sometimes use the term “fluid bonding” to refer to the step of agreeing not to use barriers with a particular partner.

Overall, Dr. NerdLove’s article sounds like it was written by someone either without much experience with nonmonogamy, or a very unnecessarily rigid view of how it “ought” to work. Many people view polyamory as something they are “allowing” their partner(s) to do, and therefore they are under no obligation to “allow” aspects of it that they do not like. I don’t view it as something I “allow” my partners to do. I never really view anything to do with relationships between adults in terms of “allowing” or “letting.” My perspective comes from my deep and strong belief that I do not have the right to control other people and their bodies, and am not obligated to allow them control over me and my body. That is why I’m polyamorous. It’s not just about fucking or dating more than one person at a time.

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Further reading:

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Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and partners. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.

 

I think that polyamory triggers (for lack of a better word) a lot of people because it causes them to think about very upsetting things, such as their partner having sex with someone else. Those bad feelings cause them to lash out and condemn polyamory as wrong and selfish etc and do not generally contribute to a productive discussion. If this describes you, please take care of yourself and step out.

Uber Can’t Fix Rape Culture

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about Uber, rape culture, and what the service can and can’t do to prevent sexual assault.

On Wednesday, ubiquitous ridesharing app Uber announced a partnership with UN Women, promising to create a million jobs for women by the year 2020. Currently, 14 percent of Uber’s 150,000 drivers are women, double the percentage of female cab drivers.

Although there’s much to praise about the new initiative, which could help womenworldwide achieve financial independence, some wonder if this bold move is a response to mounting criticisms of Uber’s handling of sexual violence.

In one terrifying incident in India, a male Uber driver allegedly kidnapped and raped a female passenger. In response, Uber apologized and promised to look into options to make its service safer. It also introduced a “panic button” feature that allows riders to alert the police and a few selected friends or family members of their location.

This feature seems like it could go a long way to increasing both actual safety and feelings of safety, but it is only available to riders, not drivers, and—for some reason—only in India. Uber did not provide any explanation for this, suggesting that the company either views the alleged rape as an isolated incident or one unique to India specifically.

But as we know, rape with and without the aid of Uber is all too common all over the world, including within the United States. In the past year, Uber drivers have allegedly assaulted riders in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Washington, DC. In response, a website called Who’s Driving You?, which appears to take a strong stance against ride-sharing services, was formed to document these incidents.

While these assaults may make seem like drivers hold all the power over riders, male riders have found ways to harass and abuse female Uber drivers, too. One of those ways involves exploiting the fact that Uber allows riders to call drivers using an anonymized phone number.

Read the rest here.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Caveats:

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

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

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

“That totally happened to me, too!”: The Urge to Relate

A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.

Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)

Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”

Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.

However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.

For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.

I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.

Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.

So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)

On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.

How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?

Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.

For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.

On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?

When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.

With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.

You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”

The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.

In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)

Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.

And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.

I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.

There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”

I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?

This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!

Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.

(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)

Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.

(See also: “Just call the police!”)

So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?

Here are some scripts:

  • “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
  • “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
  • “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
  • “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”

Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.

In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.

Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.

Why Subtle Sexism in Tech Matters

[Content note: sexual harassment, bullying]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about tech sexism.

When we think of a “hostile workplace environment,” we often think of the blatant, obvious things—like inappropriate touching, overtly sexual comments, and the implication that the boss needs “a favor” before you can get a promotion.

But for women in tech—an industry that has been making the news lately for its poor representation of women, many of whom are leaving Silicon Valley in droves—it’s the more subtle things that push them out.

For instance, Tracy Chou, now an engineer at Pinterest, says of a previous experience: “The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism.”

Women of color particularly face the “double jeopardy” of raceand gender. For instance, almost half of black and Latina women working as scientists report being mistaken for janitorsin their workplace. Such comments send a subtle message that they don’t belong in the lab or the office.

It’s easy for those who are not targeted by such comments and behaviors to dismiss them as “not such a big deal” and to tell women to “grow a thicker skin”—or, of course, to deny that they happen at all. However, that betrays a lack of understanding of social psychology.

Here’s an analogy that may be familiar to many men working in the tech sector: school bullying. While some bullies use overt physical violence against their targets, many do not. It’s the mean note passed to you in class. It’s the way people roll their eyes or turn away or whisper exaggeratedly as you pass in the halls. It’s the backhanded compliments: ”Nice shirt. Did you get it at Goodwill?” “Wow, you actually managed to get a date to Homecoming!” It’s the comments and pranks that are just a little too cruel to be a joke between friends.

When children who are being bullied try to tell teachers or other adults, these authority figures often either deny outright that there is a problem or assume that unless physical violence is happening, that there’s no real danger. (Even then, many adults are reluctant to get involved.) Confronting bullies, of course, is useless. They often gaslight their victims: “We were just joking around!” “What’s the problem? I was trying to give you a compliment!” “Of course, we want you to hang out with us!”

I see similar dynamics going on in tech and other STEM fields. Women give examples of how their male coworkers create a hostile work environment, but those with the power to change things deny or ignore the problem. Meanwhile, women know what they’re experiencing, and their bullies know exactly what they’re doing.

Read the rest here.

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A Change.org petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

Interpreting Sexism in Science Fiction

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

I was reading one of Peter Hamilton’s books, Pandora’s Star, and enjoying it to a certain extent. It’s not exactly my favorite sort of science fiction–there’s a little too much about the exact velocity of the spacecraft and how its wings function, but I can deal with that. Then, a few dozen pages in, I read the following passage:

‘You’re under arrest for theft.’

‘You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.’ He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

‘There is no deal. You made a choice.’

‘That was the deal!’ he yelled furiously. ‘I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!’

‘You are mistaken,’ she said relentlessly. ‘I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.’

‘Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.’

‘He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.’

‘My help?’ The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. ‘You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.’

At this point I just got too depressed to keep reading. Centuries into the future, and we’re still at “Fuck you, bitch.” Still.

Now, I’m sure many Hamilton fans will want to explain to me that the policewoman was indeed being a total bitch and she tricked Sabbah into accepting a deal that wasn’t what he thought it was and really doesn’t a man have a right to be angry when he’s getting arrested and manipulated into helping with a police investigation?

Okay, sure. But if she were a man, it would’ve been “Fuck you, you lying piece of shit, I’m not helping you.” Or “Get the fuck off me before I kill you.” But no–because it’s a woman, we get “Fuck you, bitch” and “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now.” Because it’s a woman, we get references to sexual assault or exploitation. Because it’s a woman, Sabbah somehow has the presence of mind to imagine himself getting a blowjob even while he’s trying to protect his life and freedom.

And so I didn’t want to read any more. This book is nearly a thousand damn pages long, and I’m really not interested to see what happens when the tables turn–as they inevitably do in space operas–and Sabbah gets to take his revenge on the policewoman. (On the very next page, she graduates from “bitch” to “superbitch.”)

The thing is, I read for pleasure. That doesn’t mean that the experience of reading is always a happy one, of course. Things in books may make me sad or scared or angry, but I tend to be glad I read the things I’ve read and to feel like I’ve gained something from the experience. When books include sexism, racism, sexual assault, or other shitty things, that usually means that I come away from the book with some sort of additional insight into the problem, a possible way forward, a better-articulated critique, something.

With science fiction, especially, I read to see a glimpse of a different world, a changed world. Science fiction at its best isn’t just about evolving technology, but evolving humanity. Pandora’s Star takes place in the year 2380. If it’s the year 2380 and our society still hasn’t progressed past “suck me, bitch,” well, I give up.

Whenever I write about this, legions of my (mostly-male) fellow science fiction/fantasy fans rush in to inform me that I’ve misinterpreted everything, that the author was just trying to be “realistic” (as if it’s even meaningful to speak of “realism” in a universe in which spaceships travel faster than light, or in which talking dragons co-exist peacefully with humans, or whatever), that the author was actually “critiquing” the sexism or whatever it was, that the author is in no way a sexist because he is not condoning this type of behavior, just illustrating it.

Well, I actually don’t care whether or not a given author can be classified as “a sexist,” because I just find that particular question boring. I don’t know if Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” Probably not.

As for whether or not it’s a critique, readers may disagree. Everyone always wants to know how to tell whether or not an author is representing oppression in order to critique it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to give a list of criteria. You tend to know it when you see it if you’re used to thinking critically about literature.

For instance, reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was often uncomfortable and distressing. It was difficult to read. But I never felt that Atwood was condoning the sexism and rights violations of the society she described. There were a few ways this was made clear–the fact that the protagonist was trying to escape, the way that the authority figures were described, the epilogue.

Likewise, her Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie depicts a deeply classist, xenophobic, and imperialist society, but then has her protagonist try to fight on behalf of marginalized people. And even though other characters may disagree or claim that the protagonist is naive, this is represented as a Good Thing To Do.

China Mieville, whom I’ve written about before, manages to include all sorts of grotesque, graphic, and cruel injustice in his books without ever coming across like he condones it. In his first novel, King Rat, the protagonist Saul encounters a homeless woman while on the run from both the police and a fantastical villain who’s trying to kill him. Lonely and desperate for human interaction, Saul finds himself talking to her, hoping that she’ll set off to explore the city with him:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had heard such a line before, but spoken with different intent.

Saul knew that the streets were brutal.

He wondered how often she had been raped.

Here we basically have a man encountering the idea of Schrodinger’s Rapist for the first time. Rather than indignantly lashing out at the woman for assuming that such a nice guy as him would ever do such a thing, as many men I encounter on the internet do, Saul immediately apologizes, gives Deborah more physical space, and explains what he actually meant. Later on in the book, as he prowls the nearly-deserted streets at night, he sees a woman walking alone and sits down against a wall until she passes so that she won’t be afraid of him.

In this way, Mieville subtly takes a stance on an issue that is still considered controversial. Had his protagonist reacted differently, a very different message would have been sent:

‘Do you want to go to sleep, Deborah?’

‘What do you mean?’ Her voice was suddenly suspicious, even afraid. She almost whined in her trepidation, and bundled herself up into her sleeping bag. Saul reached out to reassure her and she shrank away from him in horror and he realized with a sinking feeling that she had assumed that he might rape her.

Saul was hurt, infuriated. All his life he had tried to treat women well, just as his father had always taught him to do. And yet over and over again they assumed the worst of him, no matter what he did. He felt so alone and isolated. All he’d wanted was to show her the city as he saw it, but she had pushed him away.

Honestly, I probably would’ve put down a book like that, too.

Mieville incorporates these sorts of moments into his fiction, and that makes it pretty obvious to me that his novels are critiquing sexism, racism, sexual assault, etc rather than condoning them. And it’s entirely possible that later in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton takes a brave stand against calling women bitches, but I doubt it, considering that both the main characters introduced thus far are men, women have barely appeared at all, and no analysis of gender or sexuality or inequality, period has occurred.

Which is fine. Not every novel needs to take an anti-sexist stance. And I don’t need to read every novel.

Even when an author means to be critical, the result is sometimes still too close to home for some. Maybe for male readers, that Hamilton passage might be a moment of, “Oh, wow, sexism is a thing.” But I have already had that moment. My entire life is that moment. Plenty of men have called me “bitch,” plenty of men have threatened to assault me, and a few men actually have. I don’t need a reminder or a wakeup call. I don’t need this in my novels that I read for fun.

That said, everyone’s boundaries are different. At risk of sounding cliche, some of my good friends like Peter Hamilton’s books. I don’t think Peter Hamilton is “a sexist.” I don’t think you are “a sexist” if you like Peter Hamilton. I do think that my male friends who recommended these books to me without reservations should think about whether or not they remembered that the book has gendered slurs, and if not, why not, and if yes, why they didn’t warn me.

I also think that fans of authors who “casually” incorporate sexism in this manner should think critically about these works. (Remember, “think critically” is not synonymous with “dislike.”) What literary purpose is being served? If these passages are meant to characterize the person as “a sexist” or “a very bad man,” is this position actually supported by the rest of the novel? In what direction is this fictional society moving, and do the characters seem satisfied or dissatisfied with these trends? (You can learn a lot from how a character responds to, say, a new law defining nonconsensual sex with an AI as rape, or to the fact that a spaceship captain is a woman.) Are characters able to fling sexism around without any repercussions? How do other characters respond to the sexism? Who is the reader meant to sympathize with? Who succeeds? Who fails? How or why do they succeed or fail? (I think a lot about the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And, finally, I would like men to stop telling me I’m wrong when I’m uncomfortable with something that happens in a work of fiction, and to stop questioning my decision when that discomfort means that I need to put the book down.

A Case for Strengths-Based Diagnosis

[Obligatory disclaimer that I am not (yet) a licensed therapist and that the following is my personal opinion, informed by practice and academic study.]

Recently in a class on adult psychopathology, my professor was discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the text used to diagnose mental illnesses and categorize them for the purposes such as research, insurance billing, and sharing information among professionals.

One of the weaknesses he mentioned was one I’d actually never heard before: that the way the DSM diagnosis is written and shared does not include any space for also “diagnosing” the client’s strengths.

At first, this seemed irrelevant to me, not in the sense that thinking about your client’s strengths is not important, but in the sense that I didn’t see how it matters for a diagnosis. It almost seemed a little patronizing: “Yes, you have major depressive disorder and social phobia, but hey, at least you seem like you’re pretty resourceful and good at expressing yourself!”

But then I rethought that.

Here’s an example of a DSM-V diagnosis:

296.35 (F33.41) Major depressive disorder, early onset, recurrent episode, in partial remission, with atypical features

300.4 (F34.1) Persistent depressive disorder, early onset, with atypical features, with intermittent major depressive episodes, without current episode, moderate

V62.89 (Z60.0) Phase of life problem

It’s honestly difficult for me to imagine looking at this information with anything other than relief. For me, diagnosis has always meant one thing first and foremost: You’re not a terrible person; you just have an illness.

But to other people, seeing something like this can communicate a whole lot else. You’re sick. You’re fucked up. There is nothing redeeming about you. You can’t do something as simple as not being so sad. This is especially true when someone is already predisposed to interpret information about themselves in a negative light, because, well, that’s what mental illness always does.

In that moment, it can be really helpful to have confirmation–not just from a friend or loved one, but from a professional whose job it is to assess you–that you do have strengths and positive qualities.

So, here are some reasons incorporating strengths into diagnoses might be a really good thing.

  1. Giving hope and affirmation to the client.

Just like it can be nice to go get a dental checkup and hear, “You’ve been doing a great job at preventing cavities, but you need to floss more consistently in order to keep your gums from getting irritated,” it can be nice to hear, “Based on what you’ve told me, I believe that you’ve had a major depressive episode for the past few months. However, you’ve clearly been very good at reaching out to friends and family for support, and it sounds like you have a lot of people rooting for you to get better.”

Therapists and psychiatrists say “nice” things like this all the time, but writing it down as part of a diagnosis might be symbolically meaningful. To the client, that communicates the fact that their strengths are just as important as their diagnosis–important enough to be written on the form or in the chart. It shows that their mental healthcare provider, whom they might feel shy around or even judged by, does see them as a whole human being with strengths as well as a diagnosable illness.

  1. Providing possible avenues for treatment.

A psychiatrist may diagnose a client and then refer them to a therapist (therapy combined with medication tends to be more effective than either in isolation). Now what? The therapist can look at the diagnosis, or ask the client what it is, and proceed from there.

What if the diagnosis included something like, “Client reports that volunteer work helps them distract themselves from symptoms, and that writing in a journal has occasionally been helpful”? The therapist now has some potential ways to help the client. Or the diagnosis might include, “Despite severe symptoms, client shows a high level of insight about the possible origins of their depression.” The therapist now knows that lack of self-awareness isn’t the problem–symptom management might be.

I continue to be amazed that none of my therapists ever asked me if there’s any way I could incorporate writing into my depression recovery, or if there are any ways I’ve been incorporating it already. Writing is my life. Usually I’ve either said as much in therapy, or I haven’t because nobody ever asked me what I like to do or what makes me feel good. Why not?

  1. Reducing negative bias from providers.

I can’t make definitive statements without more research, but based on what I understand about bias, I can imagine that consistently viewing a client as “major depressive disorder with atypical features and moderate persistent depressive disorder” does things to one’s perception of that person. Not positive things.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to effectively help someone you view as deficient or weak. First of all, your likely pessimism about the person’s recovery will almost certainly be perceived (and possibly internalized) by them. Second, any roadblocks that come up in treatment will likely be interpreted as “resistance” or “not really wanting to get better” or “not being ready to do the work of therapy.” In fact, maybe it’s that your approach isn’t actually helpful to them. Third, without a conscious awareness of the person’s strengths and assets, what exactly are you using to help them recover? Therapy isn’t about “healing” people so much as helping them discover their own resources and help themselves. If you don’t even know what those might be, how could you possibly help the client see them?

Many therapists try to think of their clients’ positive traits in addition to their “negative” ones. However, formalizing and structuring this process as part of a diagnosis might make it sink in better, and become more embedded in one’s general impression of a person. The questions we generally have to ask while diagnosing someone are fairly negatively oriented–”Do you ever have trouble falling asleep? How often? To what extent does this impact your daily life?”. What if we also asked, “What helps you sleep better? How do you cope with being tired after a night of insomnia?” Maybe that can help shift a therapist’s perspective of this person from “insomniac” to “person with difficulty sleeping, who has reached out to friends for help with daily tasks.”

  1. Preventing provider burnout.

I dislike talking about my work because people are consistently amazed at it in a way that annoys me. “How could you deal with hearing these awful things?” they ask. “Isn’t it really depressing to work with all these people?” It isn’t, because thanks to my training, I’ve internalized a strengths-based perspective. When I think about the people I’ve worked with, I don’t see poor suffering depressives and trauma victims. I see resilient, determined individuals who are working to overcome their challenges in the best ways they can.

I think that some people in this field burn out because they can only see the suffering and the oppression and the unfairness of it. I also see those things, obviously, because they’re sort of a big deal. But if that’s all you see when you sit with a client, not only will that be reflected in your treatment of them, but it’ll also impact your own ability to persevere.

If every time a therapist made a diagnosis, they had to intentionally remind themselves of the client’s strengths, that might go a far way in helping them remember that there is hope and everything is not absolutely bad.

As I’ve mentioned, plenty of mental health professionals already incorporate a strengths-based perspective into their work. But this is more common in areas like social work, where diagnosis is rarely used and actually often criticized, anyway. I certainly don’t remember any of my psychiatrists or PhD-level therapists spending any time asking me about my strengths or coping strategies. They gave me my diagnosis, and that was mainly it as far as assessment goes.

One might argue that strengths assessment has no place in the DSM because it needs to be standardized and reliable. However, reliability may be a problem for the DSM regardless, meaning that different professionals assessing the same client may disagree in their DSM-based diagnosis.

One might also argue that the DSM is “about” mental disorders, not “about” a client’s overall set of traits or strengths. I’ll grant that. Regardless, I think that formally incorporating individual strengths into clinical assessments in therapy and psychiatry may be helpful. May be.

Occasional Link Roundup

Oh finally, we’ve made it to February. Maybe one of these days I can start voluntarily going outside again!

Did you know I have a Google+ page? Now you do. If you’re one of those rare people who actually follow posts on there, now you can follow mine.

1. Stephanie and others are organizing a new conference: Secular Women Work. It’s being funded through Kickstarter. If you can, please help them out. I’m really excited about it and have already bought my ticket.

The Secular Women Work conference is a celebration of the work of female activists who create and run projects and communities in the secular movement. And there is no better way to honor their work than by using their expertise to help us all become better activists.

At Secular Women Work, you will find workshops: both hands-on exercises to develop your skills and facilitated group discussions where you can share challenges and solutions with other activists. You will find panels on specialist topics, with panelists who can help you broaden the horizons of your activism. And when you’re ready for a rest, you’ll find speakers who will entertain and inspire you with stories and lessons from their own work. In between it all, you’ll find a conference full of other activists who want to make a difference in the world.

2. An absolutely fucking brilliant post about “overdiagnosis,” as it applies to autism (and, in my opinion, to many mental illnesses):

Adopting labels to get help isn’t “overdiagnosis”; it’s an understandable and rational response to inflexible institutions and their refusal to deal in subtlety or individuality. The word “overdiagnosis” implies that there’s something more at stake than nonsensical hoop-jumping. It blames the wrong people for the wrong problem.

[…]Getting outraged about “misdiagnosis” misses the point; it blames clinicians and parents and autistics. But our current knowledge does not support the idea of drawing a bright line. It supports the idea of measuring individuals along many dimensions and providing them the individual supports they likely need based on what we know. The need for a bright line comes from politicians and bureaucrats, and those are the people who should catch flak. Why are we complaining about clinicians and parents for “drawing the line in the wrong place” when many people aren’t interested in this stupid line-drawing exercise in the first place?

3. Franklin explains why rules are not necessarily in polyamory:

If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it’s not necessary to say “I forbid you to do thus-and-such” or “I require you to do thus-and-such.” All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to.

On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t love and cherish you, and doesn’t want to do right by you…well, no rule will save you. The rules might give you an illusion of safety, but they won’t really protect you.

4. Lis discusses talking about racism in therapy:

The course I hated most in grad school was taught by a professor who said, “If your clients talk about the outside circumstances that keep them down and make their lives horrible, about how they’re so hard done by, they can’t ever take responsibility for their own lives.” It was supposed to be a course on marriage and family therapy, which is a topic I love a lot on its own; but most of what I learned was about the use of institutional power, from a rich moderate liberal white guy who thought that talking about inequality of any kind was actively harmful to therapy.

I try to remember him even now because he was respected in his field and by his colleagues. He’d run programs in schools and military bases, taught therapists-to-be, received all the marks of approval from his profession, and thought that if a therapist let their client talk about experiencing racism or sexism, they were sabotaging the therapy. I try to remember him because I have to remember that when I meet a new client, that client has no outside indicators that I’m not exactly like him.

5. Why you don’t need to feel bad about yourself when you’ve acted immorally:

Feeling bad about oneself does not make one a better person. Sometimes we seem to think that it would be worse to do something wrong and not feel guilty, than to do something equally wrong but feel guilty about it, as if guilt makes us morally superior, as if it could purify us or redeem us in some way. It is unclear to me how guilt could have such effects. How bad one feels about oneself does not seem to be very relevant; what is important, instead, is repentance or regret: the desire to have acted differently, the intention to repair the damage done, and the determination that in the future one will not act similarly. While regret focuses on action (e.g., I did something wrong), guilt focuses on oneself (e.g., I am a bad person). Repentance is useful: it motivates one to remedy wrongs and not fall into the same mistake again. Guilt is impractical: by keeping the focus on oneself, it contributes to the reification of our negative qualities (e.g., I am selfish), and becomes an obstacle for imagining oneself differently, and for changing one’s behaviour, since we seem to adapt our behaviour to the idea that we have formed about ourselves.

6. Eve Rickert asks: Can you really negotiate your rights away?

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

7. Jonathan Chait has blown up the blogosphere; Anne Therault responds:

Rather than understand how trauma works, or recognize that trigger warnings are, in fact, about giving people the choice when and where to engage with potentially upsetting content, Chait prefers to patronizingly pooh-pooh the whole idea. Instead of recognizing that most people use trigger warnings as a way to facilitate the “controlled exposure” to trauma experts recommend – because, again, trigger warnings give readers the choice to make sure that they are in a safe space and a healthy mindset before engaging with potentially triggering content – he prefers to believe that anyone who asks for a content warning is a mewling infant who should just get over it already.

How nice that Chait has never found any content upsetting enough to require a trigger warning; one supposes that makes him an expert on the subject.

8. Kate critiques that research study about ‘foods containing DNA‘:

Tricking study participants is a time-honored tradition of psych methodology, but you have to trick them effectively, and I’m not convinced this is anything but a gotcha question. If you ask people to support or oppose a governmental policy and then bury one non-policy question in a bunch of actual policies they might have heard of, you are not actually doing excellent science. You are creating a popular Facebook graphic.

9. On Tumblr, The Unit of Caring has another good response to Jonathan Chait:

Basically every problem Chait identifies can be reframed in a competing-needs framework. Some people don’t want to be exposed to conversations about whether police officers can tell if a rape victim is lying, as came up in my Psych seminar last week. That conversation could cause them to relive one of the worst experiences of their lives. They want to not take part in it. On the other hand, intellectual inquiry really does demand we conduct studies on whether police can tell that sort of thing, and debate how to inform juries about the results of those studies, and debate which advice for improvement at detecting liars really works. Both these needs are valid. Both are legitimate. And both can be met.

Chait thinks he’s found people who want to shut the discussion down entirely, or at least people whose discursive tactics are causing the discussions not to happen because others don’t understand which comments will make them into targets and so they don’t talk at all. He’s calling this ‘political correctness’. What I’m seeing is a community that used to only meet one need – intellectual inquiry – now frightened that it has to choose between that need and the needs of its vulnerable members.

10. Homa Mojtabai at McSweeney’s lists ‘Reasons You Were Not Promoted That are Totally Unrelated to Gender‘:

I’m not sexist and this organization is not sexist and I have to say you’re developing a little bit of a reputation as a troublemaker. Five years ago we promoted a woman who happens to be black –- I mean, African-American… or maybe just African, I can’t remember –- and that proves that we are tolerant and committed to diversity.

11. Lindy West was amazing on This American Life:

Trolls still waste my time and tax my mental health on a daily basis, but honestly, I don’t wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place. That’s what I learned from my troll.

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

12. It is okay and understandable not to want to hear a lot of details about someone’s sex life:

In summary, dear Letter Writer, I don’t think there is anything wrong with you for being leery when “Friend Who Was A Lot To Take At Times” becomes “Friend Who Brings Up Sex In Every Conversation” with you. That’s a volatile combination. It’s okay to create some distance – redirect him, change the subject, say “Hey did you see where I changed the subject back there?” and see how he reacts. Your comfort matters here, as does your consent. A good friend is not going to want to make you squirm about this.

13. Julian Sanchez makes the point Jonathan Chait should’ve made instead:

It doesn’t take any very fearsome campaign of intimidation for a group’s self-correcting mechanisms to break down. Imagine an argument where someone invokes a spurious or unfair accusation of (let’s say) racism or sexism as a cudgel to close down a conversation. Maybe many other members of the accuser’s ideological in-group (“allies”) themselves perceive it as unfair, but life is short and people are busy—what’s the incentive to chime in and say “hey, wait a minute”? Pretty weak even in the absence of negative feedback. And as anyone who’s watched these arguments play out is well aware, questioning whether such a claim is fair or reasonable in a particular instance is going to be read by some observers as denying that sexism or racism are problems at all.  (I recently, rather gently, questioned whether one specific document from the Snowden cache should have been published, then had to expend a whole lot more words insisting that I am not, in fact, a shill for the surveillance state.  Anyone who knows my privacy writing understands why this was slightly surreal.) You end up having to explain and justify yourself to all these folks whose good opinion you care about, and who needs the hassle?

Iterated over time, though, that means the people who do object in particular cases are increasingly from out-groups: People who really don’t care about racism or sexism or think they’re serious problems.  Now the incentives are even worse for in-group members. Because now being the one to say “hey, wait a minute” in a particular instance doesn’t just mean conflict with an ally, it means associating yourself with those assholes.  Increasingly the objections are coming from people who just don’t care about the good opinion of the in-group, many of whom are expressing those objections in actively racist or sexist terms.  So now anyone voicing reservations has to do all sorts of throat clearing (I did it instinctively at the start of this post) to avoid the ever more statistically reasonable heuristic inference that any pushback is coming from those repulsive quarters. If you’re the only ally pushing back, hey, maybe you’re not an ally at all, but secretly one of those assholes.

You end up with team “x is the problem” and team “x is not a problem,” and ever fewer people prepared to say “x is a problem, but maybe not the most useful lens through which to view this particular disagreement.” When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

14. xkcd has a perspective on today’s events:

What have you read/written lately?