I Finally Saw the Movie “Her” and I Loved It and Had Feelings

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

"Her" film posterLast night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.

Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:

  • Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
  • He would become unable to date “real” women
  • He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
  • The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.

I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004’s I, Robot.)

In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).

Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.

Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)

There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.

What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.

In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.

It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.

In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.

Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.

I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.

Having To See It To Believe It: Men and Online Sexual Harassment

[Content note: sexual harassment]

Jezebel recounts the tale of Reddit user OKCThrowaway22221, who pretended to be a woman on OkCupid and was so dismayed, disappointed, and disgusted with the messages he received that he shut it down after two hours.

OKCThrowaway22221 is pretty clear about the fact that, at the outset, he did not truly believe that women’s* online dating experiences can be really awful, and, in fact, believed that they “have it easy” with online dating:

Last night I was bored and was talking with a friend on skype about her experiences with online dating. I was joking with her that “girls have it easy on dating sites” etc. etc. I had never really done anything in the online dating world but I had set up a real profile a few years back and didn’t use it much aside from getting a few nice messages and decided it wasn’t really for me. But, as I said, I was bored, so I decided that I would set up a fake profile. Set it up as a gender-swapped version of me essentially see what would happen. So I did the username, and I was up. Before I could even fill out my profile at all, I already had a message in my inbox from a guy. It wasn’t a mean message, but I found it odd that I would get a message already. So I sent him a friendly hello back and kind of joked that I hadn’t even finished my profile, how could he be interested, but I felt good because I thought I was right that “girls have it easy”

But soon enough OKCThrowaway22221 is realizing just how wrong he was:

At first I thought it was fun, I thought it was weird but maybe I would mess with them or something and freak them out and tell them I was a guy or something, but as more and more messages came (either replies or new ones I had about 10 different guys message me within 2 hours) the nature of them continued to get more and more irritating. Guys were full-on spamming my inbox with multiple messages before I could reply to even one asking why I wasn’t responding and what was wrong. Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn’t interested in NSA [no strings attached] sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature. Seemingly nice dudes in quite esteemed careers asking to hook up in 24 hours and sending them naked pics of myself despite multiple times telling them that I didn’t want to.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.

I came away thinking that women have it so much harder than guys do when it comes to that kind of stuff.

That’s exactly it. The experiences many women have with online dating* are just so fucking icky that they made a dude who “spends most of his time on 4chan” uncomfortable.

As usual, I have two very different thoughts about the whole stunt.

On the one hand:

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

On the other hand:

Gender certainly plays a role, but so does the fact that most people aren’t that great at imagining how they would feel if they went through an experience they’ve never gone through. Just like appeals to kinship, experiencing something for yourself often helps make it feel more important and relevant to you. I hate the fact that this seems to be the only way this guy learned, but I’m still glad he learned. That’s one more person who’s going to stop spewing the bullshit that women are “privileged” when it comes to online dating, one more person who will hopefully be a little more supportive of his female friends when they get harassed and abused online.

I’ve seen a few comments about how this guy is speaking for women and whatnot, and while that obviously happens a lot, I don’t think that I see it happening in this case. He did a little personal experiment for himself, not for some grand political purpose, and shared it on a subreddit frequented mostly by women. The fact that his perspective inevitably gets elevated above many women’s perspectives is not something that he is responsible for as an individual; it is something that we are all responsible for collectively.

In that way, what happened here–the fact that this man didn’t believe women when they talked about online dating, the fact that he only started believing them when he pretended to be a woman, the fact that the story of his daring escape from the Land of Women Have It So Easy has been upvoted and shared so many times–this is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem.

It’s not just with online dating and harassment that this sort of thing happens. A little over a year ago, for instance, Cory Booker (then mayor of Newark, NJ; now senator) made the news for taking the Food Stamp Challenge, in which you live on the equivalent of a food stamp budget for a week. Writing at xoJane, Melissa criticized the stunt:

Dear Mr. Mayor and anyone else: Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Read thisthis or this — or ask the 46 million Americans who do it every day, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.

[…]There’s a big difference between being someone who is “challenging” themselves and has all the immaterial benefits of being not-poor, and being someone who is truly poor, and who’s suffering and has probably at other times in their life suffered from lack of food. It’s like Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and acting like she gets it.

(Wearing a fat suit is, in fact, not very much like being fat.)

Of course, the difference here is that Booker is a well-known person, not a random throwaway Reddit handle, and was doing this to raise awareness–and probably for political reasons as well. Although he certainly didn’t intend to, Booker did sort of end up speaking for the millions of Americans who are actually on food stamps rather than elevating and centering their voices and experiences.

In her article, Melissa also points out that living on food stamps for a single week can’t possibly resemble the actual experience of a person living on food stamps, who may live in fear of losing what little resources they have and who may be chronically malnourished–and who doesn’t have the comfort of knowing that after the week’s over, everything will be back to “normal.”

OKCThrowaway22221’s experience is slightly more similar to that of a woman on OkCupid than Booker’s is to that of a person living in poverty, but at the end of the day (or at the end of two hours, rather), he could delete the profile and never have to think about it again. A woman can choose not to do online dating, but she can’t generally choose to stop being perceived as a woman by men and treated accordingly. The abuse women get on online dating sites is not unique to online dating sites.

I don’t want guys to stop doing things like this if that’s what helps them learn. In fact, I’ve suggested things like this to men in the past when they’d ask me, “Why do we still need feminism?”

I also want every guy who does this, or who learns something from reading about it, so ask himself why women’s stories weren’t enough.

~~~

In case you’re curious, here are some of my OKC experiences:

youlldo

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 6.30.01 PM

alpha

feministbuttplug

answermebitch

*It’s important to note that not all women experience sexual harassment in the same ways or at the same levels. Women who are marginalized in other ways besides gender are often harassed in ways that interact with those marginalizations (for example, this). Some women are largely ignored by men when it comes to sexual attraction, so it’s important not to present online dating experiences like these are representative of all women.

Edit: Heina of Skepchick also has a great post on this, which I didn’t see until after I wrote this because I’ve been traveling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing

This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

Intent: Just How Magic Is It?

There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

I could do a whole series on harmful and irrational responses to sexual harassment claims. First we had the “but it’s a learning opportunity!” defense, and now there’s this sort of thing: “But people are going to flirt. We’re all sexual beings*. We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.”

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. I have been flirted with many times. I have also been sexually harassed many times. The difference is whether or not the person is treating me like a human being with her own agency, with her own preferences and desires.

If you’re cornering me at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” I must be and we’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing me. If we’re acquaintances and meet up for lunch and you smile in that particular way and say, “You know, you’re really pretty,” you’re flirting. If you’re my friend–just a friend–and I ask you to help me carry some boxes and afterward you say with a knowing smirk, “So, don’t I get a little something in return for this?,” you’re sexually harassing me.

Different people may have different boundaries. You may not know what those boundaries are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that you have no responsibility to figure out what they are, or that the people you’re attracted to are required to be okay with any sexual comment or approach you choose to make because “we’re all adults here.”

In communities of geeks, nerds, gamers, atheists, and others who have probably been social outcasts at some point in their lives, accusations of sexual harassment often lead to defensive claims that it was “just flirting” and that the person being accused of harassment is actually just socially inept and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong. It’s easy to use social awkwardness as a cover for predatory behavior. We’re just awkward! We didn’t really learn social skills as kids! We didn’t do this whole dating thing until our 20s! And so on.

First of all, it’s crucially important to understand that playing innocent is something sexual harassers do to hide their tracks. When caught in the act, they protest that they were “just flirting” and it was “all in good fun” and that they “have no idea what [target] is so upset about.” They pretend to be socially awkward and inept, and that they just “didn’t realize” that their actions would make others feel violated and uncomfortable. They claim that there was a “miscommunication,” although evidence suggests that people are quite good at communicating about boundaries, even if they do so using veiled language.

Accepting prima facie this idea that claims of sexual harassment result from one person being “awkward” and the other person not giving them the benefit of the doubt is harmful, because it allows predators to use awkwardness as an excuse.

But let’s for a moment grant that some people may genuinely not realize that what they’re doing constitutes sexual harassment. They just have bad social skills or learned all their flirting techniques from Mad Men or read a few too many PUA forums. What now?

Well, here are some ways to tell if your “flirting” is edging into sexual harassment territory. It’s not an exhaustive list, and answering “yes” to some of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re harassing someone. It just means you need to be careful and self-reflective.

  • Is this person someone you’ve never interacted with before?
  • Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?
  • Are you the one doing most of the talking? Is the other person turning away, looking around for other people, giving you monosyllabic answers?
  • Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?
  • Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

Primarily, sexual harassment is not about your intentions. It’s about how others perceive your intentions. Others may perceive your intentions as being creepy or dangerous either because they actually are creepy or dangerous, or because you’re not doing a good job of communicating your intentions. And that’s on you. If you’re concerned that people will misread you as being creepy, communicate! Say, “So, I find you really attractive. Want to come back to my room later? If not, no worries.” And then let them say no.

Good flirting requires being good at reading people–their tone, their body language, their word choice, their facial expression. Some people are not very good at reading people. That’s okay! Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, the fact that you have a particular weakness does not mean that it’s other people’s job to deal with and work around that weakness. If your social awkwardness makes people feel uncomfortable and violated, it is your responsibility to change your behavior, either by learning better social skills or by communicating more clearly so that people don’t get the wrong impression of you.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear people making excuses for themselves or their friends that go like this: “But he’s just really socially awkward; it’s not his fault.” “Give her a break, she’s just kind of a weird person.” No. Give people more credit than that. People can change.

For instance, here are some great resources for people trying to develop their social skills, especially when it comes to flirting and dating:

(Feel free to leave more in the comments.)

It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out. (“Hey, is it cool that I said you’re really pretty? I can totally stop if it’s weird for you.”) It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.

I think the most difficult thing for people to understand about this is that it’s not about intent. When someone with whom you’re not close starts hitting on you, you can’t possibly know how they will react if you ignore or rebuff their advances. You can’t possibly know if they’re just hitting on you for innocent fun or if they’re going to try to get you in bed by whatever means necessary.

Anyone who blames you for not knowing and refusing to assume good intent is being creepy. They’re saying that not hurting someone’s feelings matters more than keeping yourself safe. It does not.

In any case, consensual, mutually enjoyable flirting is a really fucking awesome thing. Let’s not devalue it by pretending that sexual harassment falls under its umbrella.

~~~

*We are not all, in fact, “sexual beings.”

Women Are Not “Mysterious”

I came across this meme in my Facebook newsfeed (with criticism, thankfully):

A man opens a huge, several-feet-tall book. Caption reads, "The book 'Understanding Women' has finally arrived in bookstores."

It was shared by the page “Engineer Memes,” which makes sense given the trope that it references. You know the one: the brilliant, successful scientist/engineer/mathematician who can solve any problem, invent a lifesaving drug or device, and understand the most complicated theories of physics, but there is one enigma in this world that even he cannot comprehend…the human female.

This trope is tired and old and boring. It’s also harmful.

Here’s an abridged list of things women are not:

  • an alien species with incomprehensible thought processes and behaviors
  • rocket ships that require years of training to operate
  • ancient scrolls written with indecipherable runes
  • never-before-seen weather patterns that have meteorologists stumped

Nevertheless, women are invariably referred to (by men) as “the ultimate enigma,” “mysterious forces of nature,” and other such lofty descriptions. Women’s personalities and sexualities are considered infinitely more complex than men’s supposedly simple ones. When it comes to sex, especially, many people continue to believe that there is something “complicated” or “mysterious” about pleasing a woman, but not about pleasing a man. The female orgasm glimmers in the imaginations of men like Atlantis.

At first glance this sounds like a compliment. Shouldn’t women be glad that they get to be “mysterious” and “complex” while men are simple and boring? Shouldn’t women feel flattered that their male partners are willing to brave the dark labyrinths of their Complex Lady Brains in order to try (in vain) to Understand Women? Isn’t this proof that it’s really women, not men, who are superior, in that they captivate helpless men with their feminine mysteriousness?

I view the women-are-mysterious trope as an example of benevolent sexism, which I’ve written about here before. But here’s a refresher. While hostile sexism consists of the beliefs we typically think of as misogyny–women are stupid, women are weak, women are shallow and catty, women just want to fuck men over and get their money, etc.–benevolent sexism is the set of beliefs that puts women on a pedestal. For instance, the idea that every man needs a woman to take care of him and to make sure he washes his clothes and eats good food is an example of benevolent sexism. So is the stereotype that women are better caretakers than men and that they are superior at communication.

Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are strongly correlated; people who score high on one tend to score high on the other as well. Benevolent and hostile sexism each also includes beliefs about men, such as “men are strong and competent” on the benevolent side and “men are all lying cheaters” on the hostile side.

Although hostile sexism (toward either gender) is arguably more directly hurtful, benevolent sexism has negative consequences as well. It tends to promote gender roles and it allows men to stigmatize and marginalize women who don’t fit the tropes associated with it (if “real” women are good caretakers, what do you do with a woman who has no interest in taking care of anyone?). Benevolent sexism is a system in which women who conform to their roles receive limited rewards for doing so, but attain little actual power for themselves.

Besides the fact that it’s a type of sexism, the women-are-mysterious trope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It prevents men from learning how to understand women by teaching them that trying to is a waste of time. In doing so, it ensures that women will remain “mysterious” to men.

Over at Crates and Ribbons, Leopard writes:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

In other words, the women-are-mysterious trope is not an accident and nor is it free of consequences. It stems from the historical privileging of men’s viewpoints (and the marginalization of women’s viewpoints) and results in men’s unwillingness to try–to really try–to understand the women in their lives. It’s much easier to write off women’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions as “mysterious” and “indecipherable” and perhaps arising from mystical female biological processes than it is to actually listen to and try to understand them.

It is, of course, false that men and women are completely the same in every way. They are not, largely because of different socialization. If men were encouraged to learn about and understand this different socialization rather than throwing their hands up and giving up on understanding these mysterious forces of nature, men and women would communicate better and gender roles would break down faster. It’s a win-win!

Understanding women is, indeed, not at all like understanding physics and mathematics. It’s like understanding people, plus being aware of how different groups of people sometimes face different experiences and expectations in society. It also means understanding that while there are some differences between men on average and women on average, the differences among men and among women are much larger–and, arguably, more significant if you’d like to understand individuals as opposed to groups. The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.

~~~

P.S. Not the subject of this post, but women who claim that it’s Impossible To Understand Men should stop doing that, too. It’s not impossible.

How to Be a Responsible Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s advocate is a tricky rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it can be extremely useful for exposing the flaws in an argument, helping others clarify and strengthen their positions, and practice your own argumentation. Using devil’s advocate when the topic under discussion is, say, whether or not we should pursue immortality or how best to end our dependence on non-renewable energy sources will probably be productive and enlightening.

On the other hand, when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers or how best to respond to sexual assault, devil’s advocate is a minefield of potential faux pas, triggers, and discussions that end in yelling and/or blocking each other online.

Although some claim that in discussions like these we should be “objective” and not allow emotions to “get in the way,” I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection. For all their flaws, emotions alert us when the stakes are high, tip us off to our biases, and keep us fighting our battles. The important part is knowing what your bias is, and reminding yourself constantly to be on the lookout for information that doesn’t fit into that bias.

The reason this is relevant to the devil’s argument discussion is that people are going to have strong emotional responses to issues like sexual assault prevention. They just are. If you choose to play devil’s advocate during a discussion about an issue as personal and painful as this, you’re probably going to push some people’s buttons, and not in a good way. You’re going to sound exactly like the people who argue against them in earnest, and you’re going to make them defensive and cause them to double down even on parts of their arguments that are not that good. You’re going to jeopardize any chance of having a productive discussion.

Unless you learn how to be a responsible devil’s advocate.

First of all, and most importantly, accept that some people do not want to engage with devil’s advocates on certain issues. They do not want to hear about your thought experiments and hypotheticals. They do not want to argue with people whose positions on the issues are not clear, because it can be painful and even triggering to hear these opinions.

You may feel that these people are not doing their duty as Good Skeptics by not engaging in your Spirited Debate or supporting Free Inquiry or appreciating Diversity of Opinion, but it frankly doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues. If you can’t respect that and accept that not wanting to argue with you does not mean someone is Bad At Arguing or Bad At Skepticism, then you have no business trying to discuss these issues with anyone.

Second, make sure you have examined your own motivations for wanting to play devil’s advocate on an issue that’s personal and painful to many people. I’m not saying that there are no good motivations (insofar as you can discern “good” and “bad” motivations here); I’m just saying that it merits examination. Are you doing it to hash out your own doubts and figure out what you believe? That’s pretty legit. Are you doing it to help the other person argue better? Commendable, but not necessarily recommended; I’ll get to that in a bit. Are you doing it to get a reaction out of someone? If so, consider not doing that ever.

Often people are “rubbed the wrong way” by the discourse on issues like sexual assault, sexism, racism, and so on. They just find the claims made by progressives on these issues to be irritating somehow and they feel compelled to argue against them without really knowing for certain where they themselves stand or why they feel such a need to argue with a random internet person they don’t know.

A lot of the time, these people discover that their irritation and discomfort are stemming from unexamined prejudices, biases, and feelings of guilt. They realize that they’re actually worried that they will be perceived as an “-ist” or that they have undeserved privileges or that they have mistreated others because of bigotry or that they are resentful because they think minority groups are receiving special advantages of some sort. Examining carefully your reasons for wanting to play devil’s advocate can reveal some of these deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and prevent others from using up valuable time and energy trying to get you to recognize them.

Third, if you’re playing devil’s advocate in order to try and help someone else, find out if that person actually wants or needs your help. Unsolicited advice is frankly annoying in almost any case, but especially when it involves a long, drawn-out debate with someone you believe to be in need of convincing, only to find out that they actually think they’re kindly bestowing their argumentative expertise on you.

If you’re not a progressive activist, you might not know how discussions generally work in our communities. We’re always hashing things out with each other, trying out new arguments, and asking for feedback. If we blog on networks or in groups of some sort, we often have private backchannels where we practice our arguments. You may think, running across a random blog or Twitter feed, that we’re desperately in need of someone to help us refine our views, but generally we have plenty of trusted friends and colleagues that we can do that with. So don’t assume.

Fourth, if you have now decided that you’re going to play devil’s advocate, tell the person what you’re doing. Be open. Get consent. Constructive debate is not that different from sex in this regard. For instance, here are some things you can say:

  • “I generally agree with you, but I’m having some doubts. Can I argue from the other side to see how you’d respond?”
  • “I’m not sure this argument will stand up to scrutiny. Do you mind if I try some counterarguments?”
  • “Want to practice debating this issue?”
  • “I don’t actually believe this, but just out of curiosity, how would you respond if I argued that ______?”

As Captain Awkward says, use your words. The clearer it is what you’re trying to accomplish and what your actual point is, the likelier it is that you’ll have a productive discussion and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

And, as I mentioned in my first point, don’t forget to accept no for an answer. Do not respond passive-aggressively about how “sad” it is that you can’t even have a good debate about this issue. Do not snark at them about how “some skeptic you are.” Do not bloviate using grand, vague terms like “freedom of expression” and “free inquiry.” Do not pout about how you “just wanted a discussion.” If they say, “Sorry, this is too close to home,” say “Ok, sorry I bothered you!” and move on.

Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

You may feel this is incredibly unfair, and that’s understandable. However, what’s considerably more unfair is how often these people, many of whom have been personally affected by the issues they’re discussing, have to deal with those who blame them and treat them like they’re subhuman and advocate for them to have their rights taken away (or not even given in the first place). Your arguments may sound exactly like the arguments made by those Actual Bigots, and so you get pegged for one.

Remember that being charitable means trying to understand why others often aren’t.

And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates. There are people who tell us every day that bitches be lyin’. There are people who tell us every day that we shouldn’t ruin rapists’ lives by holding them accountable for what they did. There are people who say that Trayvon deserved it. There are people who say that a fetus has more rights than an adult human.

So, I will include the same cautionary note for devil’s advocate as I recently wrote for sarcasm: if you mimic terrible opinions and sound exactly like the people who hold those opinions earnestly, do not be surprised if people don’t take kindly to your arguments. Do not be surprised if we’re tired of responding to the same terrible opinion every day. Maybe you were bored at work and started reading a feminist blog for the first time in your life and wanted to play a fun game of devil’s advocate, but for those of us who write those blogs, that’s what we do every day. And for those of us who live the horrible reality of some of the issues we write about, facing the same terrible opinion for the millionth time can be too painful and stressful to be worth it.

You may be able to turn these issues into an engaging intellectual exercise while we may not. Do not hold yourself up as a paragon of emotional stability and argumentative prowess because of this. Understand that you’ve been lucky.

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

“They’re Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!”: On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“How Do I Get My Partner To Try Polyamory?”

The title of this post is one of the most common questions I’ve seen people ask, online and off, about polyamory. “I really want to try an open relationship but my partner doesn’t. How do I get them to change their mind?” “I’ve started seeing a wonderful new person, but there’s a catch: they’re not poly. How do I convince them to try it?” And so on.

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

Here’s the longer answer: This way lies potential for mutual growth and awesomeness. But this way also lies an arguably greater potential for hurt feelings, manipulation, coercion, and even abuse. Please be careful.

The first important thing is to understand why your partner does not want to try polyamory. People have all sorts of reasons for that:

  • they’re afraid of feeling jealous
  • it’s against their religious beliefs
  • they want a partner who’s always available to them
  • they don’t want to worry about the complications of safer sex with multiple partners
  • they don’t want to face stigma from friends, family, employers, or communities
  • they’re not interested in seeing anyone else
  • they want to get married and/or have children soon and don’t want to deal with polyamory in that regard
  • they just don’t understand what it is or how it works or why it might be worthwhile
  • and many more.

If you are polyamorous, many of these may not seem like very good reasons to you. Some of them don’t really to me either. But it’s not up to you to pass judgment on how good someone else’s reasons are, and if that someone else is your partner, being nonjudgmental is especially important.

Ask your partner what their qualms about polyamory are. Don’t frame the question like “Yeah well why not” or “But what’s wrong with polyamory” or “But don’t you want [to feel more free/to let me be more free/to explore other options/etc].” Go into the discussion with the intent to understand your partner, not necessarily to be understood by your partner or to push a specific point of view. Ask, “How do you feel when you think about being polyamorous?” or “How do you imagine an ideal relationship?” This will probably not be a one-time conversation, though. Follow the discussion and see how it unfolds.

Eventually, you may–if your partner trusts you and if you’re empathic and patient–understand why your partner doesn’t want to try polyamory. If the reason is that it goes against their core beliefs or it’s just not how they envision what a relationship ought to be, you’re probably out of luck. Sometimes people have beliefs that you strongly disagree with; that’s a good indicator that they may not be the best partners for you.

Sometimes, though, people don’t want to try polyamory because they don’t really understand how it works. For instance, I once thought that polyamory meant that none of my partners would “truly” love me. None of them would ever want to, say, live with me or get married or sit at the hospital for hours while I recovered from surgery. I thought that polyamory just meant having a loose collection of friends with benefits who pass in and out of your life seemingly at random. While for some people that might be great, for me it sounded horrible.

But then I read some books about it out of curiosity and I discovered that there are people who would want to do all of those Serious Relationship Things with me while still being okay with me seeing other people! Those things are not mutually exclusive. And although I now value Serious Relationship Things much less than I used to, and would be comfortable being single and not having those things with anyone, it’s nice to know that they are not incompatible with polyamory.

If your partner is like I was back then, you can certainly help them understand what you’re looking for by sharing with them good books and articles about polyamory, introducing them to poly friends who can talk about how their own relationships work, and just talking about how you envision the future if you stay together and become poly.

But the key is that you cannot be too forceful or pressuring. If you do that, you will fail, but more importantly, you will probably seriously hurt your partner.

Often, though, it’s not so simple. Many people say that they don’t want to try polyamory because they would feel too jealous. Remember that jealousy, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some people choose to hack their own emotions and try to replace them with more optimal ones (compersion, in the case of polyamory), but other people have no interest in doing this. That’s their right. Feel free to share with your partner your own perspectives on jealousy, but remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner “ought” to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.

You may be entirely correct if you think that your partner would be better off learning to manage their jealousy and becoming polyamorous. But sometimes, when it comes to relationships, being kind is more important than being right. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

The main reason I was initially extremely opposed to polyamory (personally, not universally) was because I had depression. I didn’t realize this at the time; I thought that I was just a person who has Extreme Feelings of Jealousy and that’s Just How I Am and nothing can be done about it, because I hadn’t ever been able to do anything about it for as long as I could remember having those feelings. The mere thought of polyamory made my guts churn.

But when I recovered from depression, I realized that those Extreme Feelings of Jealousy had all been tied into my depression, which was fueling my insecurity and fear. I started identifying as poly within a month of recovering and started seeing my first poly partner two months later. Although I still have manageable, healthy feelings of jealousy sometimes, that gaping chasm of fuckfuckthisisterribleIcan’tdoit had closed and becoming polyamorous was actually a very easy decision.

How would I have felt if, prior to my recovery, a partner had patronizingly informed me that the reason I didn’t want to try polyamory was because I was depressed? Pretty angry and hurt. I would have felt manipulated if I sensed that my partner’s main concern about my depression was not that it was making me depressed, but that it was preventing me from agreeing to polyamory and letting my partner get their rocks off with other people. I would have felt that my serious illness was being trivialized. I would have felt that my partner was treating me like a child by making assumptions about how depression affects the rest of my life. Because even if a partner of mine had understood what was going on–itself an unlikely feat–it’s not their place to tell me how my mental health is affecting my relationship choices and that I should improve my mental health so as to make “better” relationship choices. That was my battle to fight, and I fought and won it.

Sometimes being kind is more important than being right. And, I would add, presuming to know what’s best “for your own good” is not being kind in my book. It’s being manipulative and condescending.

So, try not to speculate about why your partner is feeling the way they are about polyamory. Let them discover that on their own. Hopefully, if they value your relationship, they will at least make an effort to do some soul-searching and help you understand them, just as you, if you value your relationship, will make an effort to understand their objections rather than trying to “convert” them to your preferred relationship style.

I want to emphasize how fine a line you have to walk. It’s quite possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory and they’ll be really glad they did. It’s also possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory, and later–in months, or years–they’ll gradually understand that they only tried it because they started to believe that they had to do it in order to keep you. They may feel manipulated even though you never intentionally manipulated them. They may feel worthless because they were unable to do what you wanted them to. This may not be your fault whatsoever, or it may be a little bit your fault, or it may be almost entirely your fault. Neither of you may ever know for sure.

This is why my knee-jerk answer at the beginning of this post was, “You don’t.”

I completely understand how awful it feels when you really like/love someone, but you’re poly and they’re not and you don’t know what to do. Some poly people deal with this situation by trying monogamy, temporarily or permanently, to varying levels of success. Some try to convince their partner to give polyamory a try, as I’ve laid out above. Others end the relationship.

The later is, in my opinion, the safest and healthiest option. It assumes responsibility for your own needs rather than expecting your partner to conform to them, and it acknowledges the fact that trying to “get” your partner to try another type of relationship is a situation that’s pretty likely to lead to lots of frustration and resentment for both of you.

I would love it if people would reframe the question in this post’s title as, “How do I help my partner understand polyamory?” This suggests that your goal is to help them come to their own conclusion about whether or not this is something they’d like to try, and that your role in the process is to provide them with resources and support, not prefabricated opinions.

Whichever path you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time examining your own biases and motivations and making sure that you’re not being coercive or manipulative. Remind your partner that you only want them to try polyamory if they decide they want to, not in order to please you or keep you from leaving. Try to refrain from making assumptions about their reasoning; while people are often wrong about themselves, they still have access to much more information about themselves than you do.

Remember that sometimes, being kind is more important than being right.