Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

How (Not) to Respond When People Change Their Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few said it does:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Mental Illness

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

2. Proof

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

3. Closeness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totally Unsolicited Advice For Feminist Guys

Jezebel has a pretty good piece up about feminist men and what “we” (by which I take it the author means feminist women) want from them. Some excerpts:

[E]ven allegedly unfunny feminists acknowledge how extra-dry fighting sexism can be, and so we hope that when men join us, they, too can have a good, not always so self-serious laugh about gender roles and the complications in working to level the playing field….That said, it’s nice when a dude can see how utterly unjust the way women are still treated the world-over, and get a little pissed about it.

[...]You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be welcome at this party. Not every dude is going to fly the feminist flag proudly, and that’s totally cool (not to mention, lots of kickass women don’t identify as feminists either).

[...]We don’t care how you got here, as long as you mean it. That means no sensitive ponytail man schtick to get more ‘tang. I’m sure more than one woman has met a male feminist who seems a little too preoccupied with our safety, a little too willing to jump in and rescue us, a little too into the narrative of the vulnerable woman and the man who’s here to show her he’s not like those “other guys.” Gross. Women need men who want to work as our equals and helpmates, not our protectors and guardians.

[...]You don’t have to be perfect….Feminism is about change and progress, and unpacking prejudice, not hairsplitting the backstory of every person who is out there saying good things.

[...]Dudes are important influences on other dudes when it comes to changing how gender divides us, and men who support these advances shouldn’t be afraid to point out when something is utterly sexist and bullshit.

[...]Don’t be afraid to challenge masculinity….When men show a comfort level with the spectrum gender exists on, it shows other men that gender isn’t binary, and redefines what being a “man” is anyway.

I think the piece brings up a lot of really good points, especially the one about not having to be perfect. Something I hear from many progressive men is a lot of anxiety about being “good feminists” and toeing the party line. My advice would be to not rely entirely on Internet Feminists for validation and criticism; try to find some trustworthy female feminist friends that you can ask for feedback that is actually constructive, as opposed to the destructive and counterproductive “call-outs” you see online. That said, if you’re a male feminist and a ton of women keep telling you that they disagree with a particular stance you have or feel uncomfortable with something you’re saying or doing, then it may be time to seriously reevaluate it.

The point about labels is also important. Many men call themselves “pro-feminists” or “feminist allies”; that’s cool. I’ll even accept the “humanist” and “equalist” and “egalitarian” thing as long as you don’t refuse to acknowledge that, in most societies and for most of history, men have had privilege over women. Ultimately, what you do matters much more than what you call yourself.

I have some suggestions of my own to add to Jezebel’s list. Note that these are my personal suggestions; the typical disclaimer that I Do Not Represent Feminism Unless Someone Has Nominated Me For Official Ambassador Of Feminism Without My Knowledge applies.

1. Do not lecture women about their own oppression.

Something really awkward that happens fairly often is when a feminist guy comes across an anti-feminist woman and proceeds to lecture her about how sexism is still hurting women and how she needs to be a feminist. Although the guy might be correct in this situation, and I would probably agree with him, feminist men should be mindful of the fact that most women spend our entire lives getting talked down to by men who think they’re experts on our personal experiences. If a woman says she hasn’t been impacted by sexism and doesn’t need this feminism stuff, perhaps respectfully point her to some resources on sexism and agree to disagree. It’s not your place to tell her how to interpret her own life, because even though you’re probably right, she can easily just tell you that she knows her own situation better than you do. And she’ll be right, too.

This, by the way, applies to all allies. White people shouldn’t lecture people of color about their own oppression. Straight people shouldn’t lecture queer people about their own oppression. And so on. Patrick put this really well:

it’s not my job to tell woman-identified persons how to be feminists, even if I disagree with something they have said. My job is to talk to male-identified persons, and *with* people who are not male-identified.

2. Understand and try to accept that you will not always be welcome in all feminist spaces.

Yeah, I get that it really sucks when you know that you’re a caring, informed, supportive ally, but some of the people you’re trying to ally yourself with still don’t necessarily want to include you all of the time. Personally, I believe that the vast majority of feminist activism should include people of all genders, but I also understand that many non-male people who are struggling to overcome the effects of sexism on their lives–harassment, assault, abuse, discrimination–need spaces in which they can feel safe, and sometimes feeling safe means being away from men. As a feminist guy, please try to understand that, even if it hurts to feel “rejected” from these groups or events.

3. Don’t expect a cookie.

I know this sounds harsh, but you are not entitled to extra praise or attention from women because you’ve deigned to support issues that are important to them. You may get that extra praise and attention in due course, though, and that’s great. And, luckily, most of the feminist men I know aren’t like this at all. In fact, many of them have told me that it’s actually almost uncomfortable when women tell them what wonderful people they are for supporting causes like reproductive rights or rape prevention. They feel that they’re doing the bare minimum of being a decent human being, but many women, accustomed to male friends, family members, and partners who treat feminism with hostility, feel compelled to praise guys who see it differently.

To sum it up, you probably will get a cookie respect and admiration from women. You just shouldn’t feel entitled to it.

4. Remember that your feminist credentials don’t mean you can pretend to be a sexist.

Just because you’re a badass feminist doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to feel okay with you making sexist jokes “ironically” and “reclaiming” words like bitch and slut. If you do something like that and are asked to stop, your response should not be “Yeah well you know I’m totally a feminist!” You should either stop, or accept that the people you’re hurting with your language are not obligated to continue interacting with you.

(Of course, people really vary on this. When I genuinely trust people, men included, there’s actually very little they can say that would offend me. I have plenty of male friends who make sandwich jokes to me and I find them hilarious, not because “hur hur women can’t do anything but cook and clean and serve men” but because I trust these guys so much that the irony actually reads as irony. )

But the fact that you’re a Bona Fide Feminist Dude doesn’t mean that non-male people are required to be comfortable with everything you say and do, especially if it involves stuff that can read as sexism to those who don’t know you very well.

5. Use feminism to address issues that affect men.

Men are harmed by sexism in many of the same ways as women are (gender roles, for example). In some ways, though, their issues are a bit different. Because men make up such a substantial part of the prison population, they are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault in prison, and, in general, male victims of sexual assault face unique and serious difficulties in understanding what happened to them, speaking out, and seeking justice. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime and police brutality. And where being male intersects with marginalized identities, such as being queer, trans*, non-white, disabled, or poor, these issues become even more pronounced.

Many people (not just men) have noticed this and, unfortunately, decided to blame it all on women and feminism. These are called MRAs, but what they advocate for isn’t really “men’s rights” at all. It’s just anti-feminism.

MRAs do rightfully point out that non-male feminists don’t spend a lot of time addressing uniquely “male” issues. While I think that addressing power differentials in society will eventually bring about equality for everyone, I do think that these issues are important and should be discussed.

But women can’t take leadership of efforts to address problems that they have never experienced. I can’t tell people what it’s like to be a male rape victim–or how to support male rape victims–because I am not one and can never be one. Men, however, can use the “toolbox” of feminism–examining power differentials, paying attention to intersectionality, critiquing pop culture, etc.–to advocate for their own causes. That’s why we need feminist men who will be allies to non-male feminists while also leading initiatives to support other men, reduce violence against men, and eradicate sexism for everyone.

Edit: Alright, alright, I was just kidding about the damn cookies. Here, have one.

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

[Content note: bullying]

There’s a beautiful video that’s been making the rounds on the internet. It’s an animated version of a spoken word piece called “To This Day,” in which Canadian poet Shane Koyczan retells his own experiences with childhood bullying–and, really, so much more. Here it is.

The video really resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own experiences with bullying, even though they actually had little resemblance to the stories told in this video. Although I was definitely picked on and called names by other kids at times, for the most part my tormentors were not children. They were adults. Specifically, teachers.

Teacher bullying is its own beast that can’t be addressed the same way as peer bullying, and likely has different causes. The teachers who bullied me seemed like they hated children. They seemed jaded about their jobs. Although I was often accused as a child of “thinking only of myself,” I picked up on this pretty quickly and I sympathized to some extent.

I think the reason they hated me especially was because, as a gifted, socially awkward kid, I asked for more attention than they probably felt I deserved. Once in fifth grade we were doing an art project in class and I wanted to find out if there were any other colors of construction paper available, so I asked my teacher. She burst out in front of the class, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you!” I still remember that, standing in front of the supply closet with her and being accused of somehow scheming to make things hard for her. By asking for another color of paper.

My 7th grade English teacher despised me for some unknown reason. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my memory seems to have blocked out whatever it was that she did, but I remember being terrified of going up and asking her questions, and I remember crying in the bathroom during lunch a lot because of something she’d said to me. If I wanted to, I could probably go back and reread my journal from that year and give you specific examples, but honestly, I’d rather not.

My 8th grade algebra teacher had a hobby of arbitrarily calling me out for no particular reason and accusing me of doing something wrong. She was lecturing once and I was taking notes in my binder. At one point I flipped over a sheet of paper because I’d filled it up, and she suddenly stops the lecture and goes, “Miriam, what are you doing?” My seat was in the back corner of the room, so naturally everyone turned and stared at me. I was older, more defiant by then. I looked right back at her and calmly said, “I was turning a page in my binder.” With no further comment (or apology), she went back to her lecture.

Of course, if these were just isolated incidents, it wouldn’t be bullying; it’d just be teachers lashing out and acting inappropriately. But they weren’t. Such incidents are the legacy of my middle school years.

I wasn’t the only one, either. I noticed other kids being bullied by teachers; some of my friends were among them. The terrifying thing is that a lot of anti-bullying measures focus on getting bystanders to intervene. Useful advice, perhaps, when other kids are the bullies. What about when it’s a teacher who grades your assignments too? Who could just as easily turn on you?

The sad thing about this is that initially, as a kid, I trusted and enjoyed talking to adults way more than I did my peers. I was always the kid who would rather corner some houseguest of my parents’ with a conversation about black holes or animals than sit at the kids’ table and listen to some boring conversation about Britney Spears or who had a crush on who or whatever.

But over time my negative experiences with adults began to outweigh the positive ones. When I was not mocked or falsely accused of imaginary classroom transgressions by my teachers, I was condescended to and treated like I was years younger than I really was–or felt. The fact is that kids of the same age vary widely in their emotional and intellectual development, and treating them all like they’re inept and immature is unfair.

(In fact, the condescension generally continues to this day, even as I’m 22 and about to graduate from college. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone more than a decade older than me that does not end up being implicitly or explicitly about my age, because nearly all the older adults I meet seem to be convinced that I need nothing more than their unsolicited advice and protection. Although this sort of thing tends to have very good intentions behind it, the assumption that children and young people are unable to make decisions for themselves and desperately need guidance is harmful overall. The more involved I get in online activism, the more older adults I meet who treat me with respect, but it’s difficult to forget the fact that for most of my life, adults outside of my family were often condescending or even cruel.)

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. So many people bear scars much worse than mine. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, sometimes from family members, are terrifyingly common among children.

Bullying is tragic no matter who the targets and bullies are. But I’d say it’s even worse when the very people who are charged with educating children and helping them feel safe and accepted at school are the ones perpetrating it. In fact, in our education system teachers are often expected to impart morals to children, too. I remember the “character building” exercises and the lectures about treating others fairly and with respect. What a brutal irony that was, coming from teachers who shamed me in front of my peers for daring to ask a question or just for being different.

I have many wonderful friends who plan to become teachers. I trust that they’ll be good ones. But at this point I just want to say this: if you’re planning on being a teacher and there’s any doubt in your mind that you’ll be able to handle the frustrations of the job without taking them out on children, please find a different career. If you are a teacher and find yourself snapping at kids because you’re so burned out, please find a different career.

This is too important a job to do poorly. Children are too dependent on the validation of adults, too sensitive to the massive power differential that exists between them and adults, to always be able to just brush off your stinging words. It’s unfair to put that responsibility on them.

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:
Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

How To Make Your Social Spaces More Welcoming To Shy, Socially Anxious, or Introverted People

Social interaction is hard for many people for many different reasons. Plenty has already been written on how these people can change themselves or learn how to better cope with social situations, so I have little interest in rehashing that. What I really want to discuss is how others can set up their social spaces and events in ways that make it easier for these people to participate.

A disclaimer: this post is written from my individual perspective (albeit with a few suggestions from friends). I’m just one person, one person who is an introvert and has struggled with social anxiety and shyness in the past. If you read this post and find it useful, discuss it with other people you know who might disagree with or confirm various parts of it.

It’s also important to note that shyness, introversion, and social anxiety are different things. Shyness is a personality trait that some people grow out of after childhood and others don’t. Introversion is a personality “type” that rarely changes much during a person’s lifetime and can involve a bunch of related traits. Social anxiety is a mental disorder that can be treated in various ways, but not everyone has access to treatment or is able to find one that works. The reason I’m lumping them all together in this post is only because people who have them can all benefit from similar social accommodations–not because they’re the same thing.

So, first and foremost:

1. Include them.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Social events of all kinds, whether informal ones like parties or “serious” ones like conferences, are often attended by groups of friends. But they’re also often attended by people who come hoping to make friends and meet like-minded folks. If you’d like to bring new people into the fold of your group, you have to create an environment in which new people feel welcomed and wanted, even if they’re shy, quiet, or anxious around strangers.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked up and introduced myself to people–or, worse, been invited somewhere with a group of established friends–who then proceeded to ignore me and keep discussing their own inside jokes and gossip. When I was younger and more socially anxious, reaching out to people was almost impossible because I was terrified of this exact possibility and the awkwardness that ensues when you’re greeted and introduced and then ignored.

Now, as an adult who’s much more likely to be the one with the established friend group than the newbie, I sometimes catching myself doing the same thing and I try to make an effort to include the new person in the conversation instead.

Excluding people from conversation is rude at best and anxiety-provoking at worst, and it’s easy to avoid. If you’d like new people to come to your events and feel welcome there, you have to actually include them.

And on another level, it’s important to actually invite people to your event even if they seem shy or not very social. Give them a lot of information about the event–what will happen there, how many people there will be, who else they know is coming, and so on. As long as your invitation isn’t coercive (see below), they can decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable attending or not.

2. On the other hand, don’t try to force them into social interaction.

Social coercion bothers me, both in my personal life and on a philosophical level. If someone’s perfectly happy sitting off to the side on their own, there’s no reason for you to try to force them to mingle just for the sake of feeling like a successful host. Even if you think it’s “for their own good.”

If you see a person at your event who seems shy or anxious, you could come up to them alone and ask if they’d like to be introduced to others or to participate in whatever’s going on. (For large events like conferences, it can be helpful to have a person whose job it is to do this.) If they say no, that’s it. Say, “Okay, please let me know if you change your mind!” and leave them alone.

Note that some people with social anxiety wouldn’t agree with me on this, because they wouldn’t want to be approached at all. This is one great reason why you should seek other opinions, not just mine!

3. Physically organize your space in a way that allows shy or anxious people to have time alone.

We’re used to having to sneak outside and stand in the cold. We’re used to hiding away in the bathroom as people knock on the door and ask if we’re “okay in there.” (No, but not in the way you mean.)

Why not make that unnecessary?

An event should have quiet areas or rooms where people can go just to be alone and recharge. If that’s not an option, consider having things they can look at or fiddle with when they don’t feel like talking–coffee table books, those little mechanical puzzles, and so on. Introverts, shy people, and people with social anxiety often find that they need to get away from people for a bit after socializing for a while. Unless the venue allows that, this often means that they have to just call it a night and go home.

4. Try to avoid overcrowding as much as possible.

I know that sometimes having a crowded event or party is unavoidable, especially for those of us who are still young and living in tiny cheap apartments. If you can, though, make sure there’s plenty of space for the number of people you’re inviting. Ensure that people can easily get through aisles or to their seats, and that there’s enough seating. An overcrowded event is annoying for everyone, but for people with social anxiety it can be unbearable.

5. Provide activities for people to do instead of just talking.

This kind of goes along with not forcing people into social interaction (see #2 above). See if it’s possible to provide board games or other things that people can do with each other that saves them from the burden of having to come up with conversation topics, which can be really hard to do when you’re shy or anxious, especially if you don’t have any close friends at the event.

Another thing you can do is create opportunities for people to help out that don’t involve a ton of socializing. Ask for volunteers to record talks on video, serve food, etc. Some people who otherwise have trouble being social find it easier when they have something else to do too.

6. Pay attention to the way you have conversations.

Aside from actually including people in the conversation (see #1), there are various things you can do while talking to shy, anxious, or introverted people that will make it easier for them to participate.

First of all, decreasing the emphasis on small talk or avoiding it entirely can really help people who have trouble with conversations. It may seem counterintuitive, since small talk is often what we do when we don’t know what else to say. However, it’s also the type of conversation that many introverts and shy people have the most difficulty with, because you have to follow preestablished social “rules” and find a way to somehow make it interesting that you’re majoring in biology or spent the holidays in Chicago or have a daughter studying at Ohio State.

Instead, ask them something more interesting. Don’t be afraid to venture into “taboo” subjects like politics and religion. Many shy and quiet people will suddenly open up when asked about something they’re passionate about.

When you’re having conversations with people, allow for comfortable silences. Silence is a healthy, normal part of interacting with others. Sometimes people–especially shy or socially anxious people–need time to process what’s been said or to form a cogent response. I once went on a first date and the conversation had gotten pretty deep and interesting, so I paused for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My date immediately went, “Well, that’s an awkward silence!” No, the silence wasn’t awkward. That comment was awkward.

Trying to fill up every single silence makes us feel like we’re inadequate at conversation and makes the anxiety worse.

One last very important thing: please avoid loudly calling attention to people’s verbal slip-ups, mispronunciations, and so on. If you must correct someone, do it quietly and politely. “Oh, I think you might’ve meant genotype, not phenotype,” not “Um, what are you talking about? It’s definitely genotype, duh.” Or “Just FYI, it’s pronounced ‘salmon’!”, not “HAHA did you just call it SAL-mon? What’s wrong with you?” (You may think I’m exaggerating, but as a foreigner who got most of her English vocabulary from reading, my frequent mispronunciations have garnered some incredibly rude responses from friends.)

Changing the way you plan events and interact with people in order to include those who find socializing difficult may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet are very withdrawn at first, but welcome them and they may amaze you.