[guest post] Experiencing Ableism as a Person Who is Blind

One of my readers, Tyler Ensor, wrote this post about the subtle ways in which ableism manifests itself in his life. 

When I was three years old, I was sick with flu-like symptoms for a week. Following one day of an apparent recovery, I awoke the next day completely blind. The blindness was caused by an autoimmune response. I am not well versed in immunology, so some of my description and/or terminology is probably incorrect. However, from what I can glean from doctors’ explanations of what happened, my immune system continued to fight the infection even after it had been neutralized. Because there was no longer an infection to attack, my immune system attacked my optic nerve, rendering me blind. My official diagnosis is bilateral optic neuritis.

Over the next several years, I regained some vision. I do not remember my exact visual acuity, but the last time I had it tested, my left eye’s acuity was approximately 20/350, and my right eye’s acuity was approximately 20/750. Perfect acuity is 20/20, and the threshold for legal blindness is 20/200. A person with 20/200 vision perceives objects at a distance of 20 feet with the same resolution that a person with 20/20 vision perceives objects 200 feet away.

My vision is now stable, and doctors do not expect it to change again. I am unable to read a computer screen; instead, I access computers using screenreading software. I can also read and produce braille. When travelling in public, I use a white cane.

I typically use the word “blind” to describe my condition. Technically, this is incorrect: Blindness refers exclusively to a complete lack of sight. So, using the narrow, scientific definition, a person who cannot see but who can perceive the difference between light and dark is not blind. The term for people with vision loss that doesn’t meet the scientific definition of blindness is “visually impaired.” Personally, I dislike this term both because it is ambiguous and because, at least to me, it seems to connote helplessness. The ambiguity stems from people’s lack of exposure to the term. Although most people—including those who have never heard the term before—will immediately recognize that it denotes a visual deficit, their first thought is likely to be: “So, how does that differ from blindness?” The term “blind,” conversely, is easily understood and, in my experience, people tend to interpret the term in its legal sense (i.e., not necessarily no vision) rather than its scientific sense. Therefore, for the remainder of this post, I will use the term “blind” in the generally-used sense rather than the scientific sense.

I encounter ableism in my day-to-day life on a fairly regular basis. Because I use a white cane when travelling, I have a visible disability (i.e., everyone who encounters me immediately knows that I am blind). The overwhelming majority of incidents of ableism I encounter are well-intentioned: They stem from ignorance rather than malice. Nevertheless, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with ableism. Below, I will describe some of the more frequent examples I experience.

I am a graduate student, and often walk home from my university rather than taking the bus in an attempt to obtain a modicum of exercise. It’s about a thirty-minute walk, and there are eight street crossings along the way. It is when I cross the street that I often encounter ableism. Sometimes, people ask if I would like help crossing the street. There is nothing wrong with asking, and I always politely decline. However, far too often, people refuse to believe that I don’t require assistance, and they proceed to “help” me cross the street anyway. The mildest form of this “help” is simply the person saying “It’s safe to cross” when the light changes. This is sort of annoying, since I have already told the person I don’t need help, but it’s so innocuous that I would count myself fortunate if this was the extent of the ableism I encounter. However, in other situations, the person will grab my arm and walk with me across the street. The worst example of this street-crossing help—and, thankfully, the least common—involves a person grabbing me without asking and without warning. It is very unsettling to be grabbed by a complete stranger. There are very few situations in which it is permissible to touch a stranger without permission, and this is not one of them.

Being given unsolicited help across the street might seem relatively mild. In some respects, it is. I have never feared for my physical safety from any of these people, and I believe that they honestly think they are doing me a favour. However, it is also a very awkward situation from which it is difficult to extract oneself without being perceived as rude. Consider the following: A person approaches me on the street, and asks if I need help crossing the intersection. I smile and say: “I’m okay. Thank you for offering.” Then, instead of believing that I’m telling the truth, the person grabs my arm and begins walking/pulling me across the street. What now? If I say: “Don’t touch me”, onlookers may think I’m overreacting or being rude for no reason. I don’t know for a fact that this is what they would think; however, I have never had an onlooker step in and say: “He told you he doesn’t need help.” Obviously, some people might simply not want to get involved (which is completely understandable), but the fact that this has never happened leads me to believe that a subset of onlookers believe the “help” that I have declined is not actually unwanted. My other option when grabbed is to simply acquiesce to the help. To me, this always feels like I am perpetuating the stereotype that blind people are helpless and dependent on the charity of strangers. (As a somewhat irrelevant aside, I always wonder how these people think I cross the street when no one is around to “help” me.)

It has been suggested to me that I should take situations like the one described above as an opportunity to educate people about blindness. Rather than being frustrated or feeling embarrassed, I should explain to the person why what she or he did was inappropriate. I have no problem with people who are blind taking this approach if it is what they want to do. Unfortunately, many people who give this suggestion tend to imply that it is obligatory for me to educate people. I have attempted this on occasion, but I find it exhausting and unrewarding. In general, people have taken my attempt at education as an invitation to ask a series of personal, sometimes-offensive questions. Common examples include: “How did you go blind?” “Are you sad that you’re blind?” “Do you even know what you look like?” “Do you know what colours are?” A surprisingly large number of people have actually attempted to administer an impromptu eye exam by insisting that I tell them how many fingers they are holding up. Obviously, not all questions are inherently offensive. Asking me how I went blind is appropriate if we are friends, or, possibly, even if we are just getting to know each other. However, consider what the possible answers could be, and how awkward they could make the conversation with a complete stranger. What if I am blind as a result of a brutal attack? What if my blindness is quite recent, and stems from a terminal brain tumour? It is odd that, while most of these people would be uncomfortable asking me personal questions about, for instance, my sex life, they are less inhibited when it comes to personal questions about my blindness. After all, such questions are questions about my medical history—a topic that is generally accepted as personal by most of society.

I want to re-emphasize that the reason the questions I am asked are problematic are because they come from complete strangers. After someone gets to know me for who I am rather than for my blindness, I am not bothered by tactfully-asked questions—curiosity is obviously natural. In some situations, I will explicitly invite questions with the assurance that I will not be offended. For example, I recently began a graduate program in cognitive science, and I invited my supervisor to ask any questions she had about my blindness. Because we conduct research together, it is crucial that she understand any limitations I might have, and thus I thought it was important to invite questions.

As I am sure readers of this blog can imagine, there are a plethora of other examples of ableism I encounter that I have not discussed here. Primarily, this is because I want to keep the length of this post under that of an average novel, and I think it’s already nearing the point at which people will have stopped reading. Note, too, that I am not trying to personally attack the people who exhibit ableist behaviour; I am sure I have said or done ableist things in the past. Rather, I wrote this in the hope that it will educate people. If there is one thing to keep in mind when interacting with people who are blind—or, for that matter, people with any disability—it is that you should look at them as a normal person who happens to be blind, rather than as a person who is defined primarily by the fact that they are blind.

Tyler Ensor grew up in Southern Ontario, Canada. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree and PhD in cognitive psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research focuses on human memory.

Compassion, Men, and Me

I haven’t thought this through extensively. Normally I wouldn’t write about anything I haven’t thought through extensively, but I’ll explain that.

But I’ve read Scott Aaronson’s article and Laurie Penny’s article and Chana Messinger’s article and I’m still nowhere closer to having a conclusion about any of this. I do know this: pain is real no matter who feels it. I am a feminist and I sympathize with Aaronson. Does this make me that much of an anomaly? I doubt it, but who knows.

I also know this: the vast majority of the time that this particular shy nerdy guy pain has been shared with me, it has been shared in response to my attempts to discuss or advocate against sexual harassment and assault, or sexism in general. This makes it very difficult to continue being compassionate.

I don’t agree that “But I was sad because I could never get laid” necessarily always means “I am demanding that some woman sleep with me in order to make me feel better,” but I understand why many feminist women think that it does. We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain being handed to us. Aaronson may think he’s the only one, or one of the only ones, but many of us have been hearing this sort of thing for years. Some of us heard it from the guys we hopelessly crushed on in high school, who ignored us to fantasize about prettier, normal-er girls–because, guess what? Shy nerdy girls who can’t get laid exist, too.

We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain because all our lives we’ve been taught to soothe male pain and stroke male egos. A man telling me that he is sad because he cannot or could not get sex is typically asking for one thing only.

But that’s not really what I’m thinking about. I haven’t thought this through because I’m so tired. This is not the first time I have thought about this. I’ve been thinking about it in some way or other all along.

Since I was a child, I’ve been exhorted to take care of people’s feelings, especially men’s feelings. I was told to feel sorry for my father when he yelled at me without provocation. I was told to say yes to the boys who asked me out because otherwise they would be sad. I was told not to break up with the boyfriends I no longer liked because that would make them even more sad. I was told to be gentler in my articles so that men would not be upset–gentler, gentler, more and more caveats and concessions until there was little to no writing left. I am sure that one day I will be told to marry a man I do not love because otherwise he will be sad.

You may criticize me for my use of passive voice here, but I choose my words intentionally. I use passive voice because so many people have said these things to me–explicitly, although implicitly may have been just as effective–that it is both difficult and unfair to choose some arbitrary example to be the subject of my sentences.

Feminism, and the people I met who were feminists, was my first chance to prioritize something other than other people’s (especially men’s) feelings. I never wanted to disregard them per se–I dislike hurting people and try to do it only when absolutely necessary–but for the first time, I got to consider my own feelings first. Moreover, I got to consider other things–what needed to be done, what was important, what was practical, what was ethical, what maximized long-term gain, what was accurate. I stopped laughing at jokes I did not consider funny even though that might make the joke-teller sad. I started writing articles about sex and relationships and communication even though some people–even some people I cared about–would not like them. I held people responsible for the pain they caused me rather than excusing it.

I’ve made a lot of progress. I think a lot about finding the right balance between taking care of myself and taking care of others. I’m sure that I occasionally tip the scale too far in favor of myself, but that’s an assessment only I get to make. And for me personally, this sort of rhetoric–the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings rhetoric–threatens to undo a lot of that progress. It activates the little voice in my head, the little voice that I’m sure a lot of other women have, that says, “It’s okay, don’t worry about me.”

Sometimes that voice is a good thing, because it reminds us not to get too wrapped up in our own little hurts. Other times, it’s not such a good thing. That voice is the thing that allowed me to sit quietly while people took advantage of me–emotionally, physically.

I follow these discussions, the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings discussions, and I feel that, once again, men’s feelings are being handed to me to deal with. And I’m just not sure what I’m being asked to do with them. Do you want me to sympathize with you? That I can do. I’ve always done it, and I will always do it. If you recognized yourself in Aaronson’s post: I’m sorry you had such a shitty time. I wish it could have gone better.

But do you want me to sympathize with you, or do you want me to drop what I was carrying to hold your feelings instead?

That I will not do.

Every time I try to be more compassionate towards the men I criticize, I am told that I’m still not compassionate enough.

It’s almost as though they want me to just stop criticizing.

Why We Should Ban Conversion Therapy

[Content note: suicide, transphobia, abuse]

I wrote this article for the Daily Dot about conversion therapy. Please note that I did not write and do not endorse its headline as it appears at the Daily Dot.

At the close of a year that saw both incredible gains for transgender people and a number of tragic acts of transphobic violence, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen from Ohio,committed suicide on Sunday. In a note that she had preemptively scheduled to post on her Tumblr, she described the bigotry she had faced from her parents, who tried to isolate her from her friends and the Internet as punishment. They also sent her to Christian therapists who shamed her for her gender identity.

In response, the Transgender Human Rights Institute created a Change.org petition on December 31. The petition asksPresident Obama, Senator Harry Reid, and Representative Nancy Pelosi to enact Leelah’s Law to ban transgender conversion therapy. Less than two days later, the petition has already gained 160,000 signatures and made the rounds online. It may be the most attention that conversion therapy has gotten outside of activist circles for some time.

Aside from LGBTQ activists, secular activists, and mental healthcare professionals seeking to promote evidence-based practice, not many people seem to speak up about conversion therapy, or understand much about it. Most discussions of it that I come across deal with therapies that attempt to “reverse” sexual orientation from gay to straight or to eradicate same-sex attraction. However, conversion therapy also includes practices aimed at transgender people with the goal of forcing them to identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

In her suicide note, Alcorn wrote, “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to Christian therapists (who were all very biased), so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.” Although she did not elaborate further about her experience in therapy, it’s clear that the treatment goal was not to help Alcorn reduce her risk of suicide, accept herself, recover from depression, or develop healthy coping skills that would help her stay safe in such an oppressive environment. The treatment goal was to force Leelah Alcorn to identify as a boy and to fulfill her parents’ and therapists’ ideas about what being a Christian means.

This is not mental healthcare. This is abuse.

Read the rest here.

The City, She Loves Me

No New Year’s Eve post this year, because this time I’m too busy to write one until tomorrow. Instead, have a story–the only piece of fiction I’ve written for more years than I’ve kept track of. 

When my partner first started to disappear, it was just a little bit at a time. I barely noticed, at first.

I visited her in New York for the first time that spring. I’d been to the city before, as a child—saw a family-friendly Broadway show, took a cruise around the island, went to the Statue of Liberty, ate a lot of pizza. I remember my little brother hated it and couldn’t stop crying at the noise, the people, at everything. Even the pigeons terrified him. But I neither loved it nor hated it; it was a place like any other.

When I came to visit her it was different. She showed me the city like I’d never seen it before. It was late April and everything was blooming, and I never knew a city could have so many flowers. They lit up the trees that split the avenues in half. They spilled out of window boxes and pots hanging from the lamp posts. They popped up in the strangest of places, like the sunflowers growing in abandoned lots in Brooklyn, where we went to visit her friends. They peered out at me from behind rusty chain-link fences, little suns adrift in the city.

That week was the first time it happened, only I didn’t know it was happening. We were in Washington Square Park, looking at the Arch and the flowers and the performers. It was a Wednesday afternoon, too late for the lunch rush. We were watching a dance troupe perform near the fountain, and I was holding her hand.

Suddenly I felt her let go. When I looked over she was gone. Just gone. A little crowd had gathered to watch the dancers, but there weren’t so many people that I could just lose her like that. I spun around in circles trying to find her, unsure whether or not to trust my own perception. But not ten seconds later I felt her hand in mine again. I turned around and there she was.

Startled, I said, too loudly, “Where were you?”

She just looked at me, gold flecks dancing in her green eyes, and said, “Exploring!”

And her mouth curled into that mischievous smile I loved, and I thought I must’ve been imagining things.

~~~

Unlike me, she had always loved the city, from her first trip there at one year old. Her parents went almost yearly to visit relatives, of whom she must’ve had dozens in the city. By the time we met in Chicago, both recent college grads, she already knew she was going to move. It was only a matter of time.

The first job she was able to find in New York, she took. It wasn’t the best of jobs, as we both knew. She’d be reporting on local news—crime, subway disasters, things like that—rather than the more serious political stuff she wanted to cover. But everyone has to start somewhere, I suppose.

At the time we were living in Lakeview. Too far from the lake to actually view it, but close enough to walk to the beach in the summers. We’d been together for about three years. Since I always knew she was going to escape to New York at the earliest opportunity, it was neither a surprise nor a disappointment when  I came home from work one day to find her beaming, phone still in her hand, telling me she got the job. I was a little sad for me, but very, very happy for her.

Besides, my job paid well and would only pay better and better, so I knew I’d be able to go see her a lot. In those weeks as she scrambled to find a spare room at one of her numerous relatives’ apartments, to decide what to take and what to leave, to say her goodbyes to her family and all the friends she’d made in Chicago, we talked a lot about how it would be. How we would be.

My friends were less optimistic than I was. “Look, I hate to tell you, but she’ll find someone else,” they would say. In fact, that possibility didn’t worry me too much. Although it’d been years since either of us dated anyone else, I figured she might meet someone, someone she could see anytime she wanted. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but I knew that she loved me and felt confident that we would make it through whatever came next.

They said other things, too. “Watch out,” a friend joked to her at her going-away party. “That city will consume you if you’re not careful.”

I had always thought that was just a figure of speech.

[Read more…]

“Educate Me!” “Go Google It!”

A common dynamic online:

  • Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions, perhaps on Twitter or Tumblr, and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things–sometimes the particular ones under discussion here, or maybe just something else that Person A might know about.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, hoping to learn more about the topic.
  • Person A is annoyed at the request and responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A doesn’t really care whether Person B understands Social Justice Things or not. Person B may develop a very negative opinion about Social Justice People and Social Justice Things, because that’s how cognitive bias works.

Here’s another common dynamic, perhaps an even more common one:

  • Person A has a blog or a Twitter account that they use to discuss Social Justice Things with like-minded folks. Person A posts something.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions. Person B is privileged relative to Person A on the issues being discussed–gender, race, class, etc. Person B feels annoyed at this discussion. They find all this Social Justice Stuff to be whiny and irritating and they don’t understand why people keep making such a big deal over such little things.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, perhaps worded in a way that reveals their irritation (“Yeah well, how are men supposed to meet women if we can’t even compliment a cute girl on the train?” “Okay so are you suggesting that white people just stop accepting job offers because a Black person should get them instead?”).
  • Person A is annoyed. They were just trying to discuss Social Justice Things with people they trust. They have answered these exact questions on their blog or Twitter dozens of times, as have many other writers. Maybe right now they don’t want to discuss basics like why street harassment is street harassment, or what affirmative action actually is. They are irritated at Person B’s entitled-sounding tone and the fact that Person B doesn’t seem to have done even the bare minimum to teach themselves about these issues.
  • Person A responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B’s confirmation bias leads them to view this as yet another example of Social Justice People being awful rather than viewing this slightly rude response in the context in which it happened.

Here’s the problem: in practice, these dynamics can be almost indistinguishable.

I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind for a while, trying to keep my own privilege in mind but also trying to understand the perspectives of everyone in this situation–the person who innocently asks a 101-level question hoping to learn more, the person who asks a 101-level question hoping to derail the conversation, the Social Justice Person tired of being expected to serve as a free tutor for anyone who asks, the other Social Justice People who feel that we have a responsibility to be kind to newbies, the people who are observing this dynamic from the outside and, more often than not, handing down edicts that they want the Social Justice People to follow without necessarily understanding our perspectives and situations.

Thinking about all this has led me to make a number of observations, some of which contradict each other, and none of which are going to please everyone.

  • Not everyone who talks about Social Justice Things online is doing it for the purpose of educating others.

A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions if that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate. Here’s the thing, though–for some of us, it’s just our daily lives, and we share them with each other because it brings us comfort and connection. If I post a tweet about how I’m really shaken up after a guy followed me down the block screaming sexual obscenities, some men may see this as an invitation to ask me why this is harassment or what the guy should’ve done instead or how exactly I suggest we fix this problem, just throw all the men in jail or what? But I wasn’t posting to educate. I was posting because I’d just gone through a traumatic experience and wanted people to know what I was dealing with and support me.

  • Not all online public spaces actually function as public spaces.

Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about this. For example, one thread of the conversation concerns the use of people’s tweets in news stories without their permission. After a controversial Buzzfeed story collected sexual assault survivors’ tweets without asking the person who has started and was leading the conversation (though the journalist did ask the authors of the individual tweets), media types all over the internet insisted that “Yeah, well, Twitter is public.” Technically, yes, but what does this mean in practice?

In practice, many people use Twitter to connect with others that they might not know in person. That’s the power of Twitter. Making our accounts private wouldn’t do the trick. In a recent Pacific Standard interview, Mikki Kendall discusses the “fetishization” of Black Twitter, which is exactly what it sounds like–Black people on Twitter connecting with each other and discussing things that are relevant to them, whether it’s the Eric Garner shooting or the latest episode of Scandal. Sometimes, clueless white people stumble onto Black Twitter discussions and expect the participants of those discussions to educate them about racism. They don’t understand that those people are there mainly to interact with each other, not to teach white people.

Twitter and Tumblr are public, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is invited to the table–just like if you see a group of friends talking at a restaurant, that is not an invitation to barge in and ask them questions, even though you are able to see them and hear their conversation.

  • Even discussions meant to be educational happen on different levels.

If I’m trying to explain to someone how the fight for same-sex marriage is actually marginalizing more urgent queer causes and essentially demanding that queer folks assimilate and act as straight as possible in order to receive their rights, that may not be the time to show up and ask how I presume same-sex couples could possibly instill good morals in their children. If someone is discussing how laws and police officers and incarceration is not a good solution for street harassment because it doesn’t get at the underlying problem and will only serve to further oppress men of color, that may not be the time to demand to know what’s wrong with telling a hot girl that she’s hot.

To do so would be the equivalent of bursting into a Physics 301 classroom and demanding to be taught basic mechanics. But people don’t realize this because they don’t see social justice as a discipline, a method, a field of inquiry that has many levels and layers of knowledge.

This is why some people refer to basic-question-asking as a form of derailment. The folks who get told they’re derailing often find this difficult to understand–how can just asking questions possibly be derailing? It’s derailing in the sense that you’re trying to get the person to stop talking about what they want to talk about and instead talk about what you want to talk about.

  • The reason many marginalized people don’t want to answer basic questions is because those situations often turn confrontational and nasty.

Yes, it always starts the same–someone asking a basic question. Sometimes I answer and they say, “You’re right.” Sometimes I answer and they say, “I don’t agree, but thanks for taking the time to explain your view.” Sometimes they say, “Huh, I’ll think about that, thanks.” But a disturbingly large percentage of the time, instead, I get drawn into a horrid gaslighting argument that may or may not include the use of personal insults and slurs, or even threats of violence.

I explain this the same way I explain street harassment. If you’re a nice guy who just wants to tell me I’m pretty, you don’t understand–because you have the privilege of not dealing with this on the regular–that so many of the guys who came before you followed that up with FUCK YOU, YOU UGLY SLUTTY CUNT. (Or worse.) If you’re a nice person who just wants to get some answers about some stuff you don’t understand, you may not realize that a bunch of the people who asked me those questions before have turned out truly nasty. And I can’t tell from reading a single typed sentence from you which of those you are.

  • However, people who don’t know much about social justice are unlikely to know/understand much of what I just wrote.

In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.

So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.

  • Meanness to newbies isn’t a Social Justice Problem. It’s a Human Problem.

Perhaps it’s people with an overinflated opinion of Social Justice People who assume that we are somehow magically immune to the flaws that plague the rest of humanity. But every bad thing you find in any group of people–sloppy thinking, meanness, tribalism, abuse, self-centeredness, sexism, racism, any other -ism–also exists among Social Justice People. Maybe slightly less for some of those, maybe slightly more for others–but it’s our virtually-universal human flaws that contribute to all of these issues.

Have you ever tried to post a basic question on a tech or gaming forum? Ever got told to “go read the fucking manual, idiot”? I have! That’s why I don’t post on tech forums when I need help with Python or HTML. Ever asked a professor a basic question and gotten snarked at? I have! I asked a psychology professor in college–a respected expert in her field–a question about APA citations, and got in response, “Are you even a psych major?” Ever posted a question on Facebook or Twitter and had your own friends condescendingly tell you to Google it? I have! And so it goes.

Are you also upset about tech forum admins telling newbies to “go read the fucking manual”? If so, great. If not, you are being hypocritical. And keep in mind that tech forums, unlike someone’s random Tumblr, often are explicitly meant for teaching and learning.

Anyway, I don’t think that being mean to newbies is a Tech Problem or a Gaming Problem or a Psychology Problem or a College Problem or a Miri’s Friends Problem; I think it’s just a problem. I think the irritation we feel when someone wants basic answers is understandable; I also think we should try to think rationally about whether or not it’ll help anyone–our own selves included–to express it.

That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of Human Problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard. (The phrase “get your own house in order,” while admittedly unkind, comes to mind.) And while some might argue that we have some sort of “responsibility” to be better than others–well, I think we try. I think we often fail, because being a human is hard.

  • Googling is unlikely to yield a good social justice education.

That, I think, is the central problem of telling people to “go Google it.” The social justice information that is easily found through Googling is likely to be written by and for straight white able-bodied American middle-class people. We, as Social Justice People, know this and understand why it’s a problem; Hypothetical Newbie does not. Unless you want Hypothetical Newbie to receive their entire social justice education through Jezebel and white male writers, I’d advise against telling them to Google their question. (Remember, too, that Googling certain issues is also likely to land them on MRA sites. Nobody wants that.)

If you don’t know what you’re missing anything, you won’t know to look for what you’re missing.

  • Unfortunately, the response to being angrily told to educate yourself will rarely be to educate yourself.

(With the huuuuge caveat that a lot of what gets interpreted as “anger” when coming from women or people of color or women of color in particular is not actually anger, or wouldn’t be interpreted as anger when coming from white men. It would be considered being direct. But sometimes it really is.)

Anger can be absolutely 100% justified and still cause people to shrink and shut down and go away. That is, in fact, one of its purposes. For most people, getting yelled at is not conducive to the sort of mood–hopeful, curious, alert–that is conducive to learning. Many of us have had awful grade school teachers who yelled at us; some of us might still remember what that was like. I do. I didn’t learn squat-diddly-doo in that class, so focused was I on making myself small and unnoticeable and calming myself down.

(That class, by the way? It was English. The grade? Seventh. That was the year I started getting really, really into writing. I am thankful every day that out of all the ways that teacher wrecked me, destroying my love of writing wasn’t one of them.)

So there’s sometimes a difference between behaving in ways that are absolutely understandable and justifiable, and behaving in ways that are likeliest to get us the results we want to see. When I think about how to respond to someone online, I think about what I want to happen here, and how I can best make that happen. It sucks that we can’t always express ourselves fully if we are to achieve certain goals, but that’s part of being realistic and goal-oriented.

Where do we go from here? How do we resolve these tensions? If educating others is important to us, how do we do it without burning out, giving in to entitled expectations from others, or demanding that Social Justice People be stronger and smarter and better and kinder than everyone else at all times?

My only two suggestions are that if you ever feel like yelling at someone for asking you a question, first consider one of these alternatives: 1) ignoring the message, or 2) linking them to a good resource that might answer it for them.

To that end, it might help to start amassing a database of links for common questions. One incredible example is Aida Manduley’s Ferguson masterpost. Shakesville’s Feminism 101 is also great, though perhaps not entirely 101. Another, much more general one is my own. If you know of others, please link to them.

I try to encourage people to have compassion for each other. This means, fellow Social Justice People: I know it feels impossible, but we need to try to remember that not everyone who cannot be discerned from an asshole is an asshole. Not being willing to take the risk is perfectly okay, but I think it’s better to not take that risk in a way that minimizes hurt to people who did nothing wrong. For instance: ignoring/blocking. And, not-Social Justice People: try to remember that when we’re hurting and angry, it’s because of lifetimes of death by a thousand cuts that you can’t see because you haven’t learned to see them yet. I hope you find a way to learn, but in the meantime, try to cut us some slack for being upset.

To close, I’ll link to Ozy Frantz’s excellent post, “Certain Propositions Concerning Callout Culture.” Their piece is sort of about the general case of what I’ve discussed here, and I echo many of their views, caveats, and recommendations.

~~~

Here is a great article about a very similar problem plaguing another great community: Wikipedia. Although the situation is not analogous in many ways, hopefully it will serve as an example of both the harms and the occasional inevitability of Newbie Hate/Fear.

Official policies tell editors to tolerate newcomers’ innocent mistakes (“Please do not bite the newcomers”), but active editors often reverse newbies’ contributions without explanation. “Activists have been at it five and 10 years and don’t tolerate little mistakes,” says Jensen, an editor since 2005. He recalls running a workshop in which a well-known expert on Montana history tried to add a paragraph to the site, only to see it immediately erased.

Editors distrust newcomers for a reason: bitter experience. “Trolls come,” Jemielniak tells me in an interview. “If you spend time reviewing recent changes, after an hour or two you will have a feeling that the world is composed mostly of primary school students and cranks.” Some vandals simply replace an article’s text with random characters: destruction for its own sake. Instead of improving article content, editing often means acting as a human spam filter. Jemielniak and others may decry Wikipedians’ emphasis on edit numbers, but valuing lots of small changes, even out of testosterone-fueled competitiveness, has an unsung benefit: It encourages editors to discover and repair damage. Eternal vigilance keeps the site’s contents from decaying.

Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about actor Stephen Collins, who had admitted to sexually abusing three girls several decades ago.

After actor Stephen Collins released a statement to People last week about his past molestation of three underage girls, Rosie O’Donnell, once his friend, responded with a poem eviscerating the former 7th Heaven star and describing her own experiences of abuse. In the poem, she wrote, “in case u wonder / what ur man sized penis – / ur abuse of power / ur lack of impulse control did to that kid / i will tell u a bit about me / sex is not fun / not now / not ever / it is married to a lingering terror.”

Others take an entirely different view of Collins’ confession. Writing in Psychology Today, Deborah King responds:

When someone is this sincere in his efforts to address his shortcomings, and has twenty years of clean personal behavior behind him, shouldn’t we support him…and forgive him? He has been in personal hell for decades over this; there is no need for further punishment. He has handled everything in the right way, including not apologizing directly to two of his victims, which could reopen old wounds for them. Clearly, 20 years of restraint and no repetition of his inappropriate sexual behavior shows that he is holding himself accountable.

In a number of ways, the Stephen Collins‘ case is different from most other cases of famous men harassing, assaulting, or abusing women. First of all, it came to light not because Collins was caught or accused by someone else, but because he admitted it—at least, initially. Second, unlike many sex offenders, Collins has not been denying any wrongdoing, but rather working to address the roots of his behavior in therapy. Third, Collins then shared his own story of being victimized by an adult as a child. While it’s not uncommon for abusers to have been abused themselves, few of them speak out about it—perhaps because they do not realize that they were abused and, therefore, do not understand that their own actions constitute abuse as well.

In discussing the woman who repeatedly exposed herself to him, Collins shows a high degree of self-knowledge. He states that he’s not “blaming” the woman or using her as an “excuse,” but rather attempting to show how his attitudes and beliefs developed in such a way that led him to perpetuate sexual abuse against others. In an interview this past Friday, Collins said:

That [experience] distorted my perception in such a way that some part of me felt—I never felt like I was molested. That word never crossed my mind as a 10 to 15-year-old boy. It was a very intense experience—I think somewhere in my brain I got the equation that, ‘Well, this isn’t so terrible. This person who I trust is doing it.’… I think that’s an aspect that went into my own distorted thinking as a young man.

While I understand why people are hearing this as an attempt to excuse away Collins’ behavior, I hear it differently. Explaining why someone has done a bad thing isn’t the same thing as saying that it was OK for them to do, or that it was someone else’s fault that they did it. We do not grow and act in a vacuum, and although it is our responsibility to reevaluate the wrong and sometimes dangerous beliefs we are taught as children, we must also stop such things from being taught to children to begin with. Understanding how someone develops the belief that these actions are not abuse is important if we are to prevent others from developing it in the future, and it’s rare that we get to hear such an insightful and self-aware explanation of how someone comes to abuse others. Perhaps Collins has therapy to thank for that.

Read the rest here.

How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me to be emotionally intimate with people. That means that it’s hard to tell them that I love them or remind them that they mean a lot to me and basically anything else associated with sappy rainbowvomitness.

In that earlier post, I described why I have this issue, but it can come up for people for all sorts of reasons–a history of abuse, trouble recognizing or connecting to one’s emotions, difficulty with language, speaking, or writing, and so on. And some people just aren’t very emotional or forthcoming, and that’s okay too. It’s not their style.

How do we show love to the special people in our lives when few of the ways we’re taught to do it resonate? I can’t bring myself to write sappy Facebook statuses or have one of those conversations where we just keep talking about how much we love each other. It quite honestly turns my stomach and makes me feel uncomfortable, boxed in, and small. I worry about What It Means to be a person who says those things. Does it mean I’ve once again become everything I worked so hard to stop being?

So I’m writing this post sort of experimentally, more for myself than anyone else. Writing, especially writing publicly, is one of the best ways I have of figuring shit out. I’m curious if the process of writing this will help me uncover ways to connect to people in my life that feel comfortable and authentic for me. So, although it will look like a list of advice, the advice is actually for myself.

I guess this isn’t likely to help that many people because both this issue and my particular situation might not be that common: I have issues with verbal/emotional affection but not physical affection, most of my relationships are long-distance and fairly casual, I’m polyamorous, and I have an easier time being affectionate with people with whom the relationship is strictly platonic. Maybe for other people, it’s physical affection that’s tricky, or it’s harder to express affection for Just Friends outside of the confines of an Established Relationship. I don’t know. Hopefully this will help more people than just me, though.

So, here is what I’m going to try to do, or do more of:

1. Give gifts.

When possible, gifts are a nice way to express appreciation for people that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of feelings!talk. Sometimes, simply telling someone I care for them can feel very performative and self-centered in a weird way: “Look at me! I have feelings about you! Listen to my feelings! Affirm/reflect my feelings!” Giving a gift, especially a gift that is useful rather than purely A Keepsake To Remind You Of Me, can be a way to decenter myself. That’s why I tend to give lots of books and edible things. I hope that by giving someone an enjoyable experience, I can express affection for them without putting myself at the forefront.

2. Share appreciation for their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard for me to do the “I love you so much you are so special to me I’m so glad you’re in my life you make me so happy” thing. Something that feels more comfortable and also resonates more with the way I experience my close relationships is to tell someone that I respect or appreciate something they’ve said or done. It helps that many of my friends are writers, which means I can express positive thoughts about their work. One of the reasons this is easier for me is because, like with the gifts, it takes the focus off of me and my emotions and keeps it on them and the cool things they say and do; another is that it’s what I would appreciate, because effusive expressions of emotion are somewhat difficult for me to understand and respond to and I much prefer compliments on concrete things that I do. I never want to make someone feel as awkward as I feel when I suddenly get a rainbowvomit message about how much someone cares about me that I don’t know how to respond to, so I feel better when I affirm people in ways that might be a little easier for them to reciprocate or respond to (“Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!” “Thanks, I like your new blog post too!”).

3. Tell them stories about your life.

I want to feel like my friends and partners know me and know what my life is like. Because most of them live so far away, they have no idea unless I tell them–beyond the generalities that I put in my Facebook statuses, which, although they can feel quite personal and intimate, are actually quite filtered and intentionally cheerful. Where do I talk about my successes at work, or how awful I felt when I couldn’t write something that felt important to write,  or the woman who helped me out on the subway? Pretty much nowhere. Maybe spontaneously telling people these things will help them feel like I care enough to want them to know about my life, and I know I’d appreciate hearing those types of things from them to.

4. Do helpful things for them.

The key here being to actually listen to what they need and do the things that they will find helpful, not what you personally think would be helpful. Little acts of service are a big part of the way that I show affection to people, though they might not always realize it. I remember when I was first getting to know my boyfriend over a year ago–before he was my boyfriend, before it would’ve felt at all appropriate to express that I cared in any other way–I knew he wanted a game that was being sold at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Living just a short subway ride away from it, I offered to go and get it for him and bring it to Skepticon, where we would see each other. The fact that I got to use my wonderful city to do a little nice thing for someone made it all the better. Other things I like doing include giving New York touristy tips, editing people’s writing, and carrying heavy things.

5. Use your talents.

This relates closely to the previous one, at least for me. Most of my favorite ways to show affection involve this somehow. For instance, cooking for people is something I take really seriously as a way to demonstrate the fact that I care. Although I love doing it, it is time-consuming and sometimes physically taxing and can take me away from socializing with people–but I do it because that effort is meaningful. (And I really do not exaggerate when I say that my food is amazing.) Other skills I like to use are writing (I might write a nice holiday card for someone, or let them read and respond to a new article before I’ve posted it), listening (when someone needs to rant about something), and observing (when someone needs help dealing with a problem in their lives, and I help them not necessarily by offering advice but by noting things I’ve observed about them and the situation). Although the expectation I sometimes face with everyone from partners to total strangers that I listen to and help with all of their problems just because it’s also my profession can be ridiculously stressful and irritating, I’ve found that when I really, really care for someone, I’ll drop anything to help them out. (With the caveat that if it becomes too frequent or starts to feel like an expectation, we might have a talk.)

6. Connect them with people, events, media, or resources they might like.

I think about the people I care about a lot, although they don’t always realize it because I hate to do the “hey I’m thinking of you” thing (again, it feels really presumptuous, like a demand for their attention). But one way it plays out is that I often come across things that I think people I care about would like, and I like to share those things with them. Most commonly it’s books or places, but I also like introducing people to people they might like or inviting them to events they might like. I have often reached out to friends I knew were job-hunting with listings I thought might work. I like connecting disparate friends together (although I’m also mindful not to expect them to like each other).

7. Ask for their help in little ways.

People like to feel needed in ways that matter to them. It is hard for me to make people feel needed because I like to do everything by myself, whether that’s exploring the city, editing an article, or coping with a difficult time in my life. But there are ways for me to include people in my own processes without compromising my hard-won sense of independence and competence. For instance, I sometimes post requests for practical suggestions or advice on Facebook, which lets people share their own knowledge and experiences. Other times I reach out to individual people to ask if they know of an article about X, or if they can help me think of a word for Y, or–very rarely–if they wouldn’t mind listening to me vent for a while. I only do this with people I value, so I hope it helps them remember that I value them.

8. Sexting.

This is obviously only applicable with certain types of loved ones, and I’ll also caveat it with the fact that sexting is something I find very performative in a way that is fun but also requires a lot of mental energy that I don’t always have. But when I can do it, it’s a nice way to remind a distant partner that I find them sexy without having to belabor the point–a way of showing rather than telling, as it were.

It’s probably easy to look at this list and assume that I just need to get over my intimacy issues and everything will be great. Well, I’ve restarted therapy for mostly this reason, but that’s not going to make noticeable changes immediately (if it ever does). Therapy is not accessible to everyone, and I’m also not sure that disliking rainbowvomit-y emotional expression is necessarily a sign that there’s something “wrong” with you. It’s not the way everyone experiences love and attachment. It’s certainly not the way I experience it anymore.

If you deal with similar issues and have suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments. (If you do not, then please don’t speculate and offer suggestions anyway; just use this as an opportunity to learn about people who deal with stuff you don’t.)

On Mishearing “Get Consent” as “Don’t Have Sex”

[Content note: sexual assault]

This fall, the new affirmative consent law in California, which requires all universities that receive state funding to adopt definitions of consent that translate roughly to “only yes means yes” rather than simply “no means no,” reignited a number of age-old debates about the meaning of consent and sexual assault. One of them is the claim that anti-rape advocacy is attempting to redefine perfectly good sex as rape, and that in this new climate, men cannot ever be safe from being accused of rape no matter how careful they are.

Remember, by the way, that this is not new. This is not a California’s-new-law problem. This is a very old problem.

This article was published before the law passed, but it’s still very relevant because I’m hearing these sorts of objections, especially in response to the law, all the time. The authors interview a number of college men (and those who work with them) who say they are much more careful about hooking up now that there’s such a focus on campus sexual assault. For instance:

Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.

“‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. “‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’”

More anecdotally, I’ve heard these sorts of remarks too. “I don’t even bother asking women out now,” or “I haven’t had sex for years because I’m scared they’ll call me a rapist.” I feel sad for these men who clearly want sexual intimacy but feel that they have no choice to give it up. And I also feel angry, because this is not what we’ve been saying, and yet they insist that we’re telling them they can’t have sex at all.

Countless writers, educators, and activists have weighed in on what consent is and what it is not and how to communicate around it. If you Google “what is consent,” the first page has numerous resources meant to help young people learn what consent is, such as this one and this one. Don’t like reading? There are graphics!

Yet (some) men insist that this is all so mysterious and perilous that they have no choice but to avoid the whole enterprise altogether.

I don’t want anyone to be lonely, insecure, and sexually unfulfilled. I don’t want anyone who wants to have sex to be unable to have it. I want everyone to have the confidence to pursue and find the types of relationships they’re interested in. I want everyone to feel worthy and valuable even if they haven’t found a partner yet.

But I also want people to pursue all of this ethically. That means that if you’re ever unsure if someone is consenting, you stop and ask. And if you don’t think you are able to do that, then you should abstain from sex until you are able to do it.

~~~

I wish I could explain consent to all of these men. I wish they could attend one of my workshops about consent, where I help people learn to understand body language, find language to help them ask for and give consent, and show how these skills apply to all areas of life, not just sex.

But I’m not sure how much of the misunderstanding is innocent rather than willful. The information is out there. So many people are working hard to make it available to college men. I’m not sure how much else I personally–or we collectively–can do for people who may not want to learn and change.

If we keep saying, “Make sure your partner is consenting!” and they keep hearing, “Women are mysterious fickle creatures who sometimes call random things rape just to screw you over,” I’m not sure how much responsibility we can accept for the misunderstanding.

Especially since many people have a vested interest in perpetuating this misunderstanding. It serves their purposes. They think it makes things easier for them, even as it causes so much more anxiety and fear and pain than embracing affirmative consent as a standard.

~~~

Sex, with all of its possibility to hurt, will probably always bring up fears, including the fear of overstepping a boundary and hurting someone. That is not a pleasant feeling; I know because, as someone who was not socialized to feel entitled to others’ bodies or attention, I feel it. Communicating clearly and expecting nothing less than clear communication from my partners helps relieve that fear, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It helps us remember that we have the power to hurt.

Right now, though, the predominant fear is one many people, women and gender-nonconforming people especially, face–the fear of having our boundaries willfully ignored. I won’t speculate about which feels worse. It is possible that someone who doesn’t have to face a high likelihood of being sexually assaulted feels subjectively as bad when they imagine the possibility of “accidentally” assaulting someone as I feel when I imagine the possibility of being assaulted (on purpose).

But for me, personally, the fear of being assaulted is so much worse. Because there are ways–ways that aren’t discussed nearly enough–to reduce my risk of assaulting someone to approximately zero without any undue burden on me. There are no ways to reduce my risk of being assaulted that are effective and that to not impose an undue burden on me.

This is why I am glad that men are starting to feel that surmountable fear. I don’t want them to live in terror. I don’t want them to avoid sex out of fear. (That would be how the other half lives.) I do want them to accept their fair share of the responsibility, though. And yes, that means more fear than they may be used to.

Ezra Klein says as much in a provocative Vox piece:

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.

~~~

When I first read that Bloomberg piece about waning “hookup culture,” my initial reaction was, honestly, to shrug. Let them be scared. Let them avoid sex and intimacy. I’ve certainly done that because I was afraid of sexual assault.

But then I thought, this isn’t really the way forward. At least, not entirely.

These men don’t seem to be afraid in that rational, “Shit, I could really hurt someone! Better be careful” way. They seem afraid in a reactive way, almost out of spite–“See, look how much you’ve fucked up my life! Happy now?” They seem afraid because they keep interpreting consent education in the most negative and life-fucking sort of way. They seem afraid because they still don’t understand that their female partners are human beings with their own subjective experiences, experiences that they would do well to listen to and try to understand.

I don’t want men to live in fear. I don’t want men to stop flirting with women and asking for their number. I don’t want men to start refusing sex with eager, consenting women because what if they’re actually lying and not consenting.

I want them to listen to us. I want them to respect our agency. I want them to let us write the story together with them, rather than writing each chapter themselves and then handing it to us to read, perhaps accepting some critique if they are especially gracious.

The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."

Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”

 

What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

Opening Up, Closing Down

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm]

The truth about mental illnesses that many of us have learned is that they change you for good. Even after the symptoms are gone, the medication gradually reduced to nothing or stabilized at a dose that works, something remains. (And for many of us the symptoms are never entirely gone.)

Depression left my scaffolds–indeed, my very foundation–cracked. I’m okay, even joyful, much of the time. But it feels a little flimsy.

One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness.

I am intensely uncomfortable with all of this.

I hate talking about myself, whether it’s positive or negative. I hate feeling like I need someone’s help to deal with emotions. I hate wanting someone’s help to deal with emotions even when I know I don’t need it. I hate the first time I tell someone I love them and I hate many of the subsequent times too. I hate it when people know that I miss them. I hate being visibly upset around someone, which means that if it’s at all possible to leave, I leave. I hate expressing any emotion besides joy and anger (which I rarely feel) to anyone. I hate it when someone says things to me in an attempt to build intimacy but I don’t know what to do so I say nothing. I hate when people notice emotions I didn’t intend to share. I hate when they tell me this as though it’s going to somehow endear them to me. I hate that there’s nowhere I can cry without being seen or heard by someone.

So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

Some people have difficulties like these for their whole lives, but for me, it happened as a result of depression. And, ironically, depression is also the thing that’s hardest for me to share with people.

During my nine years of depression–in fact, probably my whole life up to and including that–I was very different. My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. They spilled out of my hands, like when I try to move a big pile of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and little bits and pieces–a sock here, a tank top there–keep falling on the floor. I remember crying apropos of nothing on the band bus in 10th grade and telling my boyfriend that there’s no way to be happy when you hate yourself. Fifteen is old enough to know that this is not an appropriate thing to say. It didn’t matter. It just came out.

It’s not like I didn’t try to plug the leaks. In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid.” Each day I intentionally tried to shut myself up at some crucial juncture, and rewarded myself for it by writing it down in the notebook later–the thing left unsaid, the person I didn’t say it to, and the reason I didn’t say it.

Years later, what I learned about psychology and behavior change suggested that this could be quite an effective strategy for some people. But it didn’t help me much, because my problem wasn’t purely behavioral. When I looked at those entries later, I noticed how many of them had to do with hurt feelings. “Thing left unsaid: that I was upset about what _____ said about my outfit. Reason: because it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I tried so very hard, but everything hurt. If they couldn’t read it explicitly in my words, they read it implicitly in my face, my body, my tone. I couldn’t hide it. I gave up writing the entries within weeks because it was already too late, everything was leaking out and I couldn’t patch the holes fast enough. In college the dam broke completely, and everything from those little hurts all the way up to wanting to kill myself became common knowledge for those who interacted with me a lot.

For a while it was okay. I thought that being so open was keeping me going–and, as I’ll get to in a moment, it was important in some ways–but what it ultimately did was it completely broke me. It destroyed any sense of self-respect, independence, and competence that I had. When I confided my depressive feelings to someone, usually a partner, I felt like garbage. I felt so much more shame about the act of confiding than I ever did about the feelings I confided themselves.

If you’ve ever had to call the last person you want to speak to right now because they’re the only one available to talk you out of slashing your own wrists, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

You have to reveal. You have to open up, in order to live. You have to tell it to the therapist and the psychiatrist and your parents and your partner and anyone else who is in any way responsible for your well-being.

You tell people the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.

And so the concept of “opening up” has been totally ruined for me, because I didn’t get to save it for those special, bonding late-night conversations with someone I feel ready to show myself to.

I had to do it.

Now I don’t.

And not having to feels like freedom. It feels like victory. It feels like independence, finally. It feels like adulthood, although it shouldn’t. It feels like maturity, although it shouldn’t. It feels like wholeness. It feels like safety.

It feels like recovery.

So now I sit at the computer with words typed into the chat box–“I feel sad,” “I can’t stop crying,” “I miss you so much”–and I can’t send them. I want to send them and I don’t want to send them. Not wanting to send them almost always wins out.

In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly. New partners saw my neat little red scars so early on, too early on. “We’ll work on that,” said one, an aspiring psychologist. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said another.

Now nobody has to see, and it’s almost impossible to want it any other way. Intimacy has gotten much harder. Perhaps mirroring my own style, new partners disclose little and so I lose interest in them quickly, convinced we have nothing in common besides politics.

Instead I write. The stress of work, the rush of falling in love, the little depressions that come and go, the grief of losing my old lives, the fear of the future–they sink into paper and that’s where they stay.

It’s lonely and isolating as hell, but it beats feeling opened up and exposed.

And now, although I’m known as someone who talks about depression a lot, I don’t really talk about it. I speak obliquely of it, the way someone might mention the passing of a loved one without ever speaking openly of their grief.

I can say that there is fatigue. I can say that it feels sad and numb and dark and hopeless. I can say that I wanted to die. I can say that my head was–still is, much to my constant disappointment–fuzzy and slow, memory useless, words perpetually at the tip of my tongue but left unspoken. I can write this blog post about how depression has affected my ability to desire, build, and feel intimacy.

But I do not ever, not anymore, tell you how it really feels. I will not make you listen to me tell you I hate myself I hate myself like I’ve never hated anything before and I wish I could rip my body and my mind to shreds–

No, I stay on a meta level. I’m comfortable talking about it conceptually.

But the feeling of depression itself? That is a dark room into which I want to go alone. I don’t want anyone knocking on the door trying to get me to let them in. I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

Presumably, I don’t have to be stuck this way for my whole life just because I have/had depression. I’m hoping to start therapy again soon, for this and for other reasons. But for now, as I reflect on myself and my life at this very special (for me) time of year, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about all the little things I can no longer do, at least not without lots of anxiety and fear. Like tell someone how the stress actually feels. Or talk to someone about how powerless I feel in my work. Or ask someone if they can talk to me for a while to help me get my mind off of things.

In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.