Therapists Can Be Wrong

Therapists, like many professionals who work directly with clients, need to present themselves confidently in order to be effective, even when they’re not feeling very confident. It can be difficult for therapists to admit that they have or could be wrong, or that they don’t know everything. Like doctors and teachers and others, therapists worry that acknowledging their own limitations will erode their credibility and trustworthiness. When your livelihood depends on people finding you credible and trustworthy, that adds to the aversion of being wrong and admitting mistakes that virtually all of us already experience.

Yet we have to learn how to admit and accept that we are sometimes wrong–not only because it’s a foundation of accountability and ethical practice, but also because clients can often see through that facade, and they won’t like what they see. It’s difficult to trust someone who will never–can never–admit that they’re wrong.

This was going through my mind as I read one of my required texts for school, Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding“Psychiatric interviewing” is really just a term for the process of therapists asking their clients questions, so the book covers a lot of very important ground. While I’ve found it useful so far, a few things irk me about it.

For instance, the author has a strange preoccupation with labeling clients using the article “the” in a way that implies uniformity. The text is laden with references to what “the paranoid patient” may do or how “the guarded patient” may behave in an interview. This type of language is not only dangerously vague (who qualifies as “the paranoid patient” as opposed to “a person who has some paranoid thoughts”? Who gets to make that determination, and using which measure(s)?), but stigmatizing to therapy clients and a potential source of bias for therapists. If you’re a young therapist who reads this book and gets all these ideas about what “the paranoid patient” may do, you may project these assumptions onto every client you work with who struggles with paranoia or expresses thoughts that seem paranoid to you. Assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing–and may even be useful in some cases–but you need to be aware of them as you work. Thus far in my reading of this book, it has not provided any cautionary notes about making assumptions. Even in my classes, in which we are often told not to make assumptions, provide little if any guidance on learning to actually notice these assumptions in practice.

Shea also recommends a few other techniques that I find excessively presumptuous. Take this example dialogue from the book:

Pt.: After my wife left, it was like a star exploded inward, everything seemed so empty…she seemed like a memory and my life began to fall apart. Very shortly afterwards I began feeling very depressed and very tearful.

Clin.: It sounds terribly frightening to lose her so suddenly, so similar to the pain you felt when your mother died.

Pt.: No…no, that’s not right at all. My mother did not purposely abandon me. That’s simply not true.

Clin.: I did not mean that your mother purposely abandoned you, but rather that both people were unexpected loses.

Pt.: I suppose…but they were very different. I never was afraid of my mother…they’re really very different.

A lot of therapists, especially those in the psychodynamic tradition, are understandably attracted to the idea of making this sort of “insight.” As Shea points out, when you get it right, it can build a lot of trust because the client feels understood in a very special way. It feels good to feel “smart” and insightful, to be able to read people like that. It can remind us that there really is something special we can do as therapists that others cannot. It probably doesn’t hurt that this, the therapy-via-Sudden-Brilliant-Insight, is usually the only kind we see represented in the media.

But a lot of the time, there really isn’t enough information to reach this conclusion. Therapists may make these leaps based on hunches, but that doesn’t mean there’s data to back it up. Sometimes the client will tell you so, but I think that a lot of the time, they will say, “Hm, I suppose you might be right,” because you are an authority figure and they want to believe you have the answers.

From the information given, you can’t reasonably jump to the conclusion that the client felt similarly when their wife left them and when their mother died. Those are very different types of loss, and even similar types of loss–two breakups, two deaths in the family–can feel very different.

Certainly there can be conceptual similarities between losing a spouse to divorce and losing a parent to death. It might even be worthwhile to explore them, but the therapist need not assume they felt “so similar.” If I were the client, I would’ve liked the therapist to say something like:

Between this and your mother passing away, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot of loss. I’m wondering if losing your wife is bringing up any memories of losing your mother.

This resonates with me; it might not with other clients. That’s why sometimes the more important thing as a therapist isn’t what you say, but how you respond once you realize you’ve said or done something that strains the connection between you and your client. In this case, a responsive therapist might say something like:

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make assumptions about how you’re feeling. Can you say a bit more about how this loss feels different for you?

The client is the expert on their experience.

But instance, in the dialogue, the therapist doubled down on the (mis)interpretation, attempting to justify their response to the client’s disclosure. This leads the client to double down as well, justifying to the therapist why the losses feel different. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves that way.

Here is the thought I had, as both a provider and a consumer of mental health services, when I read Shea’s example dialogue above:

The failure mode of Brilliantly Insightful Therapist is Arrogant, Presumptuous Therapist.

Now, I don’t know if Shea is arrogant or presumptuous; I don’t know him but I would hope he isn’t. I do know that refusing to acknowledge missteps and misunderstandings can lead one to across that way, though. And that’s exactly what Shea refuses to do both in the dialogue itself and when he analyzes the dialogue for the reader:

Needless to say, this attempt at empathic connection leaves something to be desired. The patient’s attention to detail and fear of misunderstanding have obliterated the intended empathic message, leaving the clinician with a frustrating need to mollify a patient who has successfully twisted an empathic statement into an insult of sorts.

This probably infuriated me more than anything else in this text. Here, the failure of the interaction has been blamed entirely on the client. Shea has assumed that the client has taken his statement as an “insult” when there is no evidence of this; the client is merely correcting the therapist’s misinterpretation. It reminds me of how, often when I tell people they’ve made inaccurate assumptions about me, they respond by shrieking about how “upset” I am and how I take everything as an “insult.” Correcting someone is not the same thing as being “insulted.”

If this situation is “frustrating” for the clinician, then, I can only imagine how much more so it must be for the client.

There is no room, in this approach, for any acknowledgment that the therapist’s interpretations might simply be wrong. No room for the possibility that it’s not the client’s personal characteristics (“paranoid,” “guarded,” “histrionic”) that made this interaction fall flat, but the therapist’s presumptions and subsequent refusal to step back from them.

I discussed this particular example because it’s what came up in my reading, but it’s hardly the most egregious thing of this type that happens. Therapists who cannot conceive of the possibility that they’re wrong not only fail to help their clients, but can actually hurt them.

Since there are probably a lot more therapy clients (or prospective therapy clients) reading this than there are therapists, I want to be clear about why I wrote this. It’s not to discourage people from seeking therapy, but to arm them with the knowledge and language to advocate for what they need from their therapists, and to find therapists that suit their needs.

That last part is important. Some people may want a therapist who makes bold interpretations and takes that authoritative, explanatory sort of role. Personally, I think conducting therapy in this sort of way opens practitioners up to all sorts of bias and errors, which is one reason I want to avoid it both as a client and as a therapist. But if that’s the approach that resonates with you, then it’s likely to work a little better for you, because the most important factor is the client-therapist relationship.

Aside from that, the reason I write about problems in mental healthcare is the same reason I write about problems in feminism or atheism–to hold my own communities accountable. Anecdotally, I know that this sort of thing makes it difficult for some people to benefit from therapy, or even to want to access it to begin with. I’m not the only person who dislikes having an authority figure tell me things about my life without bothering to find out if their assumptions are even accurate.

I trust people more when they admit their mistakes.

 

The Sad Girls of Tumblr

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

I’ve written before about the potential dangers of presenting depression and other mental illnesses as somehow attractive or appealing or more “real.” In a blog post dealing with the same issue, Spencer writes:

We love to romanticize depression. On Tumblr, browse the “#soft grunge” tag and you’ll find artfully edited photos of scars and Instagram-filtered pictures of cigarette cartons with phrases like “You’re going to die anyway” superimposed. “Soft grunge” treats depression and suicide like beautiful black roses–twisted, painful romantic ideals. We do it off of Tumblr too, like when we associate our favorite comedians’ or authors’ mental illnesses with their genius. Half the time, it seems, “tortured soul” is uttered in awestruck, not empathetic tones.

That post also links to another post, called “On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression,” by a blogger named Sarah:

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

In a general sense, I agree. Spencer and Sarah make the point that seeing depression presented as sexy and alluring may discourage people from viewing it as an issue to work on, and while it should always be an individual’s choice whether or not to consider themselves “mentally ill” or to seek treatment for a mental illness, normalizing such pain and suffering probably doesn’t help.

But then I started thinking–how many of the people posting these things are depressed themselves, and how much moral responsibility should we assign to a person in the depths of mental illness to avoid presenting their own condition in a way that may encourage others to follow suit?

Sarah allows for this possibility, including a caveat:

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

However, I’m not sure that really answers my question.

First of all, I take issue with the term “enablement” as used here. Professionals and others usually use this term to mean doing things that encourage someone else to behave self-destructively. For instance, someone may “enable” a friend’s problem drinking by constantly offering them alcohol or inviting them out to bars; a parent may “enable” a child’s preoccupation with getting high grades by grilling them about their grades and expressing disappointment at anything less than an “A.”

But I’m not sure what exactly Sarah thinks is being “enabled” here. If it’s depression itself, then that doesn’t make sense, because depression is not a risky or maladaptive behavior that can be enabled. It’s a mental illness. It could also be not getting treatment for depression, but I’m not sure that makes sense as a behavior that can be “enabled,” either. Not getting treatment for depression is, sadly, the default. True, if people’s Tumblr feeds were filled with age-appropriate, compassionate advice about seeking help for emotional distress, they might be more likely to do so. But in that case, the entire way the dominant culture approaches mental illness qualifies as “enablement.” In that case, every time a friend told me to “just cheer up!” or “just come hang out with us!” when I was feeling sad, they were “enabling” my behavior of not seeking treatment, because they were suggesting that depression is something that can be fixed by choosing to “just cheer up” or go to a party.

More to the point, I think that this view somewhat discounts the very realistic possibility that the people posting these “soft grunge” images are themselves depressed, and what this means about “enablement.” Who are they enabling? Themselves? Each other? Others who are more or less depressed than they are? Younger Tumblr users?

It’s complicated to me because I view this type of self-expression–the romanticization, the preoccupation with death, the attention-seeking (which I do not mean pejoratively)–as part of the mental illness itself. As a symptom, even. I haven’t seen any studies about this and have no idea which Google Scholar keywords could possibly help, but anecdotally, my experience with people who suffer from mood disorders is that some of them cope with the illness by viewing themselves and the illness in this way. Not all, obviously, but almost no mental illness symptom is shared by everyone who has that diagnosis, so to call something a symptom is not to imply that it’s a universal symptom.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when you’re scared and don’t know what’s happening to you and lack the knowledge to label it “depression,” to think of it as something special and even positive. This is especially the case when you’ve been steeped in a culture that glorifies a certain type of disaffected sadness, and ties it causally to greatness in art, music, and literature. So, even if the girls of the soft grunge subculture are enabling others, that’s only because they were first enabled themselves.

Some of it is a sort of sour grapes thing, too. You try to be happy, you can’t, everything hurts, and you think, fuck it, who wants that boring shit, anyway?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Tumblr (I don’t think it existed yet), but I definitely found these types of images appealing in some way. Maybe if something like Tumblr existed I would’ve even shared them. The reason they appealed to me was because they made me feel like the way I felt was a way of being more alive, not a way of missing things that other people got to have–joy, security, optimism, hope, self-esteem. And even if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression at the time, I certainly did just a couple years later when I was diagnosed with it.

I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes promoting such memes and images ethically okay. Most of us have no problem condemning pro-ana/-mia blogs and forums, for instance, and this is really the depression/bipolar disorder version of that. (I suppose, though, you could argue that pro-ana/-mia materials are more dangerous than “pro-depression” materials, if you could even call these Tumblrs that.)

But it does mean that it’s not as simple as telling people to stop doing it.

I think the first step would be to start taking adolescent mental health seriously. It’s a serious issue. Most people know this, I think, on some level. But we still don’t take a preventative approach.

It’s expected that parents start taking their children in for dental checkups as soon as they have teeth. It’s expected to start seeing an ob/gyn for checkups as soon as you become sexually active. Why not taking that sort of proactive approach to mental health in adolescence–or even in childhood?

(Of course, all of that is bound up in issues of privilege and access, but even teenagers whose parents can easily afford and access mental healthcare often fail to receive it until things become very bad.)

So, yeah, in short, I don’t disagree with either of the perspectives I linked to. I just think it’s a little more complicated than I ever realized before. It’s easy to say, “Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.” It’s harder to say, “Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.”

Apparently, Spirit Airlines Thinks Sex Crimes are Hilarious

I wrote an article for the Daily Dot about Spirit Airlines’ tasteless joke about the stolen celebrity nude photos.

As the Internet continues to debate whether or not it’s acceptable to hack into someone’s online account, steal nude photos of them, and spread them all over the Internet without their consent (spoiler: it’s not), Spirit Airlines decided to take advantage of the buzz by sending its customers the following promotional email yesterday morning:

The email, which had a subject line that said, “Our Selfie Leaked Too…,” read in part:

We feel naked; you were never supposed to see this Bare Fare! It was meant for a special someone (who isn’t you). Now it’s all over the Internet for you to take advantage of as you see fit. Scandalous! We thought the cloud was our friend, y’know, because we spend so much time flying with ‘em. But now our private prices are on display! Bad for us; GREAT for you.

The joke makes light of the experience of having private photos stolen and disseminated for hundreds of thousands of people to leer at, perpetuates the idea that this is a “scandal” rather than a crime and an act of violation, and implies that something “GREAT” happens when someone else’s privacy is violated. Yeah, sure, it’s “just a joke.” But I’m not laughing.

Contrast Spirit Airlines with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, which stood to profit from the stolen nude photos in a much more direct way. Users on the subreddit r/TheFappening, which has been disseminating the photos, set up a fundraiser for the foundation as a “joke,” based on the myth that masturbation helps prevent prostate cancer and the Reddit users are masturbating a lot, so, hey, why not donate to help prevent prostate cancer even more.

But PCF wasn’t interested. Even though the Redditors raised over $6,000, the foundation removed their fundraising page and refunded the donations, releasing a statement that read:

A post appeared on Reddit late Monday afternoon, September 1, 2014. A Reddit user directed other Reddit users to make a donation to the Prostate Cancer Foundation without the Foundation’s knowledge. We would never condone raising funds for cancer research in this manner. Out of respect for everyone involved and in keeping with our own standards, we are returning all donations that resulted from this post.

Read the rest here.

Towards A Better Conversation About Mental Illness

This is my latest for the Daily Dot, about how we can discuss mental illness more accurately, productively, and compassionately, particularly in the wake of tragedies like Robin Williams’ suicide.

After comedian Robin Williams committed suicide two weeks ago, fans took to the Internet to express their grief, as well as their admiration for his work. Whenever a beloved celebrity passes away, regardless of the cause, social media temporarily becomes a sort of memorial to that person, a chronicle of the ways in which they changed lives.

However, when the cause is suicide, a celebrity’s death also brings out lots of dismissive, inaccurate, or even hateful statements about people with mental illnesses. According to some, Williams was “cowardly” and “selfish” for committing suicide. Last week, Musician Henry Rollins wrote an op-ed for L.A. Weekly (for which he apologized over the weekend) in which he said that he views people who commit suicide with “disdain,” claiming that Williams traumatized his children. There was plenty of rhetoric about suicide being a “choice,” the implication being that it’s the wrong choice.

Comments like these not only misinform people about the nature of mental illness, but they are also extremely hurtful to those who struggle with it. As the Internet continues to respond to Robin Williams’ death, here are some suggestions for a better conversation about mental illness and suicide.

1) Do your research.

We all have a “folk” understanding of psychology, which means that we experience our own thoughts and feelings, interact with other people, and thus form our opinions on psychology. Obviously, noticing things about ourselves and the people around us can be an important source of knowledge about how humans work.

But it’s not enough. If you haven’t had a mental illness, you can’t really understand what it’s like to have one—unless you do your research. Depression isn’t like feeling really sad. Anxiety isn’t like feeling worried. Eating disorders aren’t like being concerned about how many calories you consume. Your own experiences may not be enough.

Before you form strong opinions about mental illness and suicide, you need to know what mental illnesses are actually like, what their symptoms are, what treatment is like, what sorts of difficulties people may have in accessing treatment or making it work for them. If you can make tweets and Facebook statuses about a celebrity’s suicide, you can also do a Google search. Wikipedia, for all its drawbacks, is a great place to start. So are books like The Noonday Demon and Listening to Prozac.

2) Never engage in armchair diagnosis.

Now that you have a good idea of what different mental illnesses look like, you should try to figure out who has which ones, right?

No, please don’t. Armchair diagnosis, which is when people who are not trained to administer psychiatric diagnoses try to do so anyway, is harmful for all sorts of reasons that Daily Dot contributor s.e. smith describes in a piece for smith’s personal blog:

The thing about armchair diagnosis is that it mutates. First it’s a ‘friend’ deciding that someone must have bipolar disorder because of some event or another. Over time, that’s mutated into an ‘actual’ diagnosis, repeated as fact and accepted. Everyone tiptoes around or gives someone sidelong glances and makes sure to tell other people. Meanwhile, someone is completely puzzled that other people are treating her like she’s, well. Crazy.

Whether the person you’re talking about is a celebrity or not, it is up to them whether or not to make public any information about their health. Mental health is part of health. While having a mental illness should never be stigmatized, unfortunately, it still is. People deserve to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to disclose any mental illnesses they may have.

Even if someone commits suicide, that doesn’t mean we can come to any conclusions on which mental illness they had or didn’t have. First of all, not everyone who commits suicide could have been diagnosed with any mental illness just prior to it. Second, various mental illnesses may lead to suicide. Many online commentators, including journalists, simply assumed that Williams had depression. However, he may have also had bipolar disorder, in which depressive episodes are interspersed with manic ones. Williams himself never stated which diagnoses he had, so it’s best not to assume. Whatever he had or didn’t have, it is clear that he was suffering.

Read the rest here.

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

Celebrity Women Are Not “Asking” For Stalking & Harassment

[Content note: stalking & sexual harassment]

My latest piece at the Daily Dot explores the disturbing similarities between the ways people dismiss harassment of celebrities by the paparazzi and the ways the dismiss harassment of ordinary women on the street by men.

It’s easy to dismiss the paparazzi’s harassment of famous women. After all, they’re usually incredibly privileged. Their lives are—or seem—enviable. Their complaints about being followed and photographed constantly sound to many people like humblebrags.

You’ve probably heard (or perhaps made) these common excuses people make about harassment of celebrity women:

  • “If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have become famous.”
  • “She should take it as a compliment that people want photos of her.”
  • “Yeah, right, I bet she secretly likes the attention.”
  • “It’s not a big deal, she should just ignore the paparazzi.”
  • “Well, I’d love to be famous and get photographed all the time.”

What do these justifications remind you of?

  • “If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have gone out wearing a revealing dress.”
  • “She should take it as a compliment that guys on the street tell her she’s hot.”
  • “Yeah, right, I bet women secretly love getting hit on.”
  • “It’s not a big deal, she should just ignore the catcalls.”
  • “Well, I’d love it if women hit on me on the street.”

That second set is what women often hear when they speak out about catcalling and sexual harassment. It should be clear that these are all variations on a theme: some women do things that make them deserve harassment. Women should take it as a compliment that men violate their space and their sense of safety and privacy. Women may say that harassment feels violating—but deep down they like it. Women shouldn’t let the harassment get to them; it’s just a part of life. They don’t know how good they have it.

There are differences, of course. Photos of celebrity women produce money and fame for the photographer, whereas a guy who gets off on sexually harassing ordinary women on the street gets only his own twisted satisfaction.

But in both cases, both the harassment and the subsequent justifications for it stem from the fact that women and their bodies are still seen by many people and in many cases as commodities.

Things that would be considered extremely inappropriate when put in general terms (e.g. “stalking strangers to take their picture” or “yelling at strangers in a threatening manner”) suddenly become acceptable to many people once the target is specified as a woman that people (especially men) enjoy looking at, and once the behavior is specified as being motivated in some way by sexuality or by an appreciation for the woman’s appearance.

Read the rest here.

~~~

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On Women Who Lie About Having Boyfriends

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Lately one of those articles has been going around again about how women should stop saying “I have a boyfriend” to deflect unwanted male attention. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to make my entire post about that one article. I’ve seen that argument made in many different ways and from many different perspectives.

One I often see from men who date women, who are either not feminists and do not recognize the reality of systemic male violence against women, or are, sort of, but only recognize that reality to some extent and in certain contexts–never ones involving themselves, of course, because they’re good guys.

Another I often see from women, many of whom are feminists, who believe that it is each individual woman’s duty to uphold the author’s vision of Feminist Principles regardless of the individual woman’s priorities or needs.

Here’s the first argument, steelmanned:

It’s wrong to lie to people without a very compelling reason. If a guy is interested in you but you’re not interested back, just tell him so honestly. I’m a decent and respectful guy and I always back off when someone says they’re not interested. Besides, if all you say is “I have a boyfriend,” I might assume that that means that you’d be interested if that relationship ended, and it’s really hurtful to find out that you were lying and I got my hopes up for nothing.

Here’s the second one, also steelmanned:

Women have the right to have their desires and preferences respected. The reason you shouldn’t keep hitting on a woman who isn’t interested in you isn’t because she “belongs” to another man, but because she isn’t interested in you. If we keep using the “I have a boyfriend” excuse, men will never learn to respect our agency as individuals rather than as someone’s girlfriend. Being honest with men you aren’t interested in about the reason you aren’t taking them up on your offer is the only way to promote this feminist goal.

I resent both of these arguments. Both of them, even the second one, place the individual woman’s needs last and instead prioritize other needs: the man’s need for honesty, the feminist movement’s need for women to stand up for its ideals. Both of them expect women who are being harassed to just shut up and take it for someone else’s good.

Let’s start with the first one. I think we can all agree that, in general, lying is to be avoided. I think we can also all agree that sometimes lying is preferable or necessary. Where I think we disagree is where that line should be drawn. And I would argue that the person who stands to lose the most in a particular interaction is the one who is more qualified to determine where that line goes.

It’s like Schrödinger’s rapist. And I know dudes have so much trouble grasping the rape version of this principle, so I don’t expect them to have an easy time grasping the sexual harassment/unwanted flirting/whatever you want to call it version.

Say I am approached by a dude at a bar. Ignoring all of my signals (looking away, checking my phone, answering monosyllabically, desperately pouring my drink down my throat), he keeps trying to chat me up and hit on me, perhaps even propositioning me directly. At this point, I could say, “Actually, I’m not interested in you and I don’t want to keep talking to you.” Or I could say, “Sorry, but I have a boyfriend and I’m not available.” Which should I choose?

Given that this guy has already showed an apparent lack of interest in my desires and preferences by not reading my nonverbal cues, and given the wealth of experience I have with these situations (“Come on, why do you have to be such a prude?” “Fucking bitch, I was just trying to be nice.” “What are you talking about? I’m not even interested in ugly sluts like you” “Yeah, right. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t trying to get some.” [insert sexual assault here, and yes, groping is sexual assault]), I’m not likely to have a lot of confidence in this guy’s ability to take it well if I politely tell him I’m not interested.

Sure, this guy could be different. He could be perfectly nice! He could politely say, “Oh sorry, my bad, have a great night”! He could clarify that he’s not interested in anything sexual and we’d have a great conversation and maybe even become friends!

And that’s what men making this argument always say. “Yeah well how do you know he’d take it badly if you just told him the truth?” Exactly, I don’t know that. If I did, I’d have cleared the fuck out of that bar as soon as I saw him walking up to me.

I don’t know that, but I live in a world in which it can be very dangerous to assume that I can know that before it’s too late.

Now, a lot of men making this argument will sorta-grudgingly include the caveat that, well, if the woman is afraid for her physical safety, then of course she should do whatever she needs to do to get out of the situation! But otherwise, lying is not okay.

So. Why are we prioritizing physical safety over emotional safety? If you accept that ending up assaulted or raped is bad, why do you not accept that ending up feeling violated, terrified, or even traumatized is also bad? How much emotional pain and damage is worth avoiding hurting a guy’s feelings by lying to him? (Don’t ask me how telling a lie that he’ll never know is a lie hurts him more than saying “I’m not interested in you,” but ok.) How much emotional pain and damage is worth fulfilling some bullshit philosophical ideal of Not Lying?

Things impact different people differently–a point I’m always trying to drive home in all mental health-related discussions. Personally, I got over my sexual assault rather easily. What I still haven’t gotten over is feeling like a fucking piece of meat, a deer being chased by hunters no matter where I go. That’s the feeling I try to avoid on those rare occasions when I feel compelled to say, “Actually, I have a boyfriend.”

As for the “feminist” argument that we all, as individuals, have the responsibility to Uphold Feminist Principles in our daily lives at all times: I’ve already dealt with this more generally here. Specifically, the feminist movement will not be destroyed by some individual women choosing to prioritize something other than feminism at certain points in their lives. I promise.

Besides, any feminism that prioritizes The Good Of The Movement over individual women’s safety and happiness is no feminism of mine.

Of course, if we’re ever to get these remaining men who harass women and on whom “Actually I have a boyfriend” works to stop viewing women as property, we have to speak up. But we, as individuals, get to decide where and when and how we do that. Demanding women to turn every bar outing into a one-woman feminist protest is puerile beyond belief.

I completely understand that some women choose not to lie about boyfriends and husbands, and they find this empowering despite the risk. That’s great. Where I start to get irritated is when they translate this into “…and therefore all women have to do this too.” Your empowerment may be someone else’s trauma.

Some misunderstand this as some sort of convoluted Choice Feminism (not actually a real thing, by the way) about how All Women’s Choices Must Be Respected Because They’re Made By Women. It’s not. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum, and nobody has more information about a given choice than the person who made it.

I wish people who preached at women about not lying actually listened to the words of the women who do and tried to understand the circumstances that might lead someone to do something that most of us agree is usually wrong. For instance, from a piece at Shakesville by Ana Mardoll:

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

And because I am a feminist and because I care about the social messages involved in this daily navigation and specifically because I have entrenched issues with being Hard On Myself, I frequently feel guilty for making the compromises I have to in order to navigate safely through a conservative patriarchal environment. And I feel cowardly for not being more vocal, more obvious, more “out” — and professional and personal consequences be damned.

But then I remember how much I need my job and my health care just to survive and how strongly I require a robust social network in order to live with my disability, and I remember all over again all the reasons why I don’t say the F-word, why I don’t openly and vocally identify as a feminist in facespace: I can’t afford to. It’s too risky. It’s too dangerous. And so I creep back undercover and long for the day when my online activism can meet my facespace movements without fear of reprisals.

Ana isn’t talking about the exact sort of situation I’m talking about, but it’s similar enough to warrant a mention. Namely: not everyone always has the privilege to be honest and open.

Most people don’t lie for the fun of it; they lie because the alternative doesn’t seem reasonable. Others may judge them as taking “the easy way out,” but again, I’d question why there’s anything morally superior about subjecting yourself to sexual harassment and possibly violence.

It’s not surprising to me that people who don’t have a personal stake in this often start discussing it in grand abstract terms like Ethics and Honesty and Morality. Here’s the reality on the ground: I’m at a bar, some dude won’t leave me the fuck alone, and I’m scared and uncomfortable. Maybe you want to philosophize, but I want to escape this situation however I can.

And incidentally, for anyone who’s worried that I’m somehow abdicating my responsibility as a feminist by inventing a fake boyfriend, believe me when I say that I’ll be a much more effective activist if I take care of my mental health and emotional safety before I try to do activism.

The fact is that many women apparently feel like they can’t escape men except by lying to them. I would think that more of the responsibility for this should be allocated to the men who won’t accept any answer besides “I have a boyfriend” than to the women who feel they have no choice but to say it. And if you’re a guy who’s more concerned about the fact that women sometimes lie to you about having boyfriends than about the fact that women are subjected to constant sexual harassment just for existing in public, you’ve got your priorities pretty screwed up.

~~~

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“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

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Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.

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*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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