On “Obvious” Research Results

There is a tendency in my social circles sometimes to dismiss social science results that seem “obvious” and aligned with our views with, “Well, duh, why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation].”

I’ve seen it happen with studies that show that fat-shaming is counterproductive, and studies that show that sucking up to abusers doesn’t stop abuse, and probably every other study I’ve ever written about here or posted on Facebook.

To be honest, I’m often having to suppress that initial response myself. It is infuriating when we’ve been saying something for years and now Science Proves It. (Of course, science doesn’t really “prove” anything.) It’s especially annoying when some of the some of the same people who deny my experiences when I share them are now posting links to articles about research that says that exact thing, without any apology for disbelieving me.

At the same time, though, I try to separate my frustration from my evaluation of the research. In reality, the fact that a result seems “obvious” or “common sense” doesn’t mean that the study shouldn’t have been conducted; for every result that aligns with common sense, there’s probably at least one that completely goes against it. Considering the fact that negative results have such a hard time getting published in psychology, there are probably a ton of studies sitting around in file drawers showing no correlations between things we assume are correlated.

Moreover, research is important because it helps us understand how prevalent or representative certain experiences are, and listening to individuals share their stories isn’t going to give you that perspective unless you somehow manage to listen to hundreds or thousands of people. (Even then, there will probably be more selection bias than there will be in a typical study, in which the subject pool at least isn’t limited to the researcher’s friends.) I will always believe someone who is telling me about their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that I will assume that everyone who shares a relevant identity with that person has had an identical experience. That would be stereotyping.

So, sure, to me it might be totally obvious that people who make creepy rape jokes are much more likely to actually violate boundaries–because I’ve experienced it enough times–but my experience may not have been representative. It is very much still my experience, and it is very much still valid and I have the right to avoid people who make creepy rape jokes since they make me uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a broader trend. (Of course, now I know that it probably is, because multiple studies have strongly suggested it.)

The weirdest thing by far about the “Why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation]” response is that, well, they did. That’s literally what they’re doing when they conduct research on that topic. Sure, research is a more formal and systematic way of asking people about their experiences, but it’s still a way.

And while researchers do tend to have all kinds of privilege relative to the people who participate in their studies, many researchers are also pushed to study certain kinds of oppression and marginalization because they’ve experienced it themselves. While I never did end up applying to a doctoral program, I did have a whole list of topics I wanted to study if I ever got there and many of them were informed directly by my own life. The reason researchers study “obvious” questions like “does fat-shaming hurt people” isn’t necessarily because they truly don’t know, but because 1) their personal anecdotal opinion isn’t exactly going to sway the scientific establishment and 2) establishing these basic facts in research allows them to build a foundation for future work and receive grant funding for that work. In my experience, researchers often strongly suspect that their hypothesis is true before they even begin conducting the study; if they didn’t, they might not even conduct it.

That’s why studies that investigate “obvious” social science questions are a good sign, not a bad one. They’re not a sign that clueless researchers have no idea about these basic things and can’t be bothered to ask a Real Marginalized Person; they’re a sign that researchers strongly suspect that these effects are happening but want to be able to make an even stronger case by including as many Real Marginalized People in the study as financially/logistically possible.

As I said, I do completely empathize with the frustration of feeling like nobody takes our experiences seriously until they are officially Proven By Science. I also wish that people didn’t need research citations before they are willing to accommodate an individual’s preferences for the sake of inclusivity or just not being an asshole. (For instance, if I ask you to stop shaming me for my weight, you should stop doing it whether or not you have seen Scientific Proof that fat-shaming is harmful, because I have set a boundary with you.)

However, if we take individual experiences as necessarily indicative of broader trends, we would be forced to conclude that, for instance, there is an epidemic of false rape accusations or that Christian children are overwhelmingly bullied in the United States for their religious beliefs. Certainly both things happen. Certainly both things happen very visibly sometimes. Both are awful things that should never happen, but it is, in fact, important to keep in perspective what’s a tragic fluke and what’s a tragic pattern, because flukes and patterns require different prevention strategies.

I’ll admit that a part of my discomfort with “well duh that’s obvious why’d they even study that” is because I don’t want the causes I care about to become publicly aligned with ignoring, ridiculing, or minimizing science. We should study “obvious” things. We should study non-“obvious” things. We should study basically everything as long as we do it ethically. We should do it while preparing ourselves for the possibility that studies will not confirm what we believe to be true, in which case we dig deeper and design better studies and/or develop better opinions. I find Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Litany of Tarski to be helpful here:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Even if your experiences turn out to be statistically atypical, they are still valid. Even if it turns out that fat-shaming is an effective way to get people to lose weight, guess what! We still get to argue that it’s hurtful and wrong, and that it’s none of our business how much other people weigh. Knowing what the science actually says at this point is the first step to an effective argument. Knowing what the possibly-faulty science is currently saying is the first step to making better science.

“Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING anymore”

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.


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Don’t Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.


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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against “Over-Sensitivity”

My newest piece at the Daily Dot examines the backlash against “over-sensitivity” online.

A group of Columbia University students have ignited the latest battle in the online war over trigger warnings by asking professors to include them before teaching classics that feature detailed rape scenes, such as certain Greek myths. Predictably, their own classmates have responded with insults and thinly veiled rape threats in the comments sections of the Columbia Spectator story.

Lest it seem that these students are asking for some extreme and unreasonable accommodation, consider this: Have you ever had a friend invite you to see a movie and asked them to warn you if the movie has graphic violence in it? If so, congratulations, you’ve asked for a trigger warning. It’s unlikely, as Michael E. Miller writes in Post, that trigger warnings are a “treatment [Greek myth] never had before.” Surely someone has at some point handed their friend a book of Greek mythology and said, “Watch out though, there’s kinda a lot of rape in there.”

The outrage over trigger warnings (in college syllabi and elsewhere) is just one example of the online backlash against supposed “over-sensitivity.”

Microaggressions, which have long been discussed in academic circles but recently made more well-known by college students’ awareness campaigns, are another frequent target. National Review referred to the effort to reduce microaggressions as “thought police.” Reason advised voters to be “less sensitive” to microaggressions. The Atlantic offered some helpful advice: “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro.” The message seems to be that what you don’t think about can’t hurt you.

When I read any one of these many panicked screeds, what I see on the surface is fear that things that have always functioned a certain way (i.e., college classrooms, corporate offices, online comments sections, and casual conversations) will no longer be able to function that way. Now we have to be “sensitive.” Now we can’t make lewd comments about a female colleague’s body. Now we can’t ask an Asian classmate which “type of Asian” he is.

But it goes deeper. People are worried that they’ll have to care about all these problems they never even knew existed, that they’ll be seen as bad people if they do not care, and that they won’t know all the right words to say and will say the wrong words instead. And that’s a real fear.

But it’s a fear few want to acknowledge, because it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you. So instead, it becomes about how college students are So Whiny And Coddled These Days and how will we ever be able to have a conversation if we have to be So Sensitive all the time?

Read the rest here.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.


Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

“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.

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.

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Alterconf Sessions logoThis weekend I attended something called AlterConf, which I hadn’t even heard about until a friend mentioned it, but was very glad I did.

AlterConf is basically a series of local events that feature short talks about diversity in tech and gaming, by people who are actually members of the communities they speak about. The project was started by Ashe Dryden, a programmer, organizer, and consultant who speaks and writes a lot about diversity and marginalization in tech.

Obviously, I am not a programmer or a game developer or any of that other stuff, but I play games (I don’t like to use the word “gamer”) and am a pretty huge tech nerd. (How huge? Doesn’t matter. I’m tired of getting into those pissing contests with guys.) I am also a woman, and someone who cares a lot about inclusion and diversity, and someone who has been watching the Diversity In Nerdom War for a while.

Despite my lack of technical knowledge and serious involvement, I really enjoyed the session and learned a lot because it mostly concerned the experiences of marginalized people in tech/gaming and some of the efforts they are making to create community and inclusion. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that some people claim that there are no tech professionals in/from the Bronx (there were at least two speaking) and that cochlear implants only allow you to hear a rather poor representation of the actual sound, which is just one of the reasons many Deaf people don’t necessarily think they’re that great.

What also stuck out to me, though, was just how well the event was run in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. For instance:

  • Eight of the ten speakers were people of color, and five were women. One of the speakers was deaf, and one spoke about having chronic pain and mental illness.
  • The speakers were paid.
  • Although tickets cost money, the Eventbrite page also had an option to choose a free ticket if you could not attend the event otherwise.
  • When attendees checked in, they were instructed to make a name tag that included their preferred gender pronouns.
  • The event had an ASL interpreter, as well as someone who was making accurate live captions appear on the screen (?!) as the speakers talked. Ashe invited any audience members who needed ASL to let her know, so that she could make sure the interpreter was signing at them.
  • There were healthy food and snacks, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and Kosher options.
  • The venue had plenty of physical space for the audience size, and the chairs were arranged in a way that made it easy for people to get out of and into their seats with minimal tripping over others.
  • The venue had free wifi, the details of which were written prominently on a whiteboard.
  • Before the talks began, Ashe let the audience know that there would be one talk with a content warning, and that in general people should free to get up and leave at any time if they needed to. She repeated the content warning before the talk that it applied to, in case anyone missed it or forgot.
  • The event had a comprehensive code of conduct (although I don’t remember if this was actually discussed at the event, which would be important).
  • For the most part, speakers were audible, slides were visible, and Ashe made sure that people stuck to their time limits and had time for questions.
  • Ashe let the audience know that the speakers had all explicitly consented to being photographed, videotaped, and/or livetweeted, and also asked the audience to keep context in mind when doing so.
  • The talks were recorded and will apparently be posted online.
  • Ashe invited attendees to come see her after the event if they needed help with transportation or if they wanted to be paired up with another attendee for safety reasons.

I include all this here because the level of professionalism and attention to detail I saw at this event was pretty much unparalleled at other conferences and events I’ve gone to. To be fair, Ashe Dryden is a professional organizer, so it’s probably a pretty high bar for student/volunteer organizers to reach. (Also, I don’t know how the event was funded besides ticket sales, but maybe she had a lot more money to work with than most organizers can get through fundraising alone.)

Regardless, it’s definitely something to think about for those of us who plan events, whether they last an hour or an entire weekend.

As far as the talks themselves go, I was also very impressed. Some of the speakers were very new to speaking (one said it was her first talk, and everyone cheered and applauded); others have spoken at many conferences before. The speakers were clearly chosen very intentionally, as they covered a wide variety of topics and issues in just nine talks. Some of my favorites:

  • David Peter spoke about deafness, the medical and social models of disability, Deaf culture, and how to make tech/gaming communities more welcoming to Deaf people.
  • Catt Small, a friend of mine who runs approximately fifty thousand projects, spoke about one of those projects, Code Liberation, which teaches women to code through classes and game jams. It’s so incredibly important to hear from people actually doing work like this if you want to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech and how to change that.
  • Manuel Marcano spoke about stereotypes of Native Americans in games and how they perpetuate oppression.
  • Senongo Akpem gave an overview of the tech/games industry in Nigeria, shattering what I’m guessing are many misconceptions and stereotypes that people have.
  • Shawn Alexander Allen spoke about how crowdfunding can help games with diverse characters get made, and how it also allows backers and fans to hold developers more accountable in terms of diversity.
  • Aly Ferguson was amazing and discussed research on how video games can be used to help people dealing with mental illness, chronic pain, and disability.

Here are some highlights, or at least the ones I was able to tweet fast enough:

Of course, that can only paint a very small picture of what the event was like and why it was so awesome. I was told that recordings of the talks will be posted online at some point, so follow my Twitter or the #alterconf hashtag if you want to see them.

One small thing is that I wish gender identity and sexual orientation had been discussed more–or at all, really. That was one topic that seemed oddly missing from the entire event. There are certainly game developers out there addressing these issues explicitly, and it would’ve been really cool to hear some of them speak. But, obviously, there were only 10 speakers and four hours and so many important things to cover that got covered–race, gender, ability, class–and so I really can’t hold this against the event. For all I know, it has been discussed or will be discussed at other sessions.

On that note, AlterConf sessions are being planned for a bunch of other cities (so far they’ve happened in Boston and NYC), such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and others. If there’s one near you at some point, I highly recommend going, even if you’re only tangentially knowledgeable/involved in this stuff, like I am. If all these recent debates within communities like atheism, skepticism, science (and science writing), video games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that very few of these issues are specific to any particular community. Even if you don’t care much about games or technology, I think you’ll learn a lot from AlterConf.

Flipping the Social Justice Script

Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”

Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.

The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.

The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.

Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.

These are just a few examples of script flipping:

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