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The last week has been challenging for all of us. In the depths of my own fear and uncertainty, I reached for one of my favorite books —Pema Chödrön’s Comfortable with Uncertainty— and opened to a passage at random. On friday, a friend of mine asked how I’ve been able to deal with it all. I told him about the passage, and he (a non-buddhist) found it helpful in dealing with his own pain, so I wanted to share more broadly.

Before getting to the passage, I think it’s important for people to recognize that this pain we are feeling is a collective trauma. This is not our day-to-day pain, not our usual suffering. Everyone develops habits and skills for addressing the typical discomforts of life, but those skills are often inapplicable or ineffective for recovering from truly traumatic events. When someone is in a car wreck, or attacked, or raped, or abruptly loses a job or loved one— we recognize these things as traumas. We recognize that these events take some extra work to recover from. In the aftermath of the election I have seen many of the symptoms of trauma in the people around me. Depression, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, short tempers, and so on. When trauma hits, our usual coping mechanisms often fail or go haywire. A drink or two to unwind, turns into bleary drunkenness every night. Playing games to let go, turns into escapism to avoid thinking. Solitude, turns into reclusion. A healthy skepticism, turns into paranoia. If we do not recognize traumas for what they are, it becomes all too easy to find ourselves with even worse problems. Recognition is necessary for forming an appropriate response.

Now, the passage. As humans we have three habitual methods for relating to suffering. All three are ineffectual at reducing that suffering. These three ineffectual strategies are: attacking, indulging, and ignoring. And I’ve seen all three in great quantities in all the OpEd pieces floating around over the past week.

By “attacking” Pema Chödrön means not just lashing out, attacking Trump’s supporters or their ideals, but also all the ways we attack ourselves: We condemn ourselves, criticize ourselves for any indulgence, pity ourselves to the point of not getting out of bed. This strategy shows up in all those articles criticizing us for not having interpreted the polls correctly, or chastising us for not voting, or condemning the way the internet has formed these echo-chamber bubbles, and so on. But all this self-flagellation, all this beating ourselves up, does nothing to heal our pain. Now we suffer not only from our fears of what’s to come, but also because “it’s all our fault”. We refuse to “let ourselves off easy”, so whenever someone tries to address our pain we attack them and beat them away, protecting our pain because we feel like we deserve it.

Indulging is just as common. Though we are haunted by self-doubt, we condone our behavior. We say “I don’t deserve this discomfort. I have plenty of reasons to be angry or sleep all day.” We justify our pain to the point of turning it into a virtue and applauding ourselves. This strategy shows up in all those articles that relish in the details of how bad things will become, or congratulating ourselves for saying something like this would happen. But again, by cherishing our pain and presenting it as something to be praised, we are preventing ourselves from healing. Noone wants to give up something they cherish, nor give up on all the attention and sympathy they are lavished with.

Ignoring is no less common. “Ignoring” means not just refusing to acknowledge our pain and fear, but also pretending it doesn’t exist, dissociating, spacing out, going numb, acting on autopilot, or any of the other ways to try to keep our suffering out of sight and out of mind. This strategy is advocated by all those articles talking about how things actually aren’t that bad, or how this is just business as usual, or how it’ll all get better once the mid-term elections happen. While ignoring seems effective in the short term, it does nothing to address the suffering you feel. In addition to not healing that initial wound, it creates more pain as we inevitably force ourselves into tighter and tighter spaces in order to keep it out of mind.

There is an alternative to these three futile strategies. The enlightened strategy is to try fully experiencing whatever you’ve been resisting— without exiting in your habitual way. Become inquisitive about your habits. Recognize when you are pushing your suffering away, or embracing it, or denying it. Become inquisitive about your suffering. What is it, exactly, that you are denying? Why does it feel so urgent to push it away? Why does it feel so necessary to cling to it? Stop trying to justify your feelings, stop trying to explain them. Start instead to look at them, to see them for what they really are. Ask why it is they hurt, what part of your ego they compromise, what ideals they belie.

The passage on the three futile strategies follows a koan about “heaven and hell”. From a buddhist perspective, “hell” is not a place, it is all the feelings of pain and fear and suffering we experience. Nor is “heaven” a place, but rather all our feelings of gratitude and joy and understanding. Thus, the buddhist does not say “hell is bad and heaven is good” nor “get rid of hell and just seek heaven”. Rather, one should approach all things with an open mind, greeting both heaven and hell with that openness. In her words,

Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of a sacred space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

I find these words powerfully healing. It is healing to remember that no matter where we are or what befalls us, our life is a blessing, and in virtue of that blessing our bodies and the places we move through are sacred spaces. The sacred is not something which exists without us, but something which is created from within. Moreover, it is healing to step away from questions like “what did I do to deserve this?” and instead remember to ask what it is we can learn from the experience.

I have endured many traumas in my life, and I half expected the election outcome, but still it felt like a kick in the chest. This wound brought back all my darkest habits. Once I recovered from the shock enough to begin the rituals of healing and self-care, I reflected on the question of why this particular wound hurt so bad. In my experience (and not just because I’m buddhist), deep emotional pain always stems from some threat to one’s ego; so what part of my ego is on the line? For me, the reason the election hurt so much is because I had become complacent in believing that the world is steadily becoming a more just place and believing that people are by-and-large fundamentally good. With the election of Obama, the passing of the ACA, the supreme court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, and so on, I think a lot of us on the progressive side have been susceptible to those beliefs. The election hurt so much, for me, because it forced the recognition that it’s not just the legacy of systemic institutionalized hatred we must fight, but that over a quarter of the population actively supports the worst extremes of that hatred. Yes, the election itself was offensive. Yes, I fear for my life and the lives of those close to me. But the real root of the pain itself, the reason it hurt so bad, is this refutation of those optimistic beliefs about humanity and the path towards justice. Realizing that this was the root cause of my pain did a lot to help me process it and move on. It also gave a healthy way to shift focus from the pain itself, to something actionable. Having experienced the pain, I can accept it. And having learned what it has to teach me, I know what I must do.

So sit with your pain, and try to experience it fully. Stop pushing it away. Stop embracing it. Stop beating yourself up over it. Approach it with an open mind and let it pass through you. And, finally, ask yourself what you can learn from it.

Complaint

15 Feb 2015 03:03 am
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

(Originally published as a comment to a friend, desiring to change the world and despairing to complain)

The feeling of not being allowed to complain is one of the primary ways that abusive settings perpetuate themselves. Complaints are a symptom that things are wrong, and implicitly a demand for things to change, so toxic communities do their best to indoctrinate people into the belief that "complainers" are bad people, that complaint is "a waste of time", that complaint is a sign of "weakness", that one's complaints are "frivolous", that one does not "deserve" to complain, that one does not have the "right" or the "authority" to complain, and so forth. It is a self-reinforcing process since to call it into question is to subject oneself to the accusations themselves.

To eschew complaint and wait for things to improve is to buy into the very system that estranges you. There is no glory in posing as the stoic hero; you cannot help others when you are reeling from your own wounds. Our glorification of solitary heroes is but another way of keeping people silent. There are no solitary heroes, there never have been; there are only communities of support. History chooses its heroes out of those communities in order to erase the community, to undermine the very support it gives. There are no "great men" in history, there are only great communities and great movements and the handful of names that get remembered.

Know this: you are always allowed complain. You are always allowed to exhibit your humanity, your pain, your unwillingness to suffer. That others may be worse off does not negate your own suffering. That others stay quiet —or have their voices silenced— does not negate the pain.

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I talk about a number of sensitive topics: depression, cPTSD, child abuse, sexism. Every one of these are topics where you risk damaging or ruining your career simply by bringing them up. And, believe it or not, I'm actually a rather private person; I do not discuss my personal life as part of casual chit-chat, I do not "accidentally" share personal details, and even mundane goings-on I prefer not to mention except among friends. So why, then, do I speak about these topics? Why make myself uncomfortable and risk devastating financial repercussions? The reasons I speak haven't changed much over the years (though the way I think about those reasons has). And yet, I don't think I've ever given a clear explication of these reasons and what I hope to achieve by my words. It's time to correct that.

I speak as a form of active political resistance against the silence culture that pervades the US (and surely the rest of the world). I do not discuss my history as a form of confession, nor as a form of exhibitionism; I talk about my past in order to perform my politics. I've talked about silence culture before, and today I want to unpack that a bit more by distinguishing between two different forms that silence culture takes.

A Note on Terminology

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD) is a variant of PTSD that arises from long-term exposure to trauma. Simple PTSD results from acute trauma —e.g., a single violent encounter, or short-term exposure to warfare—, whereas complex PTSD results from repeated exposure to trauma over an extended period —e.g., childhood abuse where the child lives with the abuser, or living in a war-torn region. The complexity of cPTSD stems both from the extended/repeated nature of the trauma, and from the pervasive/inescapable nature of the traumatic environment. Together these undermine any sense of self-worth, personal safety, or ability to trust others. (cf., cPTSD Light, Out of the Fog, EMDR-web)

In the past I've always talked about "PTSD", because "cPTSD" did not exist when I was diagnosed. However, I'm a text-book example for cPTSD— both symptomatically and etiologically. Consequently, henceforth I will refer to my experiences as cPTSD, both for clarity/specificity and to raise awareness of the distinction. As if it needed stating: I still stand with those who live with "simple" PTSD, and will continue to advocate for awareness of and sensitivity to their experiences.

Internal Silence Culture

The internal culture of silence is a specific form of psychological violence used to sustain abusive environments. This is the kind of culture that says, "what happens in the family, stays in the family." This apophthegm shows up in alcoholic families, in families with mental illness1, in sexually abusive families, in intimate partner violence, in sexist and racist work environments, in acquaintance rape, in fraternity gang rape, and countless other abusive social groups. In all these situations, enculturated victims teach the new generation of victims that the outside world is dangerous, that they cannot trust it because it will betray them ("unlike the family"), that talking about the physical, sexual, and psychological violence will delegitimize and harm the one who speaks out, that talking about this violence will "embarrass" the family or other social unit, and that the damage of this loss of face will be greater than the damage from the violence itself. Sometimes abusers also teach this message, either by presenting themselves as "the real victim" or by threatening increased violence should the victim go public. But the culture of silence cannot be maintained without the complicity of enculturated victims.

The discussions and disclosures in my youth had the goal of disrupting this internal silence. By speaking out about the specifics of my own trauma, disclosing who enacted which forms of violence, and how they were themselves victims of violence, I took control of my life away from my abusive family. By speaking openly, I ensure that others in similar situations know they are not alone, and know that they too can break their silence. By naming the demon, we can tame it. By disclosing generations of abuse we make ourselves open to the possibility of breaking that chain instead of repeating the cycle once more with our own children.

Most of these discussions of my personal history happened years ago. I don't know how much they can be traced back to me now, since the bulk of them happened in the mid- and late 1990s when anonymity and pseudonymity were de rigueur. But I don't care. The only thing I regret is my youthful naivete and whatever ways I hurt people along the way— including my previous inability to see my abusers as fully human, as simply reenacting the abuse they themselves were raised with2. Though I do not give the specific details anymore, I am fine with these details being part of the public record. I am not —and will not be— embarrassed by my history. The past is a mere collection of facts; it cannot compel my silence. By neutralizing my own embarrassment, I know that at least on a personal level my politics have been successful. The more I can help others to neutralize their embarrassment and guilt about speaking out, the better. And I am not above enumerating the details once more if that is what's required.

External Silence Culture

More recently I've switched away from talking about my history with abuse, and towards talking about how living with depression and cPTSD affects my daily life. This is a shift in focus, not intent. I used to only be aware of internal silence, and tailored my activism accordingly; but now I realize there is another form of silence, one which is much less discussed and therefore more in need of awareness.

The external culture of silence is the systemic means by which a community fails to recognize (or refuses to admit) that it has a problem. It is the silence which allows each compagnie to realize and internally discuss the problem, while the community at large remains ignorant. It is how failure of communication prevents local/specific knowledge from becoming global/universal knowledge.

External silence culture often takes the form of superficial acknowledgement of a problem while perpetuating it via ignorance or misunderstanding of its root causes. A prime example is the way certain men acknowledge that sexism is a problem, but then turn around and enact the same sexist culture they decry in their blog posts. Another is how we can admit that, in the US, one-in-11 people are affected by some form of depression and one-in-24 people live with major depressive disorder (CDC), but then on an individual level most americans refuse to believe they know anyone with depression. Or how we can admit that depression costs US employers 44 billion dollars per annum in lost productive time, but then we turn around and stigmatize people for seeking treatment.

I do not believe this failure to recognize how our communities perpetuate the problems they nominally oppose can be brushed off as "mere" hypocrisy. There's a deeper issue than logical inconsistency going on here. Systemic failures can never be explained by idiosyncratic failures. This failure of communication is due to enculturated systems of silence and to a failure to appreciate how global interactions are constructed through local, personal interactions. As a species, we do not understand how to interpret facts like "one-in-N people"; we can believe these facts to be true without recognizing how that truth must be immanent in the personal microcosm of our daily surroundings.2.5 This mode of cognitive failure is perfectly natural, which is why we must take explicit steps to disrupt and forestall it.

This is why I talk about the fact that I live with depression and cPTSD. By making this public knowledge, in refuting the sanist assumption, I deny people the ability to believe they don't know anyone with these conditions. I don't say "there are lots of people with depression", I say "I am a person with depression", I say "you know someone who has attempted suicide". I make it personal. The logic here is the same as the logic behind Out & Proud. By making it personal, by going on with our daily lives and yet not allowing these lives to be masked over by normative assumptions, we help those around us to realize that we are everywhere, that we have always been here, and that we are already part of that thing they call "normal".

One of the ways silence is encultured is in all the things we don't feel the need to say when among "our own kind". With people like ourselves there is less need to discuss certain details; they already know, and so we can speak in analogies, allusions, and assumptions. But when we take this dialect of implicit communication into larger communities, our words are misunderstood and misconstrued because the audience fails to hear the content in what we do not-say and presumes the content of what they expect us to not-say. The problem here is not that we communicate meaning through the not-saying of particular things— the use of implicit communication typically increases the efficiency of communication, and it's an essential component of how groups foster intimacy. The problem is being unaware of the fact that there are many dialects of subtle communication, and being uncritical of our assumption that the audience knows which dialect we are using and understands how it should be interpreted. Subtle communication is why satire is such an effective shibboleth (Arthur Chu), and why George W. Bush can give speeches which are interpreted radically differently by evangelical Christians and the rest of the country (Craig Unger, William Safire, inter alia).

This is why I talk about what it is like to live with depression and cPTSD. By discussing their specific, ongoing influence on the ways I interact with the world, I'm explaining one of those dialects of assumed experience. Just knowing that I have depression is not enough to understand what it means, how it affects who I am and what I do. We need explanations like the spoon theory, depression quest, mainichi. Before the spoon theory was vocalized in 2003 people with chronic conditions would try to explain how our lives are just plain harder, but non-spoonies misinterpreted our words as "laziness" or "whininess". That references to spoons are so ubiquitous now, is because of the specific ways that explanation serves to make this aspect of life real to those who do not live it.

Beyond "illness", "cures", and the eventive mythology of trauma

In cognitive science there's the concept of umwelt3: an organism's lived experience of their surroundings. To understand why animals behave in certain ways it is not sufficient to know about their environment: the animal does not make decisions based on our perception of their environment, they make decisions based on their own observations and internal conceptions of these surroundings. The senses at our disposal are not like tools in a drawer that we can pick up or discard at a whim. Our senses are fundamentally ingrained in the fabric of reality: reality cannot exist to us without our perceiving it, and we cannot perceive any aspects of reality which lay outside our sensory capabilities. There is no unified "reality", at least not in any way that's helpful to daily life. Each of us inhabits different worlds, and each of these worlds is structured by our personal and specific perceptive, physical, cognitive, and social capabilities.

When people hear "PTSD" they think of veterans waking from nightmares, as if the condition is a punctual event with the effects of rewatching a scary movie. People don't realize that when we say we are "haunted" by our pasts, we mean it in the full gothic sense of the word. Our pasts, our memories are a demonic possession. They cast a pall over interactions, corrode friendships, corrupt vision with spectral intruder-attackers, poison socialization with projected phantasmagoric intentions. The haunting leeches into every waking moment, draining their color —except for harsh glaring garish splotches—, and when all those waking moments have been polluted it seeps into the dreamworld, hungry for more. The severity of the haunting varies, of course. And the possession sometimes goes into remission, hiding away to strike again later. And some of us aren't plagued by revenants or sluagh, we have poltergeists: spiritual agents that move things when we aren't looking, that are mostly quiet but always directing us down their crooked paths, with loud bangs and broken furniture if need be.

PTSD —like depression, and like anxiety— is not an event, it's a mode of living. Although we must talk about the events which gave rise to these conditions (to end our internalized silence), doing so allows our society to continue believing in and perpetuating the mythology that trauma causes an event of suffering rather than causing a state of suffering. This mythology includes the belief that mental "illness" can be "cured", that it is a transient condition without long-term repercussions. While acute depression4 is short-term, I'm not so sure it should be considered transient: 80% of people who've had a depressive episode go on to have another (Fava, Park, & Sonino). Contrarily, major depressive disorder —aka "depression"— is, by definition, an ongoing condition. Similarly, while simple PTSD can also be short-term5, the existence of complex PTSD suggests that simple PTSD is not transient. Conditions like cPTSD, depression, and anxiety are not something that goes away. We need to accept that fact and talk about them accordingly. We need to teach people how to live productive and fulfilling lives, not teach them to pin hopes on a "cure". Pretending it will go away causes disappointment, guilt, and embarrassment about not having "gotten over" it yet. And pretending it'll go away contributes to the continued marginalization of people who live with these chronic conditions. Pretending that depression, anxiety, and cPTSD are "illnesses" that will "go away" causes real and lasting psychological damage; and it does so in the exact same way as pretending child abuse will "go away" if we don't talk about it, and that pretending one's sexual orientation is an "illness" or that it might "go away" if ignored.

By refocusing my speech on what it's like to live with depression and cPTSD, one goal is to combat this mythology of a "disease" with a "cure", but the bigger goal is to inject some humanity into the public conception of people with these conditions. The spoon theory works because snatching spoons out of someone's hand creates a visceral reaction, which induces a personal experience of the claim that "life is harder", and thus causes one to view people with chronic conditions as expressing authentic human responses to living in a particular kind of world— even when that world isn't the one the snatchee is used to inhabiting. When I speak of my paranoia about releasing writings into the world, or the fear that masculinized cultures induce in women, or the panic I experience whenever I have the presumption to share deep personal opinions, or the rage I feel at people dismissing the monumental pain of living, my goal in all these disclosures is to help people see —for once— that I am human. That my responses are authentic, that they are responses shared by countless others who live in worlds like the one I inhabit. We are not diagnoses, we are not labels, we are not identities; we are human. We do not feel the need to describe our umwelt to one another, but you know not how to read the meaning we utter in the gaps between words. And this is why I speak, if you can but hear.

Afterword

While editing the above post, I became aware of an abusive campaign against Zoë Quinn (the creator of Depression Quest) orchestrated by a malicious ex. This sort of invasive, dehumanizing, personalized attack is not at all uncommon— for women. If you are a man, you cannot comprehend what this is like because it is a form of gendered violence tailored exclusively to women. This is part of our umwelt. As women, our realities are shaped by the ever-present threat that our sexualities will be weaponized against us.

This highlights a very different reason I am open about my past. By being open about these things, I ensure that they cannot be used against me in the sort of "revelatory" smear campaign Quinn is facing. Make no mistake, my sexuality and psychology will be used against me. Openly handing men the ammunition only prevents them from engaging in this one specific form of violence. While I prefer to think of my openness as active political resistance, the fact is my openness is also a form of triage. A way of defending against the worst of the misogyny I must face for daring to exist. Perhaps I will unpack this motivation a bit more in another post.


[1] I really hate the term "mental illness". It's medicalizing and pathologizing. When people find out I wear glasses they barely even notice; why should finding out whether I take meds be any different? My height also has significant health repercussions, but noone talks about my "vertical illness". My brain is no more magical than my eyes or my spine. Unfortunately, I don't know of a suitable alternative to using the term MI. If you know of one, please do drop me a line.

[2] The surviving members of my family have matured significantly since my childhood, and it is not my intention to malign the people they have become by discussing the harm they inflicted on me throughout my childhood.

[2.5] Even without getting into cognitive issues, linguistic issues already forestall our ability to comprehend what statistics like these mean. Mark Liberman has written a number of excellent articles at Language Log about how, at present, natural language fails to adequately capture or convey probabilistic information and how this causes undue confusion between frequencies, rates, risk, odds, likelihoods, ratios of any of these, and various other probabilistic and statistical measurements. Here's one on how it's misleading to report odds ratios, counterbalanced by this piece on why (log) odds ratios are useful and have a cognitive basis.

[3] I refer here to the variation that occurs in embodied cognitive science and ecological psychology, rather than the variation that occurs in semiotics per se. So more like Gibson and less like Uexküll.

[4] The form of depression brought on by a novel traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one.

[5] EMDR-web reports being able to relieve 9/11 survivors of their simple PTSD using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Prior to writing this article I was unaware of any reliable treatment for successfully treating PTSD, and I'm still not familiar with all the literature here.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Citation is a necessary practice for any sort of intellectual engagement, whether formal or colloquial, and whether academic or activistic. It is crucial to give credit to the originators of ideas— for ethical honesty: to acknowledge those who've enlightened you; for professional honesty: to make clear where your contributions begin; and for intellectual honesty: to allow others to read the sources for themselves and to follow up on other extensions and criticisms of that work.

When encountering a new idea or text, I often engage in a practice I call "encitation". In order to more thoroughly understand and ingrain a text's intellectual content, I try (temporarily) to view all other ideas and arguments through its lens. This is why when I was reading Whipping Girl I was citing it left and right, just as when I was reading Killing Rage I quoted it incessantly. To understand structuralism, I embraced the structuralist theory and viewed all things in structuralist terms; to understand functionalism, or Marxism, or Freudianism, or performativity, I did the same. Of course, every framework is incomplete and emphasizes certain things to the exclusion of observing others; so viewing the world entirely from within any single framework distorts your perception of reality. The point of the exercise is not to embrace the framework per se, it's to roleplay the embracing of it. The point of this roleplay is to come to understand the emphases and limitations of the framework— not abstractly but specifically. This is especially important for trying to understand frameworks you disagree with. When we disagree with things, the instinct is to discount everything they say. But it's intellectually dishonest to refuse to understand why you disagree. And it's counterproductive, since you cannot debunk the theory nor convince people to change their minds without knowing and addressing where they're coming from.

I engage in encitation not only for anthropological or philosophical ideas, I also do it for mathematical ideas. By trying to view all of mathematics through a particular idea or framework, you come to understand both what it's good at and what it cannot handle. That's one of the things I really love about the way Jason Eisner teaches NLP and declarative methods. While it's brutal to give people a framework (like PCFGs or SAT solving) and then ask them to solve a problem just barely outside of what that framework can handle, it gives you a deep understanding of exactly where and why the framework fails. This is the sort of knowledge you usually have to go out into industry and beat your head against for a while before you see it. But certain fields, like anthropology and writing, do try to teach encitation as a practice for improving oneself. I wonder how much of Jason's technique comes from his background in psychology. Regardless, this practice is one which should, imo, be used (and taught explicitly) more often in mathematics and computer science. A lot of the arguing over OO vs FP would go away if people did this. Instead, we only teach people hybridized approaches, and they fail to internalize the core philosophical goals of notions like objects, functions, types, and so on. These philosophical goals can be at odds, and even irreconcilable, but that does not make one or the other "wrong". The problem with teaching only hybridized approaches is that this irreconcilability means necessarily compromising on the full philosophical commitment to these goals. Without understanding the full philosophical goals of these different approaches, we cannot accurately discuss why sometimes one philosophy is more expedient or practical than another, and yet why that philosophy is not universally superior to others.

The thing to watch out for, whether engaging in the roleplay of encitation or giving citations for actual work, is when you start reciting quotes and texts like catechisms. Once things become a reflexive response, that's a sign that you are no longer thinking. Mantras may be good for meditation, but they are not good critical praxis. This is, no doubt, what Aoife is referring to when she castigates playing Serano says. This is also why it's so dangerous to engage with standardized narratives. The more people engage in recitations of The Narrative, the more it becomes conventionalized and stripped of whatever humanity it may once have had. Moreover, reiterating The Narrative to everyone you meet is the surest way to drive off anyone who doesn't believe in that narrative, or who believes the content but disagrees with the message. Even if I was "born this way", saying so doesn't make it any more true or any more acceptable to those who who would like Jesus to save me from myself. More to the point, saying so places undue emphasis on one very tiny aspect of the whole. I'd much rather convince people of the violent nature of gender enculturation, and get them to recognize the psychological damage that abuse causes, than get them to believe that transgender has a natal origin.

As time goes on, we ask different questions. Consequently, we end up discarding old theories and embracing new ones when the old theory cannot handle our new questions. In our tireless pursuit of the "truth", educators are often reticent to teach defunct theories because we "know" they are "wrong". The new theory is "superior" in being able to address our new questions, but we often lose track of the crucial insights of the old theory along the way. For this reason, it's often important to revive old theories in order to re-highlight those insights and to refocus on old questions which may have become relevant once more. In a way, this revitalization is similar to encitation: the goal is not to say that the old theory is "right", the goal is to understand what the theory is saying and why it's important to say those things.

But again, one must be careful. When new theories arise, practitioners of the immediately-old theory often try to derail the asking of new questions by overemphasizing the questions which gave rise to the preceding theory. This attempt to keep moribund theories on life support often fuels generational divides: the new theoreticians cannot admit to any positives of the old theory lest they undermine their own work, while the old theoreticians feel like they must defend their work against the unrelenting tide lest it be lost forever. I think this is part of why radfems have been spewing such vitriol lately. The theoretical framework of radical feminism has always excluded and marginalized trans women, sex workers, and countless others; but the framework does not justify doxxing, stalking, and harassing those women who dare refute the tenets of The Doctrine. This reactionary violence bears a striking resemblance to the violence of religious fundamentalists1. And as with the religious fundamentalists, I think the reactionary violence of radfems stems from living in a world they can no longer relate to or make sense of.

Major changes in mathematics often result in similar conflicts, though they are seldom so violent. The embracing/rejection of constructivism as a successor to classical mathematics. The embracing/rejection of category theory as an alternative to ZFC set theory. Both of these are radical changes to the philosophical foundations of mathematical thought, and both of these are highly politicized, with advocates on both sides who refuse to hear what the other side is saying. Bob Harper's ranting and railing against Haskell and lazy evaluation is much the same. Yes, having simple cost models and allowing benign side effects is important; but so is having simple semantic models and referential transparency. From where we stand now, those philosophical goals seem to be at odds. But before we can make any progress on reconciling them, we must be willing to embrace both positions long enough to understand their crucial insights and to objectively recognize where and how both fail.


[1] To be clear: I do not draw this analogy as a way of insulting radfems; only to try and make sense of their behavior. There are many religious people (even among those who follow literalist interpretations of their religious texts) who are not terrorists; so too, there are women who believe in the radfem ideology and don't support the behavior of TERFs, SWERFs, etc. It is important to recognize both halves of each community in order to make sense of either side's reactions; and it's important to try to understand the mechanism that leads to these sorts of splits. But exploring this analogy any further is off-topic for this post. Perhaps another time.

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