winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2016-12-12 10:29 pm

Familiarity: You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means

I ran into this quote recently,

“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity.”

The assertion sounded interesting enough, so I followed the link. In the rest of that discussion De Botton goes on to claim that what we are actually seeking in our adult romances is the same sort of dynamic we had with our parents, so we turn down perfectly good partners to seek out troubling ones with whom we can recreate our parental troubles. While I’ve no doubt this describes some people, and might even be willing to believe it describes a plurality, it most certainly does not describe all. And the unwaveringly universalizing way he makes this claim is patently offensive to those of us it excludes.

There are numberless people whose parental relationships were/are defined by abuse. To coyly describe these relationships as “[love] entwined with other, more destructive dynamics” is to normalize and erase the physical, sexual, and psychological violence we have endured. To boldly declare that, “We are constrained in our love choices by what we learned of love as children”, is to say that those who were abused as children are incapable of making healthy decisions as adults. To bombastically assert that, “Without [replicating our parental relationships], we may simply not be able to feel passionate and tender with someone”, is to say that passion and tenderness can only be felt through (re)enacting such violence as we endured as children. These claims are irresponsible and disgusting.

I, for one, have no desire to recreate the abuse of my childhood. Indeed, the surest way to end any relationship with me (romantic or otherwise) is to head even vaguely in that direction. And yet, I most assuredly do feel passion and tenderness and love. If those sensations were ‘learned’, they were most certainly not learned from my parents. What De Botton is doing is gaslighting those of us with abusive childhoods. Like most gaslighting it's a two-pronged assault: simultaneously denying the history of abuse, while also denying the healthiness of the present. De Botton is continuing the long tradition of blaming victims for the abuse they’ve suffered, lest one be forced to recognize the lie inherent in the fable of universal parental love. The lie must not be admitted, for to do so is to admit the truth that abusive parents exist and cause harm in virtue of a society that refuses to stop them or to protect its least powerful members from them. To admit the prevalence of parental abuse is to admit one's own culpability for not working to stop it. People will do much to escape blame, but they will do anything to escape blame for what they already feel guilty about.

Perhaps, in spite of De Botton, there is still some kernel of truth to the idea that it is familiarity more than happiness that we seek in love. Cognitively speaking, while excitement is valued in the short term, in the long term contentment is valued more. It's not too far a stretch to blur contentment/familiarity and excitement/happiness; so, to the extent that can be done, one might be able to substantiate the claim with data from cognitive and psychological research. But any further exploration of the idea should be done far away from De Botton's love affair with Freud by gas light.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2016-06-02 08:16 pm

selfies for soul shards

So, I’ve been doing this interview. They’re about ready to post it so, understandably enough, the interviewer asks for a head shot. Cue the panic.

I… I’m not so good with pictures. I love taking them, love seeing pictures of other folks, but when I’m in front of the lens… it’s not good times. I often tell folks, only half-joking, that I believe cameras steal souls. Not the whole thing at once, of course. (Of course!) Just slivers and shards, which grow back in time, or chips and chunks, which maybe don’t. When you tell it right, people don’t pry for details, don’t get upset and bully you into the shot, don’t tease with that dagger in your ribs all “friends” here, don’t chastise for ruining their fun; they know it’s a joke (they know it’s not a joke). But only when you tell it right.

But they do. Steal souls, I mean. If you’re ever in doubt, just hold a camera up to my face. Watch the eyes dull, the jaw slacken, rosy cheeks go sallow, the breathing still— not stop, stopping is abrupt, rupture is resistance, and resistance is a lifewell. Just still like an unused balloon discarded on the floor, no impending movement, no impeding movement. Deflated ragdoll corpse. Might as well take the fucking picture now. The soul has already gone. You better get what I paid for.

For the longest time I never quite knew why I hated pictures. By which I mean: I knew. In that way the body knows what the mind can’t admit.

There’s the family gatherings, the unending demand for circus performance. Stand up tall next to angry father! Show your smile with abusive mother! Oh you can stand closer than that! Ooh, ooh, hug your rapist! Yeah, like that, let’s see an embrace! Now for the group shot! And the solo shots! Did we get the pairs? Let’s do another set, why not! Now with Aunt Judy’s camera! Wait no, we forgot the hallway shots, gotta do them all over again! A soulless enumeration of all possible positions, like much of Marquis de Sade. Rolls and rolls of film, back when film was a thing. Like cellulose can replace the real family with something else. The day the first in our family bought a digital camera I cursed their invention, cursed the ever-hungry void of their unending memory. But no, that’s not where it started. That’s just the acid in an already raw wound.

I’d always supposed it started with mental illness. Danielle Vintschger talks about mental illness as becoming invisible, symptoms as a way of demanding to be seen. Her article resonates strongly within me, though I find her own in/visibility skewed at queer angles to mine. Growing up in that family, the last thing you want is to be visible. Being visible means being a target. The only way to survive an abusive childhood is by learning to become invisible. Pictures are dangerous. Pictures get you noticed. Pictures risk letting out the demon of truth you hide inside your flesh. Pictures risk showing something real. The most dangerous thing in a toxic environment is to expose anything real. The real is where you keep what’s sacred to you; and anything you value is a vector of attack. You must remain phlegmatically disinterested in all things. As soon as someone guesses what’s important to you they’ll break it. They will destroy it piece by piece, in front of you to make sure you watch, to make sure whenever you think of that shredded joy you think of them and their victory over you. But not just joy, any weakness any illness you must also hide. Muffle your tears into a pillow. Cut where it can’t be seen. When you have to break down, dissociate, divorce from reality, do it somewhere else, somewhere you can leave the body safe in your absence, somewhere noone can see those disquiet moments when you leave and when you return. Never leave pictures, pictures are evidence, and all evidence will be used against you.

There’s something else too besides visibility, something evil in pictures, some contagion that leaks out and seeps in through your eyes. Muslims know this. Or perhaps the evil is already inside you, and the image merely beckons it to surface. Wherever it is, you instinctually know you must not look. But you can’t keep others from looking, so the evil gets in them. It wasn’t until a couple years ago I began to question. Maybe my problem with pictures wasn’t only from mental illness. I only began to question because I began to look.

The evil lives not just in photographs but also in mirrors. It started slowly, unintentionally, out of the corner of my eye a glimpse. You can go thirty years without looking in a mirror. Shaving, brushing your teeth or hair, you never need the mirror. At most you only ever need parts not whole, like a masseuse uncovering singular limbs to avoid seeing the body. You notice the reflection because you can’t remember the last time you saw one. Did you know bathrooms contain mirrors? The first few glimpses you turn away, pretend not to see. But it’s startling, this other person in that tiny room with you. They seem to be ignoring you too, so that’s good. In time you make peace with your bathroom double. Some days you sit with them, both not looking, becoming used to the presence. Other days it’s easier: you each go about your business, not talking but knowing how to stay out of the other’s way. Until one day you forget the rules, you turn to talk and see… someone else. She’s a girl, your bathroom double. Kinda cute, you never expected that. How strange. You could’ve sworn she’d have a different face. Something more masculine, something more hideous. As if on cue her face begins to droop and swirl, bits melting into other bits, all come undone. You look away before it’s too late. The next few days she isn’t there. You kinda feel lonely, but also kinda feel relief. Eventually she comes back, in furtive glimpses. When she seems calmer, you sit silent with her, apologizing without words. The second time, you ask before you look. Over years —and it does take years— you build a tentative trust. You can look at her now. You’re not sure where the evil went, but you no longer need to hide from mirrors. You’re not sure anything requiring such powerful trust can ever be called “safe”, but maybe safe is something you can build.

It all makes sense now. Of course my hatred of photos is all tied up in dysphoria. (Of course!) But as I said: the body knows how to hide the things your mind can’t admit. Like it hid all those mirrors I never noticed.

Yes, I came to terms with being trans years upon years ago. But acceptance does not cure dysphoria. The longer I accepted being trans the deeper my dysphoria got, until the day I started correcting the hormone imbalance destroying my body and mind. The dysthymia and depression lifted immediately, but the longer-term psychological damage takes more time to recover. I was on HRT a year and a half, or so, before I started catching those first mirror glimpses. At three, I can look without the image going all melty. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I can look at photographs and not see the hideous thing I grew up with. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I think maybe pictures don’t always have to lie.

It is a mental illness this dysmorphia, this problem with reflections, this inability to see the self as others see it. It’s a hallmark of schizophrenia, the fear of portals consuming souls, the fear of what dangerous things lie beyond the looking glass. But it’s not just the schizoid, it also shows up in anxiety. My wife sometimes has problems with windows at night, they reflect you see. But it also shows up with eating disorders. But it also shows up with so many things. Which is why I cite Islam. The justification for the interdiction against images of humans is avoidance of idolatry, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s some other reason, something more they know. Islam also requires the immediate disposal of hair and fingernail trimmings; things which are uncanny, things which disturb and disgust when encountered unexpectedly.

The dysmorphia goes beyond dysphoria; which is to say, it’s not just being trans. I follow plenty of trans ladies who post the most gorgeous selfies. And while I do not know their minds, many post without comment so I can’t help but to think they do not suffer the same demons. But then, many others do post with comment. Selfies can be a form of radical self-love, an act of reclaiming the body that has been denied us so long, an act of resistance against the perpetual bombardment of messages telling us we’re ugly, telling us we’re not good enough, telling us we don’t have the right kind of shape. This need for self-love is not just for trans women, but also black women, but also disabled women, but also all women.

Sometimes I think, “I want this love. I deserve this love.” Then the world reminds me: pictures are dangerous. Living as a woman online is dangerous; especially as an outspoken woman, a difficult woman, a challenging woman. Clades like GG and 4chan seek out women like me for destruction. Pictures are evidence and all evidence will be used against you. I’ve spent my whole life trying to break away from my family, from the invisibility they instilled in me, from the perpetual need to annihilate the self. I need this love, but I know not where to find it. Taking pictures at all is hard enough, the idea of sharing them fills me with terror. I’ve spent my whole life breaking away from how others see my body. My whole life breaking away from the pain that body caused my mind. I know not how to love the body. Know not how to see the body as more than mere possession, how to see the body as the very self. Growing up I was taught the greatest sin is the love of self. And though I’ve discarded Christianity, it’s much harder to discard their commandment to hate thyself.

Sometimes I think, “I need this love.” But how does one overcome the terror?

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2015-09-12 01:21 am

Femme erasure: An open letter on the US Trans Survey


I took the US Trans Survey a while back and had some feedback, though I forgot to include it in the survey itself. In particular, my comment is about the gender/identity portion of the survey (question 2.2). It's great that you include a variety of nonbinary identities (fa'afafine, mahu, genderqueer, genderfluid, two-spirit, third gender,...) but I noticed a severe bias in terms of the more binary options. You offer a variety of options for masculine-of-center folks (AG, butch, stud,...) but you offer zero options for feminine-of-center folks. This contributes to the ongoing problem of femme/feminine erasure in feminist and LGBT communities. I identify very strongly as femme, in fact it's one of the few labels I "identify" with— far moreso than I "identify" with trans, fwiw.

While I did write in under the "other" option, I worry that this only serves to contribute to the ongoing erasure and underrepresentation of feminine identities. Having worked on a number of these sorts of surveys, here's a short list of reasons why:

  • Feminine-of-center folks will be undercounted because many will not feel strongly enough to write in.
  • The presentation of specific choices for masculine-of-center identities helps to funnel people towards particular terms, improving their statistical significance; whereas the lack of explicit options for feminine-of-center folks will result in a larger diversity of terms, thus decreasing each term's likelihood of reaching significance.
  • Attempting to correct for the previous point by aggregating all feminine-of-center identities serves to erase the diversity of femme/feminine identities: "femme" forms no more a singular identity than AG/butch/stud/etc forms a singular identity. The distinctions between high femme, hard femme, tomboy femme, etc are just as important as the distinctions between varieties of nonbinary or masculine-of-center identities.

While it is too late now to correct the 2015 survey, I do hope you take this into consideration when choosing how to report your results and when designing future surveys.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2015-02-15 03:03 am


(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.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2014-08-20 11:00 am

Why I speak

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.


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)
2014-08-05 11:51 am

Imagine that this is not an academic debate

A followup to my previous [reddit version]:

The examples are of limited utility. The problem is not a few bad apples or a few bad words; were that the case it would be easier to address. The problem is a subtle one: it's in the tone and tenor of conversation, it's in the things not talked about, in the implicitization of assumptions, and in a decentering of the sorts of communities of engagement that Haskell was founded on.

Back in 2003 and 2005, communities like Haskell Cafe were communities of praxis. That is, we gathered because we do Haskell, and our gathering was a way to meet others who do Haskell. Our discussions were centered on this praxis and on how we could improve our own doing of Haskell. Naturally, as a place of learning it was also a place of teaching— but teaching was never the goal, teaching was a necessary means to the end of improving our own understandings of being lazy with class. The assumptions implicit in the community at the time were that Haskell was a path to explore, and an obscure one at that. It is not The Way™ by any stretch of the imagination. And being a small community it was easy to know every person in it, to converse as you would with a friend not as you would online.

Over time the tone and nature of the Cafe changed considerably. It's hard to explain the shift without overly praising the way things were before or overly condemning the shift. Whereas the Cafe used to be a place for people to encounter one another on their solitary journeys, in time it became less of a resting stop (or dare I say: cafe) and more of a meeting hall. No longer a place to meet those who do Haskell, but rather a place for a certain communal doing of Haskell. I single the Cafe out only because I have the longest history with that community, but the same overall shift has occurred everywhere I've seen. Whereas previously it was a community of praxis, now it is more a community of educationalism. In the public spaces there is more teaching of Haskell than doing of it. There's nothing wrong with teaching, but when teaching becomes the thing-being-done rather than a means to an end, it twists the message. It's no longer people asking for help and receiving personal guidance, it's offering up half-baked monad tutorials to the faceless masses. And from tutorialization it's a very short path to proselytizing and evangelizing. And this weaponization of knowledge always serves to marginalize and exclude very specific voices from the community.

One class of voices being excluded is women. To see an example of this, consider the response to Doaitse Swierstra's comment at the 2012 Haskell Symposium. Stop thinking about the comment. The comment is not the point. The point is, once the problematic nature of the comment was raised, how did the community respond? If you want a specific example, this is it. The example is not in what Swierstra said, the example is in how the Haskell community responded to being called out. If you don't recall how this went down, here's the reddit version; though it's worth pointing out that there were many other conversations outside of reddit. A very small number of people acquitted themselves well. A handful of people knew how to speak the party line but flubbed it by mansplaining, engaging in flamewars, or allowing the conversation to be derailed. And a great many people were showing their asses all over the place. Now I want you to go through and read every single comment there, including the ones below threshold. I want you to read those comments and imagine that this is not an academic debate. Imagine that this is your life. Imagine that you are the unnamed party under discussion. That your feelings are the ones everyone thinks they know so much about. That you personally are the one each commenter is accusing of overreacting. Imagine that you are a woman, that you are walking down the street in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town after a long day of talks. It was raining earlier so the streets are wet. You're probably wearing flats, but your feet still hurt. You're tired. Perhaps you had a drink over dinner with other conference-goers, or perhaps not. Reading each comment, before going on to the next one, stop and ask yourself: would you feel safe if this commenter decided to follow you home on that darkened street? Do you feel like this person can comprehend that you are a human being on that wet street? Do you trust this person's intentions in being around you late at night? And ask yourself, when some other commenter on that thread follows you home at night and rapes you in the hotel, do you feel safe going to the comment's author to tell them what happened? Because none of this is academic. As a woman you go to conferences and this is how you are treated. And the metric of whether you can be around someone is not whether they seem interesting or smart or anything else, the metric is: do you feel safe? If you can understand anything about what this is like, then reading that thread will make you extremely uncomfortable. The problem is not that some person makes a comment. The problem is that masculinized communities are not safe for women. The problem is that certain modes of interaction are actively hostile to certain participants. The problem is finding yourself in an uncomfortable situation and knowing that noone has your back. Knowing that anyone who agrees with you will remain silent because they do not think you are worth the time and energy to bother supporting. Because that's what silence says. Silence says you are not worth it. Silence says you are not one of us. Silence says I do not think you are entirely human. And for all the upvotes and all the conversation my previous comment has sparked on twitter, irc, and elsewhere, I sure don't hear anyone here speaking up to say they got my back.

This is not a problem about women in Haskell. Women are just the go-to example, the example cis het middle-class educated able white men are used to engaging. Countless voices are excluded by the current atmosphere in Haskell communities. I know they are excluded because I personally watched them walk out the door after incidents like the one above, and I've been watching them leave for a decade. I'm in various communities for queer programmers, and many of the folks there use Haskell but none of them will come within ten feet of "official" Haskell communities. That aversion is even stronger in the transgender/genderqueer community. I personally know at least a dozen trans Haskellers, but I'm the only one who participates in the "official" Haskell community. Last fall I got hatemail from Haskellers for bringing up the violence against trans women of color on my blog, since that blog is syndicated to Planet Haskell. Again, when I brought this up, people would express their dismay in private conversations, but noone would say a damn thing in public nor even acknowledge that I had spoken. Ours has never been a great community for people of color, and when I talk to POC about Haskell I do not even consider directing them to the "official" channels. When Ken Shan gave the program chair report at the Haskell symposium last year, there was a similarly unwholesome response as with Swierstra's comment the year before. A number of people have shared their experiences in response to Ken's call, but overwhelmingly people feel like their stories of being marginalized and excluded "don't count" or "aren't enough to mention". Stop. Think about that. A lot of people are coming forward to talk about how they've been made to feel uncomfortable, and while telling those stories they feel the need to qualify. While actively explaining their own experiences of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, sanism, etc, they feel the simultaneous need to point out that these experiences are not out of the ordinary. Experiencing bigotry is so within the ordinary that people feel like they're being a bother to even mention it. This is what I'm talking about. This is what I mean when I say that there is a growing miasma in our community. This is how racism and sexism and ablism work. It's not smacking someone on the ass or using the N-word. It's a pervasive and insidious tone in the conversation, a thousand and one not-so-subtle clues about who gets to be included and who doesn't. And yes the sexual assaults and slurs and all that factor in, but that's the marzipan on top of the cake. The cake is made out of assuming someone who dresses "like a rapper" can't be a hacker. The cake is made out of assuming that "mother" and "professional" are exclusive categories. The cake is made out of well-actuallys and feigned surprise. And it works this way because this is how it avoids being called into question. So when you ask for specific examples you're missing the point. I can give examples, but doing so only contributes to the errant belief that bigotry happens in moments. Bigotry is not a moment. Bigotry is a sustained state of being that permeates one's actions and how one forms and engages with community. So knowing about that hatemail, or knowing about when I had to call someone out for sharing titty pictures on Haskell Cafe, or knowing about the formation of #nothaskell, or knowing about how tepid the response to Tim's article or Ken's report were, knowing about none of these specifics helps to engage with the actual problem.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2014-07-18 12:00 am

I Don't Hear You Talking: a silence on Silence Culture

A lot of ink has been spilt over trigger warnings lately. And I don't want to write about it because I feel like I don't have much to add to the conversation. But when I stop, that feeling nags at me. You can't think with your mouth open; and as someone who always had issues keeping her damn mouth shut, it took me a long time to learn that to listen you must be silent. ... And yet. ... And yet, when someone experiences strong emotions about her own marginalization, but feels compelled to self-silence: that's when you need to listen harder.

Because there are a lot of voices I know full well, and I don't hear them talking.

I know them because they're the voices of my friends, and among friends we talk about things we don't talk about. In the workaday world we put on our faces and never hint at the behemoths raging through our china cabinets. And when we let down our hair, those faces stay on, because you always know who might be listening. And behind closed doors, still, we keep them on because elsewise love would be too tragic. But in secret spaces, we talk. We are, every one of us, damaged. I may not know who hurt you yet, I may not know your story of pain, but I never assume there isn't one; because every single person I've known, when we get close enough, they tell me things we don't talk about. Sometimes it takes years before they feel safe enough, sometimes they never feel safe enough, but if they've ever lowered their guard to me, they've told me. Every. single. person.

We are born and raised and live in a world drenched in abuse. And that abuse doesn't leave scars, it leaves open wounds waiting to have dirt rubbed in them. The first rule of what doesn't happen is that it cannot be spoken of. So healing only happens in those secret spaces, one-on-one, in the dark of night, far far from friends and strangers alike. This privatization of healing only compounds the problem of abuse. When we cannot see past others' faces, when we cannot see the living wounds they bear, when we do not hear their daily resistance against reiterations of violence, we come to think that somehow maybe they haven't been hurt as badly as we. When we see our own people succeed, or see leaders of resistance and "survivors" and "healed" voices speaking up against the injustice of the world, we think that somehow maybe they must be stronger than us, more resilient than us, more determined than us. When we cannot witness their struggle, we think that somehow maybe when they go to bed at nights they need not take the time to scrub out that daily dirt from their wounds. And when we cannot bear that witness, we see ourselves as lesser, broken, impostors.

These are the voices I do not hear speaking out, or hear speaking in only roundabout whispers. These are the voices for whom trigger warnings are writ. As so precisely put by Aoife,

Here's something I need you to understand: the vast majority of students when 'triggered' don't write howlers to department heads or flip laptops over in crowded classrooms for YouTube counts.

On the contrary, they most often shut down and collapse into numbness.

That numbness, that collapse, is the last tool our minds have to keep our faces in place when some sudden shock reopens sore wounds. The second rule of what we do not talk about is that wounds never heal, not entirely. We —some of us— can manage not flinching when someone raises their hand. We —some of us— learn to laugh along when someone touches our back. We —some of us— learn to feel safe in a room alone with a man. We —some of us— learn to turn blind to the "tranny" jokes, to the blackface, to the jibes about trailer parks and country living, to the "sex" scene where she lay sleeping, the scene where he takes the other man 'round back, the man who slaps his wife, the mother who cuffs her child, being told to go pick a switch, to the child starving on the street, to the college kids playing "tricks" on the homeless. We —some of us— learn to live as stone. But stone don't heal, and we all have our rituals of self-care we won't talk about. But when everywhere all you ever see is stone, you know your flesh will never make it if the light still shines in your eyes.

And I too am guilty of this silence culture. Because the fact of the matter is, in this day and age, to speak is to jeopardize my career. I can talk about being trans or being a dyke, and I can at least pretend that the laws on the books will mean a damn. But if I talk about my childhood, I won't be seen as an adult. If I talk about my abuse, I won't be seen as stable. If I bring up my mental life, I won't be seen as professional. If I talk about spoons, I won't be seen as reliable. And so I stuff it down and self-silence and hide what it's like, that daily living with depression and PTSD, til some trigger sets it off and out comes that rage which grows on silence. Some full-force punch to the gut, some words like "I'm not sure suicide is ever the answer" and my eyes go black, and words come out, and they sound nice enough, but every one means "I hate you".

Not to be rude, but sometimes suicide is the answer. It may not be the best answer, but it is an answer. And, unfortunately, sometimes that is all that's required. Sometimes a terrible fucking answer is the only answer to be found.

I say this as someone who's spent more of her life being suicidal than not, as someone who's survived multiple attempts, as someone whose friends have almost invariably spent years being suicidal. Yes, it sucks. And no, it doesn't "solve" anything. But think of the suffering of the victim. It is incredibly difficult to overcome the self-preservation instinct. Profoundly difficult. Imagine the volume of suffering it takes, the depths and duration of misery required to actively overcome the single most powerful compulsion any living creature can experience. There comes a point, long after endurance has already given out, when the full weight of that volume cannot be borne.

Whenever this happens, my thoughts are always with the victim. I cannot help but empathize with that terrible terrible suffering

Because the fact of the matter is, I'm too scared to talk. We live in a culture where suicide is "the easy way" and you're supposed to "take it like a man", but the fact of the matter is noone can take it. We are, every one of us, damaged. We privatize our healing because the first rule of abuse is that it must never be mentioned, must never never be discussed. The learning of silence is the first abuse: it is how we are taught to abuse ourselves, to never never hear that we're not alone.

This isn't about suicide and depression. Isn't about rape and racism. Isn't about violence and neglect. This is about silence. About the words we don't use to not say what you can't talk about. This is about learning to speak using words. About how we must open our mouths in order to listen.