…Been a While, Hasn’t It?

Hello, my lovely followers. I’ve been struggling for a while to decide what this blog should be. I have been blogging elsewhere, though. I started an Enneagram project that was initially directed at writers, but is now also directed towards Enneagram coaches, therapists and educators who want to use stories to teach the Enneagram in a way that is accessible, without resorting to the utter nonsense of “How You Dress, Based on Your Enneagram Type!” (blech)

I have been anxious about sharing this project because it took a lot of tinkering to discover what I wanted it to be, but it’s finally there. I also am working to network more with coaches and learn from them. This has been an exciting new project for me because I do think that the kind of self-knowledge that the Enneagram offers can fill some gaps in mental health. During my own crisis a few years ago, I realized how important a sense of meaning and purpose is to defend against those trauma triggers and the ugly voices that tell you to give up. I think the transformative power of the Enneagram is mainly in its ability to help people identify their personal sense of meaning, and also how that meaning can be used against them.

That said, this community is not perfect, and one of its biggest problems is that it is expensive. There are financial gatekeepers that end up excluding the voices of people who are struggling the most, and this I think is part of why the Enneagram has become increasingly stereotypical. When you are drawing from a narrow pool of financially privileged people, it is easy to think the types look more uniform than they actually do. I’ve started a GoFundMe to help me afford some of the conferences, classes and networking opportunities that are out of reach. If any of you can donate or spread the word, I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you so much! I may start to use this blog as a simple personal platform (I have many happy thoughts about Ncuti Gatwa becoming the new Doctor!) and I appreciate how you all have continued to check it out in my absence.

J. K. Rowling and the Complex Gender Narrative

So, J. K. Rowling wrote an extremely weird and rambly essay about how people shouldn’t call her transphobic, just because she doesn’t support trans people’s rights to have a public space to safely pee. She said she’s been cyberbullied for liking the posts of some TERFs, which, for the record, is awful. You shouldn’t handle transphobes by calling them cunts and bitches who should die in a gutter. You should handle them by accurately labeling their statements as misinformed and bigoted… which J. K. Rowling finds equally upsetting.

Sigh.

I’m not going to go over the issues that people have already covered. Here’s a post that unpacks the emotional manipulation and transphobic dogwhistling in J. K. Rowling’s essay. Here’s some more resources for people who want accurate information to counteract the misinformation in her piece, either for themselves or to share with others.

Have fun!

I have inserted a Creative Commons transgender symbol, because people like blog posts that have pictures in them

The most interesting thing about the essay, at least for me, is that J. K. Rowling claims to have done her research and listened, and is still very transphobic in her overall stances on gender. This is a perfect illustration of a human flaw that we don’t discuss often enough, when we talk about education. It’s easy to change somebody’s mind when you share a fundamental narrative, and just disagree on a few details. It’s harder when a new set of facts forces someone to analyze the story of their life. Sometimes the education works, when people are willing to do the inner work to accept a more complicated worldview. Sometimes, people just cherry pick the fragments of information that they like, and close their minds to the rest.

Feminism contains many narratives. Some feminist narratives are compatible with trans activism and some are not. This internal conflict is making it difficult for people to figure out how to be good feminist allies and good trans allies at the same time. Hopefully J. K. Rowling’s work will help people understand this, and talk about it more openly.

I’m going to start with Simone de Beauvoir, who J. K. Rowling specifically mentions as an important influence on her own gender identity. Simone de Beauvoir was an important feminist thinker who drew people’s attention to the distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construction. She called women “the second sex,” defined in opposition to men. Her philosophy is often summed up by her statement that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

This doesn’t fit well with the idea of gender identities; that someone can have an internal sense of their own gender that aligns with neither social norms nor their biological sex. I don’t understand the neurological basis for gender identities. We are still trying to figure out what causes gender identities and gender dysphoria. There might be several overlapping causes, some of which are purely biological and some of which are more cultural. All I know is that, if you’re a cis woman who is more complex than the Victorian Ideal of Womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy is a fantastic guide to self-actualization. But, if you’re like me (born with female biology, not particularly “tomboyish” as a child, but plagued with a persistent sense that you were supposed to be born a boy) it doesn’t work. I don’t invalidate the personal journey of women like J. K. Rowling, but I complicate the narrative, by indicating that there might be more dimensions to the world of gender.

Trans people also complicate the narrative by sharing information. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent; a shy, sensitive boy sent to see what women experience, from birth to the age of twenty, and share my stories with both sides of the battle-of-the-sexes. I bring stories of sexual harassment, sexist gaslighting and menstruation to spaces where cis men didn’t expect to have their sexist assumptions called out. At the same time, I bring to feminist spaces an uncomfortable look at the weird privileges of being “the weaker sex.”

Being male isn’t like being white. Racists don’t tell white people that they can’t cry or dance or learn to care for a baby because “that’s what Black people do.” But that’s exactly what happens to men, and it takes a psychological toll.

The patriarchy is less like the Dursleys, spoiling one child and sticking the other under the stairs. It’s more like Thanos, pitting two siblings against each other and torturing them both for any failure to conform to his expectations. Gamora might have privilege and favoritism over Nebula, but he’s a monster to both of them, and if either is going to fully recover they need to put aside their battle and escape together. I guess in my Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor, trans people are the whole rest of the crew; we can’t have the conversation between the two for them, but we create a third space, full of so many complicated narratives and personal journeys that escape from the conflict is possible.

Ok, abandoning the gender diversity – Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor now, because I need to get into a third way that trans people complicate the narrative around gender, and it relates directly to bathrooms.

Bye bye, intergalactic gender metaphor

The hot-button issue around trans people is about bathrooms and changing areas. What is rarely questioned in these debates is why we separate bathrooms by gender in the first place. It wasn’t like a support group or activist organization. The bathroom is not where people are rallying to subvert the patriarchy. It’s just where you go to pee or poop, which everybody needs to do regardless of politics or activism. We separate bathrooms by gender because we’re sexist.

In Victorian times, around the invention of modern plumbing, bathrooms in public places were exclusively for men, which was an obstacle to women in the workplace. Gradually, as factories began to employ more and more women, smaller bathrooms for women were set up as a compromise. At the time they were a step forward, but there’s still a lot of institutional discrimination built in. For example, according to modern codes you can still just assume there will be less women working at your cool laboratory of sciences, make a smaller women’s room, and inconvenience your female workers for decades to come. Here are some articles if you want to read more of the history. Each article all has its own slant, but they all agree that the separation started with an ideological belief that men and women should be in separate spheres, because they aren’t equal. One is strong but predatory, the other is virtuous but weak, and the two must be kept separate and unequal. Sex segregated bathrooms were not a goal of feminists, but a compromise with an unflinchingly sexist society.

Doesn’t it strike anyone else as weird that trans-exclusionary feminists and far right-wing conservative men (many of whom have personally been accused of sexual assault) are agreeing that men will use gender neutral or trans-inclusive bathrooms to abuse women? Essentially, they are both agreeing that men are inherently predatory and women are right to be scared of them. This is a deeply rooted narrative in our society. Men are strong, but dangerous. Women are innocent, but weak and vulnerable. This is the patriarchy talking.

The reality is that men are perfectly capable of self-control and moral behavior. Furthermore, sexual violence is not as gendered an act as we thought; research has shown that for years we have been under-counting both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual assault. Again, the root of this undercounting is a patriarchal narrative about sex and power that was designed to control the behavior of women. Sexual abuse is not a normal male behavior. It is the abnormal behavior of certain violent and abusive humans. I don’t think pointing that out sets gender equality back.

On the contrary, it strips away the excuse that Donald Trumps, Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys have hidden behind for generations. I love that the response of so many men to the pussy-grabbing statement was, “no, that isn’t locker room talk. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms and I didn’t talk like that with my male friends, because that’s a shitty way to talk about women.” Normalizing abuse encourages abuse. Shifting the narrative from “boys will be boys” to “most boys are not like that, you have no excuse” is good.

I also get how it’s scary, especially for an older generation of women. But scary isn’t the same thing as harmful. Holding onto ideas that normalize abuse and marginalize gender minorities is harmful.

Balancing Criticism, Social Responsibility and Creativity

(I wrote a post with a similar title many years ago, and while I liked the overall message I thought my examples were weak. So here’s my second attempt.)

Criticism stresses me out. And the thing that stresses me out most isn’t when someone convinces me that I did a bad thing in my writing, or that something I enjoyed has a problematic element. No, then everything is fine, because I can fix the bad writing/acknowledge that some of the things I enjoy are not perfect. The thing that really scares me is when I hear somebody’s argument about why a thing is bad, I listen carefully to all their points, and I truly, honestly, do not agree.

Is that weird? Is that just me? I’m going to go ahead with the assumption that it isn’t, because otherwise there’s no point to this post.

The first thing that scares me is the way internet criticism can turn shitty. The way people attack things that I love and make it seem like everyone who likes it is Irredeemably Horrible is stomach churning. But the older I get, the smaller that worry gets. For one thing, I’ve realized that if the only people who argue a point are mean-spirited trolls, it’s probably not a good point. Not that mean-spirited trolls can’t sometimes make a good point, but if a point makes sense to compassionate, thoughtful people, they will make it in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

The second thing is the fear that I might be wrong, and not realize it. That’s a more existential kind of fear. It’s harder to push through, because no matter how I look at it, I’m not infallible. I’ve changed my mind about many things, and I don’t believe that current me is the magically flawless one who will never have to change again.

To be more specific, I am afraid that my current, imperfect self will put some things out into the world that are bad. That influence people in a bad way. I write in no small part because I love social justice and I believe stories play a powerful role in shaping how we live our lives. Put all that together, and it’s possible that something I write will, someday, influence someone for the worse.

In this way, the very thing that inspires me to write can also shut down my creativity.

I’m not writing this to describe the way I magically banish my fear. That doesn’t exist. I’m human and uncertain and I am kind of glad that I’m afraid enough to take my writing seriously. I’m writing about how I do my best not to let the fear get to the point where I can’t write anymore.

Use Longer-form Social Media For Writing Resources

Simply relying more on longer-form media has reduced my anxiety a lot. By that, I mean I focus on blogs, vlogs and podcast episodes over Tumblr or Twitter. In particular, Twitter’s structure is the enemy of nuance and context. It’s fine for promotions and goofing off, but when it comes to social commentary, it pushes people to over-generalize and sound quippy. And while I think satire is an important part of social commentary, there’s a difference between satire and flippant put-downs.

Twitter and Tumblr also favor a piling-on phenomena, leading you to feel that a lot of people feel very strongly about an issue, simply because enough of them could get to a punchline in two sentences or less. So if you come across an issue that is oversimplified, you can also feel bombarded with social pressure to join in with the oversimplification. And if you push back and criticize, you too will lack the space to give your disagreements respectful context and nuance, making it easy to build a virtual war between two armies of strawmen.

In contrast, when I watch a Youtube video or listen to a podcast where somebody disagrees with me, they have opportunities to fully express their point of view, and I have time to make my response equally thoughtful. This actually makes me more likely to seek out diverse viewpoints. On short-form social media, I’m scared of attack because there’s nothing to do but attack. When I have space to consider and discuss, I can, you know, do those things.

It’s Okay to Not Talk About Everything

It seems like these days, if you’re going to have a public presence (and thanks to social media, who doesn’t have a public presence?), you have to comment on everything. “I don’t know” is often treated as a kind of cowardice. It shouldn’t be. Unless something falls under your area of expertise, it should be fine to take time to consider before publicly stating an opinion, and maybe not comment at all.

This especially goes for writing stories or articles that explore important social issues. I have seen writers, especially fiction writers, attacked for not exploring this issue or not representing people of this identity. To be fair, occasionally this is valid. “Research the story you choose to write” is a completely reasonable standard to set, which is why it’s fine to point fingers at someone who sets their story in 1920s Harlem without writing any Black characters. But it’s different to pick out a writer who has stayed in their lane, and criticize them for not straying from it. Accurate information and respectful representation both take time and effort, and there’s too much out there to discuss for anybody to tackle it all. So why not focus on topics that you either have personal experience in, or care enough about to put in the work and research?

Remember the Single Story

I think this should be required viewing for any writer. Here’s a link that includes a transcript.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The Danger of a Single Story”

When I’m scared that I might write something bad, it’s encouraging to think that there are other people out there who can say the things that I can’t. The important thing is to have a healthy writing and reading community, where people are putting out their own perspectives and taking in those of others. Everyone’s life is an incomplete window on a big reality.

At the root of most bad faith criticisms, you find the assumption that somebody, somewhere, should be able to write a perfect story that will save the world from our oppressive patriarchal heritage forever. No one will spell that out, of course. Anyone can see that it’s an absurd proposition. But when critics, whether on mainstream publications or a personal social media accounts, take a smug attitude the moment they find a minor flaw in a popular piece of media, that’s the implicit message. If you assume everyone’s perspective is flawed, you will make your minor criticisms constructive and balanced, saving your disgust for works that are truly irredeemable.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think the most important thing is to check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back.

As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!

The Small Circle Problem of Social Justice

So, I’m terrible at having circles of friends, and I think one of the problems is that I’m a fairly progressive and radical liberal, and I also really hate groups of people that splinter easily. I’d rather have one really close and long term friend and some acquaintances than a group of fairly good friends who might explode sometime in the next few months. That preference does not go well with While socializing with politically radical types, I’ve been witness to a fair bit of cliquishness and drama. I left a trans support group because they had a way of freezing out anybody who wasn’t completely on the same page as them politically at all times, which made me feel uncomfortable. Even though I did agree with them on most major issues, and the areas where I disagreed I didn’t consider inherently important, the fact that I actively feared causing an explosion if I ever disagreed with one of the group leaders made me leave.

I’ve also witnessed some schisms caused by outright abuse. Thankfully I’ve been able to stay away from the heart of the drama explosions, and dodged the bulk of the drama shrapnel, but I’ve been close to people who weren’t so lucky. This post by my awesome brother-in-law Shaun has reminded me of how close I’ve been to some wolves in nice conscientious not-wolfy-at-all clothing.

Now, drama and the breaking up of social groups is just a fact of life, hardly unique to social justice or liberalism. The same goes for assholes, sociopaths and abusers who successfully gain the trust of good people in social groups with good intentions. Sometimes I feel like they happen unusually easily in social justice circles, but then I don’t have a lot of experience in other environments to compare them to. I have noticed some dynamics, however, that I think lead to their frequency. This post would ideally have some advice on how to avoid or break them. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have any. I’m identifying the problem in hopes that as I think more about this topic, I’ll be able to think of solutions.

I think that when you get into intense, radical social justice, you become extremely aware of the way little things that are generally assumed to be benign actually lead to real problems. For example, cornrows, dredlocks and many other styles common to black people are widely considered “unprofessional,” while the styles that are “professional” are overwhelmingly easier to have and maintain if you are white. Many people would tell you that this is just how it is, but it’s an entirely arbitrary social convention, and it sets people up to think of black people as being less professional for reasons that have nothing to do with their capabilities or conduct. Jokes told in the gym and the locker room create a normalized attitude of homophobia, transphobia and a tendency to see women as sexual prizes before they are seen as people. The use of “retarded” as an insult is just the latest in a long string of appropriating medical terminology for playground mockery, leading people with disabled children unable to speak frankly about their everyday lives with their kids without sounded like they are insulting them. On and on it goes. As you become aware of these things, you start to feel guilty every time you hear such a microaggression and let it pass without comment… but if you do, you quickly alienate those around you.

Three things happen. First, you become less and less comfortable around people who aren’t already educated in all the ways that you are, either because you feel like you’re censoring your own discomfort around most people, or because you haven’t censored yourself enough and you’ve become known as the pedantic busybody of the office. Second, you become thrilled to find people you don’t have to deliver endless 101s to, people who already speak your language and share your values. Third, you begin to imagine a world where we have gotten culture right. We have evaded anything that accidentally oppresses anyone, eliminated all microaggressions, found the rules that are never unjust to anyone, ever. You really want that utopia to exist someday, and being surrounded by people who feel the same way you do feels like living in a miniature version of that utopia.

This creates dangers. For one thing, the more isolated you feel, the more attached you feel to the integrity of your little utopia, where you feel safe and comfortable. This makes you feel uncomfortable letting anyone new in unless they have proven that they won’t disturb the peace of your consensus. This in turn makes you judge people by what they say before getting to know them through what they do, and makes you overly attached to people who deliver the correct shibboleths. That is an environment ripe for abusers and manipulators to take over.┬áJust because you can say our shibboleths doesn’t mean that you’ve absorbed our ethics, much less our morals. If you’re charismatic and you know the right morals to spout, you can create a large enough group of people who like you to have a ready barrier of advocates to fend off accusations of defense. Furthermore, people like that can use everybody’s tribalistic concientiousness to kick out anyone who raises too much of a fuss, creating false accusations if need be. I really wish I was basing this on conjecture, rather than things I recently observed. Finally, this may actually create barriers to further education. When you feel your social circle is dependent on consensus, you feel afraid to question your own beliefs. Such questioning might lead to changing your mind, and that might lead to your friends rejecting you.

Does that sound bleak? Here is the counterpart. Many of those people who say bigoted, ignorant, microaggressive things are not actually bad people. Sure, they make mistakes, and they might be defensive when called out on them, and they might be totally blind to the real world effects of what they say. People are products of their environment, and we don’t change fast. We do not adopt a new worldview the moment we are presented with a spreadsheet of new liberal terminology. We assemble our points of view like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle of a pile of leaves that are all more or less the same color, and we keep putting them together over the course of our lives. Sometimes people jam together a few peoples that look close enough, and when somebody else comes along and tries to point out that it’s wrong, it won’t fit with any other pieces until you swap this one for that one, they don’t want to do it, because taking out this piece means taking out those two other pieces, which in turn means they didn’t have the right pieces next to those, and goddamn it they had a picture that mostly made sense a minute ago and it’s not like you have all your pieces together so don’t lecture me! Just because they lost their temper when you were trying to disassemble their puzzle doesn’t mean they are actually bad people. Sometimes they are, but I do believe that most people aren’t.

Now, my analogy fails because worldviews, unlike puzzles, do affect how people treat each other. But that said, the interaction between belief and action is more complicated than many people seem to think. What a person says they think and what they will actually do don’t always line up. See once again; abusers camouflaging themselves by knowing the right words to say. Similarly, a person’s actions can show them to be compassionate or kind even when their words sometimes make you cringe. Learn about people based on how they treat others, and interact with them based on that. Talk to them about issues as two people trying to figure out this whole complicated puzzle thing together, not like someone you have to instruct in your doctrines before you allow them into your circle. You’ll find them more receptive, you’ll find yourself better able to criticize your own beliefs, and you won’t be quite so at the mercy of an abuser running your clique.

I guess I did sort of have a solution after all. That’s encouraging.