“You Knew This Would Happen”, And Other Jerkbrain Lies

This is one of those things that I write down in my blog because I’m not sure where else to put it. In the hopes that I will remember.

When I’m starting a relationship, any relationship, I often worry about the things that might go wrong. If it’s a casual relationship, I may be nervous that I will end up with inappropriately serious feelings. If I’m attracted to someone in a way I haven’t experienced before, I may be worried that it won’t line up with the ways they want to be found attractive. If I want to spend a lot of time with someone, I may be worried it will overwhelm them. If I want to spend a limited amount of time with someone, I may be worried that it will be too little.

Sometimes the things that I worry about come to pass, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, I can generally be relied on to blame myself when they do come to pass.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You KNEW this would happen!”

Then I blame myself for whatever negative consequences resulted from the initial decision, particularly any negative consequences to the other person involved. Because I should have known. Because I “did know”.

But, of course, I didn’t. I only saw the possibility.

A while back, I hooked up with a friend of mine, and was nervous that a relationship intended to be casual would become inappropriately serious in my head. However, when I decided to go ahead anyway, when I actually ran the experiment, I found exactly the opposite. I found that more than any other casual thing I had ever done, this one felt like it perfectly, naturally fit into a casual space in my head.

If that hadn’t been the case – if I had found myself feeling uncomfortably serious about the whole thing — I would have blamed myself for that going wrong. I would have told myself that I knew that that was going to happen, and that therefore I shouldn’t have let anything happen in the first place.

And, as the experience showed, I would’ve been dead wrong. As more than one of my recent experiences have shown, sometimes the things I worry about don’t happen. Sometimes they don’t even come close to happening. The part of my brain dedicated to shrieking, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN!!” is completely and utterly wrong. Now, finally, I have some blatant, about-as-close-to-irrefutable-as-possible counterexamples from my own personal experience, and I intend to remember them the next time my brain pulls this bullshit.

Here Is a Graph of My Feelings

Sometimes, my life is a parody of itself.

Regular readers of this blog have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a fairly analytical person. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than when I have conversations about feelings with people.

Yesterday, I had a long conversation with a friend about feelings and the nature of our relationship. It was a conversation that involved trying to account for a lengthy collection of dynamic and uncertain feelings for both of us. It was really, though I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way, like my life was parodying itself.

Get me in a room with another analytical person and some complex feelings to sort out, and the conversation that comes out involves almost as much statistical and predictive mathematics-type language as feelings language. I have said to friends in the past, and this conversation was no exception, that feelings conversations for me feel a lot like taking out graphs of our brains and showing them to each other and taking comparative notes.

“This might happen in my brain, but I’m not sure how accurately I can predict…”

“I have a few data points on that.”

“It seems like really what we’re talking about is risk mitigation*.”

“I think I am probably closer to the mean than to the standard deviation.”

In conclusion, WHAT IS MY LIFE?!

*It was at the point that my friend used the phrase “risk mitigation” yesterday, that I had to pause the conversation for a moment to process just how much my life is exactly like my life.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

On Depression And Defaulting To Problem-Solving Mode

There is a lot of advice out there about what to say or not to say when people tell you that they have a mental illness. Generally speaking, I think the best advice is to ask the person who is sharing the information with you what they would like from you. I know, in terms of my own life, when dealing with depression, that I want very different forms of support at different times. Sometimes I need people to help me problem solve, and other times I just want people to acknowledge that, yes, what I am going through really is shitty, and let me be miserable about it with them for a while.

In Hyperbole and a Half terms, sometimes I just want someone to say “I’m sorry your fish are dead”, and other times I want someone to help me figure out if there’s anything I can do about it.

In my experience, the single most common mistake that people make when I talk to them about the stuff I’m dealing with is switching immediately into problem-solving mode. When this is what I want, it can be very helpful, but when it is not what I’m looking for, it can actually be worse than saying nothing at all.

This is important for people to get, so I’m going to say it again: switching into problem-solving mode when problem-solving is not what I am looking for from you can be worse than doing nothing.

When I just need someone to sit with me and with the feelings I’m experiencing, the last thing I want is for someone to make me feel like they can’t be comfortable with me having those feelings. Sometimes what I need most is for my feelings to be validated. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should agree with me if I say something like, “Everyone hates me.” – I mean this in the sense that if I say that I feel like everyone hates me, you can say something like, “Feeling that way must be really hard.”

We can go into the details of how everyone actually doesn’t hate me later. Right now, what you need to be doing is communicating to me that you can be okay with me having these often-ridiculous negative feelings. What you need to be doing is showing me that you are capable of just sitting with me and being inside of these feelings with me for a bit. When you switch immediately into problem-solving mode, it feels like what you’re saying is that you cannot deal with me having these feelings right now. It feels like you’re saying that my depression is unacceptable to you – that you have to do something to get rid of  my depressive feelings immediately.

But they aren’t going to go away immediately. They may not go away for a long time. And to be good at supporting someone with depression, sometimes what you need to be able to do is accept that and let the feelings exist and be good company while they do.

Ask people what they would like from you. When you don’t, you run the risk of making things worse, even if you’re trying to make things better.

Early Signs of Skepticism

Sometimes I try to think backward into my life and figure out what the first signs were that I would grow up to identify as a skeptic. The thing that most frequently pops into my head when I do this is from high school (and involves a mild trigger warning for mention of sexual assault).

I went out with my first girlfriend junior year of high school. It was, in many ways, an adorable relationship. We were both shy, and perhaps awkward, and just learning the ropes of what our feelings did when we put them next to other people.

I loved spending time alone with this girl. Just being next to each other and talking and cuddling was about my favorite thing to do. I remember, though, that being alone with her always made a part of me nervous.

Being alone with her made me nervous because I knew it was a context in which sexual assault happened. I knew it was a context in which sexual assault happened, and I didn’t know what made people commit sexual assault. The reasoning that made me nervous was roughly, “If I don’t know what it is that makes people commit sexual assault, then I don’t know what makes me different from those people. If I don’t know what makes me different from those people, then I don’t know if I am different from those people.”

It may seem silly that I didn’t feel comfortable assuming something as apparently basic as, “I am not the type of person who would sexually assault someone.”, but, frankly, thinking back on it makes me proud of myself.

Because here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t assume that because I think of myself as someone who tries to be a good person, I wasn’t the type of person who would do bad things. I didn’t use my personal narrative as evidence that I wouldn’t do something “bad”. I identified a lack of knowledge (the fact that I didn’t know why people committed sexual assault), and I didn’t fill in the blanks with what I supposed or wanted to be true.

To me, this is the type of thinking that helps me be a good skeptic. It’s my refusal to let how I think of myself or what I would like to be true of myself get in the way of honest assessments of what I actually, literally know (or don’t know) about myself.

I am not always a good skeptic, but when I am, it’s habits like this that help me be that way.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Brief Rant: On What Women Want

“What do women want?”

It is a common refrain. A common question, and an absurd one for a combination of reasons. Today, though, I just want to mention one reason. The reason is this: from person to person, the variation in what people want is enormous.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a specific set of traits and behaviors that the average woman wants. Let’s assume that you collected the data on every woman in the world, aggregated it together, and took an average, and came up with a set of traits that the “average” woman wanted.

This would be an utterly pointless exercise in the context of deciding what to do or how to act when dating a particular woman. Why? Because the variation between individuals is enormous.

Asking what “the average woman” wants in order to decide what to do or how to act when dating a particular woman is like taking the average of the daily weather for every day for the last 10 years to decide whether or not to wear a jacket today.

Just look outside.

Polyamory, and Attractiveness as a Zero Sum Game

In dealing with envy issues recently, I had one of those epiphanies that you have that you almost don’t want to tell anyone about, because in retrospect it seems childishly obvious. One of the triggers for my envy has been a girl I’m attracted to getting into a relationship with a friend of mine. In this particular case, for a combination of reasons, that reality has triggered a number of insecurities of mine, and thoughts about, “If only I were as attractive/successful/non-depressed as [friend].”

The unspoken end to that thought is, “Then I would be able to compete.”

The epiphany that hit me a couple of weeks ago was that this girl’s attraction to this friend of mine has nothing to do with me. Her complicated feelings with respect to me would exist whether this friend of mine existed or not, and our friendship would probably look roughly the same way it does now whether this friend of mine existed or not. The epiphany was that her attraction to me is not defined relative to her attraction to my friend. It exists on a wholly separate, unrelated axis.

I feel like it should have been obvious, but when it really, consciously hit me in the brain, it had a noticeable effect on my issues with envy with respect to the situation. It made it harder for my brain to say things like, “If only you were as attractive as [friend]”, because it helped me be conscious of the fact that my attractiveness is not defined in opposition to that of others (to say nothing of the fact that in this particular case, my being attractive or not wasn’t even the reason things didn’t work out with this girl in the first place).

I wanted to share this epiphany for two reasons. First, just to share it, and second to say that I think this realization is one of the nice things about being poly. In a monogamous world where someone being more attracted to X person than you generally means that they choose that other person over you (at least in terms of relationships and/or sex), it can be difficult not to think about attractiveness in a zero-sum way. It can be difficult not to think of it in terms that are competitive, that are defined as “in opposition to” the attractiveness of others.

I like that in a context of doing “inclusive or”-style relationships, rather than “exclusive or”-style relationships, that learning to think of things in a non-zero-some way is easier, at least for me. I don’t know that I would have had this same epiphany if I were monogamous, even if it might technically have remained true. Even if it had remained true, the reality of situation would be different. If this girl and I were monogamous, but she were more interested in my friend than me, then the reality would be that in terms of decisions about who she has relationships with, my friend and I would not exist on separate, unrelated axes of decision-making.

The reality of my current situation, though, is that comparative levels of attractiveness don’t have a whole lot to do with the reasons any particular person ends up in a relationship with me or doesn’t. I like that, and I like how it enables me to think about things using less competitive, oppositional frames.

My User Manual, Part 5: Things You Can Do to Make Me Feel Good

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I do to cheer people up, which has started me thinking on what particular things I like people to do to cheer me up, which has led to my writing this next installment of my user manual: Things You Can Do to Me Feel Good:

Ask Me What You Can Do

Always first and foremost, my wants and needs are dynamic, and one of the best ways to know what they are is to ask. Even if there were somehow absolutely nothing you could do to make me feel good at a particular moment, the sentiment behind asking is always nice to hear.

Offer Physical Affection

Depending on the nature of our relationship, this might mean hugs, cuddles, handholding, kisses, or sex. Hell, in the right mindset, it might even mean flogging. Whatever the particular variety of physicality is, being physical is almost always cathartic for me. Also, often, physicality can help me to express or process emotions, positive or negative.

Offer an Ear or a Shoulder

I like talking about things I’m excited about, and I like venting about things I’m frustrated about, and I like it when people are willing to listen. I think the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me when I was sorely in need of a shoulder and venting to them was “You don’t need to hold back.”


This one can take many forms; one of my favorites comes from a friend of mine from school a number of years ago. I was talking to him once after I had had a significant fight with my girlfriend at the time, and was feeling shitty about things. In consolation, he pulled a crazy straw out of his desk and gave it to me, saying in his playful-but-caring way, “Here, this symbolizes love and my wishing you good luck.”. I still have that straw. It was a simple, silly, tiny gesture that nevertheless felt meaningful, and is something I’ve done, myself, every now and then. Somehow, his expression of support became more meaningful imbued into that ridiculous straw. I’m not sure why, but silly tokens like this seem to have that effect.

Stories About Mattering

A friend of mine from college once told me that the care that I took to always ask her for consent when I wanted to be physical with her made her feel comfortable expecting that level of consent-consciousness from the other men in her life. It was an unspeakably wonderful thing to hear. One of the things I love most is hearing about how I have changed people’s lives in ways large or small. So much of the time, the impact that I have on the people around me is invisible to me, and hearing how that conversation we had six months ago changed the way you think about relationships, or how that thing I did that time made you feel warm and fuzzy – that is awesome to me. It makes me feel like I matter — like I make a difference.

Draw me a picture of how I have impacted you or changed your life in some way, and you’re almost guaranteed to make me feel good. I like general compliments, too, but things like this are the best type of compliment I can imagine.


Celebrate my accomplishments and the good things that happen in my life with me. Take me out to lunch (doesn’t have to be a nice lunch – I love burritos) when I get a new job, offer a toast to my successful completion of a project (distance is not necessarily a limit here — I really like toasting over the phone with faraway friends), call me to congratulate me on an accomplishment.

Share Secrets or Significant Moments

One of the things I really enjoy being able to do with people who know me in person and know about my blog is to tell them things about posts I have written that other people don’t know. Only a few people know the real names of the people that I wrote the “Snippets” posts about. I enjoy being the first person (or among the first or the few) to know about interesting things that have happened to people or epiphanies they’ve had. I enjoy having significant moments or thoughts shared with me, and I enjoy sharing my significant moments or thoughts with others. You only get to share something with a person the first time once. Given that, I always feel like I’m giving someone something special when I decide to share something with them first, and I like being able to give that. Being on the receiving end can feel just as good.

Share Things You Think, Notice, or Appreciate About Me

I like hearing what people think and how people feel about me (I mean, I guess assuming it’s generally positive, which if you’re a friend of mine I would hope it generally would be). How would you describe me? What do you appreciate about me? What does our friendship mean to you?  What are the little things about the ways that I act or talk or listen that stand out to you? A friend of mine once told me that I always look up and to the right when I’m trying to come up with a thoughtful answer to a question. I’m not sure if this is still true or not, but I really liked hearing the observation. I find those little quirks interesting, and I like hearing about the ones that seem to be uniquely me, or that I give a uniquely noticeable character to.

The combination of myself and any particular person I spend time with is like a signature — the emergent product of our two unique personalities diffracting off one another. I find it incredibly romantic* to know what that looks like from the other person’s end.

Sexy Pictures

I like sexy people and I like it when they send me pictures. There’s something about even not-intentionally-sexy naked pictures that I really enjoy. A friend of mine once sent me a picture of themselves with compliments written on their body. It remains one of my favorite pictures I have ever received. There’s something about a message written on naked skin that I find can make it feel more poetically meaningful to me. It’s probably related to the “sharing a secret” feeling. Admittedly, this particular way of making me feel good is generally most context-appropriate for partners, or at least people I share some form of mutual flirtatiousness or attraction with.


I’ve recently discovered that getting letters from people is something I enjoy, especially when the letter involves some of the types of things I’ve listed above. Writing me a letter with a story about mattering is like a combo move where I get a story about mattering (see above) in the form of a token (see above) – the letter.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. Hopefully it’s helpful information for those who know me, and a helpful model and source of ideas for writing about stuff like this for those who don’t.

*Platonically or non-platonically — romantic feelings aren’t just reserved for people I want to have relationships with. They can happen in the context of friendships, too. It’s just a different flavor of romance.

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By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

In Pursuit of Mutual Pursuit

One of the issues I have tended to have, historically, in dating and relationships, is the feeling that I am consistently the person initiating and escalating things in the relationship. There is a long history behind this, beginning with my very first relationship, and meandering through various friendships and relationships over the years.

I have always been fairly picky about the friendships and relationships that I make an active effort to pursue or maintain, but when I have sensed that magnificent potential to learn and be learned from, to challenge and be challenged by another person, I have never had much trouble making the effort to get to know someone better. When it has been people I wanted relationships with, I have never had much trouble being able to say “Hey, you intrigue me, and I would like to spend more time with you.”.

I have found, over the years, that while having the experience of being mutually intrigued is not uncommon for me, having the experience of mutual active pursuit is less so. Even in circumstances where my interest is reciprocated, it has not been all that uncommon for me to have the sensation that, if I stopped contacting X person, nothing would ever happen. The exceptions to this rule stand out in my memory as a few wonderful islands of time where I always knew the relationship was being actively pursued by both sides, and the insecurity that accompanies the more unbalanced situations didn’t have a chance to rear its head.

I’ve never been sure what to make of the sensation that the level of pursuit in a relationship is unbalanced. The explanations that have seemed the most sensible have varied from time to time and person to person. Sometimes the sensible explanation has seemed to be uneven levels of interest; other times it has been that the other person simply doesn’t like initiating things, or has been socialized not to initiate things (in dating in particular, I am, after all, a cis guy generally pursuing cis women); others it has been that one of us was busier than the other; and at times, I think it’s possible that the best explanation has been my own sensitization to this phenomenon. At times, I wonder if things weren’t actually as unbalanced as I thought, but they felt like they were, because I actively look for and strive to avoid these situations more now than I used to.

That is the most difficult part: figuring out when I should read a lack of interest, and when I should read a different type of socialization, or a different way of expressing interest, or different levels of life craziness. It’s a difficult distinction to make, since outside of direct initiation of hanging out (“Hey, I would like to hang out this Friday” is hands-down the easiest and most pleasant indicator of interest for my brain), there aren’t a lot of ways of expressing interest that are easily distinguishable from politeness. The phrase “We should hang out sometime” is probably the best example of this — it can be the social equivalent of asking “How are you?” as a nicety as easily as it can mean “I am really interested in you and would like to spend more time together”. There have almost certainly been times that I have interpreted “We should hang out sometime” as “I am being polite to you and am not actually interested in putting any effort into spending time together” when what was intended was “I would really like to spend more time with you”.

It is a challenging thing to have conversations about, as well, because while I’m generally pretty good at expressing my needs in relationships, this becomes trickier when I am in a place where I’m not certain whether another person is interested in a relationship happening in the first place. “I would appreciate it if you could initiate things more, because that helps my brain feel like we’re both interested in this” isn’t all that hard to express in the context of a relationship, but in a context where level of interest is more ambiguous, it can be much more difficult to tell whether this is a conversation that is appropriate for each person’s level of interest and investment. Having this conversation with someone who is not actually all that interested feels like answering a polite “How are you?” with my life story. At the same time, not having it can mean that someone who is genuinely interested never gets the opportunity to express their interest in a way that works for me, and the relationship that could have been never occurs.

I’m not sure if there’s any good solution to this problem or not.

The Relief of Recognizing My Powerlessness in Dating

One of my big epiphanies in dating that has made it a lot easier is the realization that I don’t have nearly as much power over how a date goes as I thought I did.

This may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out.

I do think that there are things that I can do to improve the chances that a date will go well. I can shower beforehand and make sure I look like someone who follows basic hygiene practices. I can make an effort to be on time, I can not answer phone calls or texts during the date, I can pick an activity that facilitates conversation and getting to know each other, etc., etc.

The reality, though, is that the single biggest factor in whether or not someone enjoys a date with me is my personality, and my personality is probably going to come out over the course of a date regardless of the other little things I do or don’t do. The person I’m on a date with will either like who I am or they won’t like who I am, and it’s as simple as that. At the end of the day, I have very little control over whether or not someone likes who I am, and correspondingly very little control over whether or not they end up feeling like going on a second date.

For me, this is pretty awesome. Yes, it means I generally assume there isn’t that much I can do to “make” a person like me, but it also means that there isn’t much I can do to “make” them not like me if we’re compatible. Much of the time, I go into dates assuming that whether they go well or poorly is largely predetermined by the chemistry or lack thereof between our personalities. In short: I go into them assuming that I can’t fuck them up.

It’s a lot easier not to worry about the little things that I may say or do “right” or “wrong” if my default assumption is that those things are insignificant next to inherent compatibility. I think I’m pretty decent at being myself, which in a way is the single most valuable skill in dating, because it means if there is compatibility that that compatibility is with me, and not someone I’m pretending to be.

The same logic goes for asking someone if they want to make out, have sex, tie me up, etc. Assuming that it’s a person who has had some time to figure out who I am and how they feel about me, I don’t think the exact wording I use to proposition someone makes all that much difference (as long as I do it in a generally considerate fashion). Either this person feels like doing those things with me, or they don’t. So there’s no reason to sweat too much over the details.

Powerlessness: in the right context, pretty awesome.

Why Talking About Feminism Can Be Scary

Sometimes it’s hard having conversations about feminism. Talking about feminism in a way that is critical of it can be a scary proposition at times. What if you say something wrong, offend someone, or say something misogynistic without realizing it? What if people get pissed at you?

I have worried about these things. I do worry about these things. I know that other genuinely well-intentioned people do, too. Yet, at the same time, when I have had the conversations that I’ve been nervous about, I have generally gotten very thoughtful, reasoned responses from the feminists I know. For example, when I talk about why I don’t identify as a feminist, the conversation usually ends with feminists saying that they don’t think it matters that much. No explosion of anger, no offense taken, none of the things I get nervous about.

There certainly are people who identify as feminists who respond to things in irrational ways (just like the rest of us do at times), but it seems like a lot of the conversations that I have seen people have about feminism that they were nervous about having have been responded to in very reasoned, proportionate ways. That being my experience, the question that I’ve been asking myself is: if the responses by feminists to discussions of their issues tend to be reasonable and proportionate, how does it become so intimidating to talk about those issues?

In asking this question, a hypothesis occurred to me the other day. In order to explain it, I’m going to introduce a term that popped into my brain while thinking about it: domain-specific acuity. It roughly means, “Your ability to distinguish between different ideas about a particular subject.”

Domain-specific: Pertaining exclusively or primarily to a particular subject or problem (the domain, e.g. biology, computer programming, feminism, the arts, politics, Lego building, etc.). For example, HTML is a domain-specific language – it is designed exclusively for webpages; rape culture (while it affects all of us) is a fairly domain-specific vocabulary word used in the context of discussions about misogyny, feminism, etc. Using a stick shift is a domain-specific skill – it is pertinent solely to driving cars.

Acuity: The capacity to see fine detail, measured by the finest detail that can just be detected (definition slightly adapted from dictionary.com).

Domain-specific acuity (DSA): The ability to understand and distinguish between different concepts pertaining to a particular subject or problem. For example, in math, this might mean knowing the difference between real numbers and natural numbers. In discussions of gender identity, this might mean understanding the difference between “genderqueer” and “genderfluid”.

In the context of discussions of feminism, some people understand the relationship between victim blaming and rape culture, and some don’t. Some people understand the difference between saying “You are a bad person” and “What you said was problematic” and some don’t. Some people understand the difference between “Shut up and listen” and “Shut up forever and never speak again”, and some don’t*. Also, sadly, it seems some people understand the difference between “disagreement” and “rape threats” and some don’t. A person who does understand these distinctions has a higher feminist DSA than a person who doesn’t.

There are good examples of this with respect to atheism as well: someone with a high atheist DSA would be more likely to know the difference between strong atheism and weak atheism, the difference between evolution and abiogenesis, the difference between saying “Religion is a bad idea” and “Religious people are stupid”, etc., etc.

When I was first getting into atheism, I watched a lot of debates between atheists and theists, and read a lot of related books. Over time, I got better and better at being able to tell when people were arguing disingenuously. The first time I read The Case for a Creator, I thought it was an interesting and powerful read that made a number of strong points against atheism. When I went back and read it a few years later, it was painfully obvious to me that the author was lying his ass off, both about the facts, and about his claim to have approached the issues from the standpoint of a neutral party interested in a rigorous investigation of the truth.

The second time I read that book, my atheist DSA was far more precise than the first time I read it. I understood the concepts better, and I was more easily able to see where the author was blatantly lying or presenting things in a disingenuous way. If someone had told me that the book was a load of bullshit after the first time I read it, I probably would have read that person as overreacting. Now, that is more or less what I think of the book, myself. Mitch with a low atheist DSA couldn’t detect the bullshit that Mitch with a high atheist DSA can nowadays.

By the same token, a person with a high feminist DSA may be better at recognizing someone who is JAQ-ing off (alternate explanation) than someone with a low feminist DSA. When the person with low DSA sees someone who appears to be Just Curious excoriated for JAQ-ing off, feminists will look absurdly oversensitive to that person because that person cannot distinguish between the Just Curious and the JAQ-offs, and the feminists can. In the same way that The Case for a Creator was indistinguishable from honest intellectual inquiry for me with a low atheist DSA, JAQ-ing off maybe indistinguishable from honest intellectual inquiry for someone with a low feminist DSA. Similar things may happen with ideas like “Shut up and listen”, “Check your privilege”, the difference between calling harm and calling foul, etc.

When I first saw people being called out for JAQ-ing off, I couldn’t distinguish between JAQ-ing off and honest inquiry, and that made me afraid to express an opinion. It made me afraid that I would be perceived as JAQ-ing off as well. I did not have sufficient acuity to distinguish between what was okay and what wasn’t. Sometimes I still don’t. Yet, I have generally found that when I have asked questions in good faith, I have gotten responses that assumed my good faith. The more time I have spent following feminists and reading about feminism, the more I understood why. As my feminist DSA has improved, I have become more easily able to perceive why the questions I have asked have been seen, generally, as acceptable, where some others have not.

I’ve written before about the idea that social justice movements are going to tend to look whiny if you don’t understand their issues. I think the idea of domain-specific acuity is a good model for understanding why this is. If your DSA in a specific area is low, you may not be able to tell the difference between what is okay and not okay and why, which is a scary place to be. If you were foraging for food and these red berries were healthy to eat, and those other red berries were toxic, and you weren’t sure you could tell the difference, then you might reasonably conclude that the best course of action was to just avoid red berries altogether. By the same token, when your feminist DSA is low, you might conclude that it makes more sense to simply bow out of the conversation than to risk mistaking a harmful comment for an innocuous comment.

Misogyny, victim-blaming, privilege, entitlement, essentialism, etc., these are some of the toxic ideas that feminists tend to have a lot of experience with, and a high DSA for. If a particular person doesn’t have a high feminist DSA, then not only can they not distinguish between toxic ideas and useful ones, they also can’t distinguish between toxic and helpful people. Not only can they not tell whether their own ideas might be harmful, they also can’t tell why some of the people expressing ideas in feminist spaces take so much flak, and others don’t. From the standpoint of someone with a low feminist DSA, feminist responses will necessarily appear random until they develop a sufficiently high DSA to be able to tell the difference between toxic ideas and useful ideas.

This state of affairs is, of course, further complicated by the fact that, even among feminists, there is not universal agreement on what is harmful and what is helpful. Feminists can disagree and be wrong as well, even when they do have a lot of experience with these issues and a high DSA (and, furthermore, not all feminists have a lot of experience or a particularly high DSA with all of the issues they may be writing about). A person with low DSA has very few tools at their disposal to distinguish between a feminist who may be being unreasonable and a feminist who is expressing an idea that they don’t yet understand well enough to critique.

There is a very real barrier to entry here. It’s a barrier that is almost guaranteed to exist in the context of any awareness-raising social justice movement. It isn’t the fault of the movement, and it isn’t the fault of the people just learning about the issues, but it is important for everyone to be aware of. I don’t think that there is any easy solution, but I think there are two things to take from it: first, that being aware of this problem and its implications is important**, and second, that continuing to have discussions about feminism and feminist issues is hugely important – it’s the only way to bridge the gaps in acuity that make this unfortunate phenomenon possible.

* One might reasonably say, for example, that Ron Lindsay, having apparently recently come to understand this distinction, now has a higher feminism-specific acuity than he did before.

** Corollary: If you get nervous talking about feminism, know that that is a totally normal way to feel.

Sidenote: Another interesting hypothesis on why talking about feminism can be scary.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other