Link Roundup 3: Conversations About Communication Across Power Gradients

There have been a lot of conversations lately about communication between people with privilege and people without. This link roundup is going to be largely (though not entirely) centered around those, as I think it’s a very important thing to talk about and a lot of good things have been said. Anyone know other good posts in a similar vein?

The Distress of the Privileged: Maybe the best piece I’ve read about understanding both sides of a power dynamic. Complete with a brilliant analogy from the movie Pleasantville:

“So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.”

Aesop to the Right: Why I Believe Bristol Palin: Cited in the Distress of the Privileged piece, and also containing a brilliant analogy that explains why not including the underprivileged is so hurtful and damaging:

“I don’t think you hate me. I certainly don’t think you’re afraid of me. Neither is Bristol Palin. She probably even has LGBT people she calls friends. She just disagrees with them about whether they should be invited to the party (the party, in this case, being marriage). But here’s the problem: the basis of that disagreement is her belief that her relationships are intrinsically better than ours.”

Certain Propositions Regarding Callout Culture (in two parts):

“Not silencing people is not an option. Not silencing people is a great plan; I am totally okay with everyone being able to speak out. But not silencing anyone is not going to work. If you say “no, you have to stop yelling and insulting people,” you silence some of the people who are angry! about! INJUSTICE! On the other hand, if you let people yell insults whenever they like, you are silencing the people who are afraid that if they speak up they’ll be yelled at. And the second group is not going to loudly spew insults about how they’re being oppressed; they’re just going to be quiet and stop talking and censor themselves and eventually leave the movement altogether.”

How to Argue: Call Harm, Not Foul: The brilliant piece that spawned this post.

“The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.”

Three Tips to Handle 500 Comments Landing in Your Inbox: An excellent piece by The Ferrett on dealing with shitty commenters. Required reading for any blogger.

“Once you get to a sufficient level of popularity, there is literally no avoiding people hating you.  Go on, seriously.  Name a celebrity.  Then Google up some haters.  Sure enough, someone fucking abhors them.  Why do you think you’re going to avoid this?”

Just Shut Up: A piece about the value of feminist media criticism, with Beauty and the Beast as an example.

“Gaston loses but stabs the Beast anyway before being thrown to his doom, the Beast more or less dies, but Belle loves him, which breaks the spell keeping him trapped as the Beast and saves his life. They, in theory, live happily ever after.

The film ended, and my professor flicked the light on. She passed out a handout we’d already received, a list of warning signs for domestic abusers. This list included things like, “Isolates partner from support systems—tries to keep them from family, friends, outside activities.” It included things like, “Attempts to control what partner wears, does, or sees.”…The Beast meets almost every criterion on the list, and those he doesn’t meet (“Was abused by a parent,” “Grew up in an abusive home,”) are only unmet in the sense that we have no way to know, from the narrative given to us, whether he meets them or not.”

Can Versus Must: a piece on confirmation bias and ways to manipulate your brain. Including the best one-sentence summary of how confirmation bias works I think I’ve ever seen: 

“It is, he says, as though we ask ourselves “CAN I believe this?” when we want to believe something and “MUST I believe this?” when we don’t want to believe it.”

How to Make Your Social Spaces Welcoming to Shy People: What it sounds like, a very good list, and something a lot of event organizers could take a lot from.

A picture of one of the best protest signs ever. Though it should be noted there could’ve been better word choices than “stupid”.


Bias, Data Compression, and One Reason Why Arguing with Religious People is So Very Frustrating

I think that developing biases is really about data compression. You have a limited amount of space to store information so rather than save every single detail of why you think X is awesome and Y is terrible, you add points to a single awesome/terrible scale in your brain every time new details come up for X or Y. As a result, you have more brainspace for other things, and the same basic information in compact form. It’s efficient, but makes backtracing to the origin your biases more difficult.

This idea has implications for the frustrating arguments I have with religious people so often. If you spend a decent portion of your time arguing with religious people or watching or reading arguments with religious people, you (or at least I) tend to wonder a lot why they aren’t more often more impacted by your arguments. They’re rarely able to provide anything remotely substantial to counter the arguments against religion, yet this doesn’t seem to concern them as much as it seems like it should. I find myself at times confronted with people who will say something like, “I think you make some interesting points”, when they’ve been unable to counter any of a number of points that, to me, appear to demonstrate that their religion is both logically impossible and evidentially baseless. It’s as though I heard that someone I thought was innocent was seen leaving the scene of a crime, caught on video committing the crime, and left fingerprint and DNA evidence at the scene, and my response was, “Well, those are some fascinating points, but I still think he’s innocent.”

Conversations like this seem a lot more reasonable given the data compression model of biases:

Bias is about compressing data. Just as with data compression in computers, there is often significant data loss associated with mental data compression. The majority of the original data that contributed to a particular bias is lost with time. The information that contributed to the generation of the bias isn’t necessarily useful—if the bias itself is the important thing, the information on why the bias exists is just taking up space. If you need to escape from a predator, you need data on two things: you need to know that you should escape, and you need to know how to escape. If knowing why you need to escape is using up memory that you could be using on how to escape, then knowing why is worse than useless—it’s making it more challenging for you to actually escape.

If the above is true, then a strong bias held for a long period of time is, ideally, representative of the accumulation of an enormous amount of supporting data. However, a person may not have access to that supporting data—it may have been lost in compression. This creates a situation where it would be potentially adaptive for a person to trust that their biases are based on an enormous amount of real data even if they cannot produce any real valid data to back them up. Which is why you might find yourself unable to convince someone of your position even where facts and logic seem to be uniformly on your side.

When you’re arguing with a religious person and they keep throwing books and web sites and blogs at you and telling you to read them, they’re making an assumption based on how bias works. They make an assumption that because they have a strong bias, there was at some point solid data that led to the creation of that bias. If they cannot produce that data, it must be a failure to locate the data, rather than that the data doesn’t exist in the first place.

Food for thought.

Things There Should Be Words For: Types of Anger

I’m starting a post series. I find myself dissatisfied with the English language on a pretty regular basis, and I’ve decided to complain about that loudly and serially. There are a lot of concepts that are important or ubiquitous enough that they really could use finely-tuned language, but where the English language doesn’t deliver. This is the series I’ve designated for talking about those concepts, about why they’re important, why the current language surrounding them is insufficient, and about what might work to fill in the language gaps (assuming I have any halfway decent ideas). I think language has a tremendous influence on how we see and share the world around us and that improving it is vitally important for dealing with problems, both large and small.

Without further ado, here’s today’s thing there should be words for:

To introduce this first one, I’m going to quote Miriam at Brute Reason talking about one difficult aspect of dealing with depression:

“…the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.”

One of the most important distinctions to be able to make in conversations about feelings is the distinction between talking about feelings to express them, talking about them to examine, request, or demand a particular course of action, and talking about them to place blame (and all the grey in between). There are many different conversations that could follow a statement as simple as “this bothers me”:

“This bothers me and I want to talk about it to figure out why.”

“This bothers me and I want to talk about it to figure out what can be done about it.”

“This bothers me and I therefore want you to stop doing it.”

“This bothers me, you terrible, horrible person, you!”

etc, etc…

If you’re on the receiving end of a “this bothers me” type statement, it can be very difficult to determine which of the above conversations is happening. “It bothers me when you X” can as easily be the segue into the “This bothers me, you terrible, horrible person!” conversation as the “This seems to be bothering me and I want to talk it out to figure out why” conversation. Discussions like this are complicated further by the fact that they’re generally emotional (or else the conversation probably wouldn’t be necessary in the first place), and as a result, the “This bothers me; you suck!” accusatory language can leak into the conversation as a result of one or both parties being emotionally raw and slipping up.

These are important distinctions that need to be made quite often. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly easy to make them succinctly.  I think that having simple, concise vocabulary for this would make this kind of communication way easier. Simple qualifiers that distinguish “Let’s examine this” anger, from, “Something needs to be done about this” anger, from, “You are a smelly jerk and I hate you” anger. I’m not sure how to go about coming up with them, though.

Off the top of my head, the best I’ve got is traffic light colors. E.g. “green” anger meaning “likely irrational anger that needs to be talked about”, “yellow” anger meaning “anger that may or may not be rational, or may require certain actions to be taken”, and “red” anger being “I’m angry at you, and I think this anger is justified and at least partially your responsibility, and here’s why”.

Thoughts? Better ideas? If anyone has particularly good words or phrases that they use to express any of the things I discuss in these posts, I’d love you to post them in the comments. I would like this to be a place to share or invent useful language, in addition to being a place to complain about how inadequate current language is.

Why I’m Thankful That I Care About Consent

There’s been a lot of talk about consent, harassment, rape culture, and related topics in the various communities I am a part of lately. The kink community, the atheist community, and the gaming community in particular. A lot of time has been spent explaining the bad shit that happens when people aren’t careful about consent. That’s good; we need to talk about that, and I’m glad those conversations are happening. I want to take a moment to talk about the other side, though: I want to talk about the ways that being careful about consent can make life better. In particular, I want to talk about how it’s made life better for me.

First, a little history.

I think it’s fair to say I’ve always been pretty good about consent. Early in my college career, I attended a presentation about consent by the author of May I Kiss You. In his intro, he ranted for a while about how people don’t ask to kiss other people, and how great it would be if everyone did. I remember sitting in the audience grinning, my ego inflating like a balloon, because I had to that day (and still to this) never had a first kiss with anyone that I didn’t ask permission for*. There are few ego boosts more effective than someone giving a presentation that can be summed up with, “Why can’t everyone be more like this guy?” and “this guy” is you.

Early on in my dating life, it wasn’t that I was consent-minded so much as that I had absolutely no idea how to tell if someone was interested in me. The first girl I had a relationship with? I didn’t realize she liked me until about two months after our first kiss. That is how clueless I was.

I remember that kiss. I remember trying to communicate that I wanted to kiss her just with looks. I remember it not working. I remember honestly having no idea if she wanted to or not, I remember asking, and I remember the yes and what followed.

I also remember thinking that knowing when and how to make a move was something I ought to be able to do. That not intuitively knowing that was a weakness. I remember thinking about just making a move and being terrified that I would find out she wasn’t actually interested.

However, over the years I’ve more and more come to think of move-making as something that I don’t particularly want to do. I have gotten better at gauging people’s interest in me (though I still get both false positives and false negatives), and I’ve been in situations where, in retrospect, I probably could have made a move rather than asking and it would’ve been okay. However, in getting to the point where my intuition may be finely tuned enough to read when it’s okay to make a move, I’ve found I’m less and less interested in it. Because asking permission—and being careful about consent in general—has given me some of my favorite memories. I’m thankful that I’ve always been careful about consent. I’m thankful for all of the good things that have come out of it.

I’m thankful that I can be confident that the people I’ve kissed, fooled around with, had BDSM scenes with, and fucked actually wanted to do those things with me, because I gave them clear opportunities to say no.

I’m thankful for the friend of mine from college who told me that because of me she felt comfortable being assertive about her boundaries with the other men in her life.

I’m thankful that there are people that I can cuddle or** scene with or kiss or fuck even though they may not be interested in a certain subset of those things, because I asked about their boundaries in a specific enough way. Even though what I was initially interested in may have been off limits, they were comfortable enough with me to say, “but I totally am interested in doing this other thing with you.”

I’m thankful for all of the people over the years who have thanked me for being careful with their boundaries. That that has happened as often as it has makes me feel like a million dollars.

I’m thankful for the friend who, just recently, when I asked them what they found attractive about me, included the care I take with consent in the answer.

I’m thankful that because I make a habit of asking what people want and don’t want to do, I’ve learned new things about what people like and don’t like, and I’m better in bed for it.

I’m thankful that because I make a habit of asking what people want and don’t want to do, I’ve been able to add things people mentioned to my sexual repertoire. Things that wouldn’t be in it otherwise.

I’m thankful that because I make a habit of asking what people want and don’t want to do, I’ve learned that a lot of the things I like done to me are things many other people like to do, and that a lot of the things I like to do are things other people like done to them.

I’m thankful that because we were able to comfortably talk about it, I learned that two of my exes who are now in monogamous relationships are still comfortable with my being casually flirty with them. I fucking love flirting.

I’m thankful that because I’m able to respectfully take no for an answer, there are people who have felt comfortable letting me know when, sometime later, they decided they’d changed their minds to “yes” on something.

I’m thankful that I can still have comfortable, often even playfully flirty relationships with friends I’m attracted to who don’t reciprocate my interest, because I respect their boundaries.

I’m thankful that having deliberate conversations about people’s boundaries has made it easier for me to draw my own boundaries.

Perhaps most of all, I’m thankful that in being someone who cares about consent, I’ve been able to surround myself with other people who care about it, too. People who respect my boundaries, and who can articulate where their boundaries are as well. People who know how to say, “No, I don’t want that”, but also, “but maybe we could try this”, and also, “Oh God, please do that!” People who want me to be able to say all of those things as well. People who value me all the more because I’m careful about consent and who I can feel the more comfortable around because they do, too.

This is not an exhaustive list; it’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list. So if you think that being careful about consent is all boring conversations and “ruining the moment” and shit, take a good look. Those ‘Consent is sexy!’ posters are no joke. Take it from me: caring about consent often has the effect of making some very sexy things happen. Even when it doesn’t, lots of other awesome things can come from it, too.

Something to keep in mind.

Sidenote: None of this is to say that I’m perfect about consent. There are times I’ve fucked up as well. Like building good relationships, being consent-minded isn’t a destination you get to, it’s something you continuously work on. I’m just saying working on it has a lot of rewards.

*Unless they asked me, that is.

**exclusive ors

A Bridge Over Sufficiently Advanced Ignorance

I spend a lot of time thinking about the trans community. It fits in a goldilocks zone in my brain of a community that is both incredibly marginalized and reasonably close to me through people I know who identify as trans.

It seems to be so difficult for the people in the community and the people outside it to come to understandings about things. It’s difficult for reasons which are often, well, incredibly human, and difficult to find a way to deal with.

In a nutshell, I think the problem is twofold: the first is that there’s a huge inferential distance between the trans community and most of the people outside of it. The second is that the trans community is an incredibly marginalized community, and as with all communities that are, the issues they deal with are powerfully emotional.

So you have a combination of explosive chemicals—emotional issues, and a huge inferential distance, sufficient that people outside of the community are regularly ignorant to the point that they will say or do incredibly hurtful things without realizing it (the results of sufficiently advanced ignorance being, often, indistinguishable from those of malice). Then, when they are called out on it, they lack the knowledge to effectively process the criticisms they receive, and often assume the people who are angry with them are overreacting in the extreme.

I do this as much as anyone. I’m a cis, heterosexual male. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I regularly react with annoyance to trans issues. I just don’t tend to mention it at the time. I tend to, when my brain goes to that “Why should I have to learn new pronouns?!” place, sit on the reaction for a day or a week or a month until it simmers down enough that I can look at things more rationally and less emotionally. When I manage to do that, I almost always end up in a different place about the issue than I was when I initially reacted to it. I’m totally on board with the necessity of learning people’s pronouns now, for example.

The other day I had a conversation that helped me to identify a bit more with the marginalized side of things. I went to look at a place to rent. The guy there was incredibly friendly, and I liked him a lot (though for unrelated reasons I was unable to rent the place). I mentioned over the course of talking to him that I was polyamorous (better for him to know now than learn down the line and freak out), and he said that it didn’t bother him at all, but followed that up by clarifying that he was monogamous because he loved his girlfriend.

Now, like I said, perfectly nice guy, I’m sure he meant nothing by it, and that he didn’t mean it to sound the way that it did. However as much as I liked him, the more I thought about that conversation later in the day, the more I felt like punching him in the face. How dare he suggest that poly people don’t love their partners just as much as monogamous people do! How dare he be so dismissive of my ability to care about the people I end up in relationships with! How dare he put me in the position of having to decide whether I’m willing to risk not having a place to live in order to correct him on that!

This is the problem. He was a perfectly nice guy, and I’m sure meant nothing whatsoever by saying that, and I imagine if I’d decided to correct him on it, he might even have responded positively if I could’ve corrected him without being too prickly about it (which maybe I could’ve, maybe I couldn’t’ve). This is a case where sufficiently advanced ignorance was enough to put me in the position of being offended and angry at someone whose only crime was not realizing the assumptions implicit in what he’d said. His ignorance was understandable, and my anger was also understandable, but the combination of the two was potentially volatile.

It doesn’t help of course, that there are plenty of people who are genuinely ignorant assholes who don’t give a shit, and distinguishing them from people like this guy isn’t always easy. Explaining to the good ones rationally and reasonably why what they’ve said is wrong and offensive isn’t always something the marginalized person can reasonably be expected to have the energy to do. It’s happening against a background of deeply personal sustained, and very often seemingly constant oppression.

I don’t know what the answer is in these situations, and I really want there to be one. I want there to be a way to communicate across wide barriers like this without explosions, but I’m not sure there is one. And in the grand scheme of things, sometimes I’m probably going to be the person on the other side, unknowingly doing damage to someone I care about. People I like and respect are going to be on that other side, too.

I don’t know what to do about it. But I want there to be something. I really do.

The Flipside of Being Honest

Listen to anyone talk about relationships for long enough and the subject of honest communication will come up. Especially in the poly community, you hear the virtues of honest communication extolled practically every other sentence. This is a good thing. This is one of the reasons I feel more at home in the poly community than in more heteronormative communities. I’ve always been compulsively cerebral about my relationships with people, and in everyday life that makes me feel like an outsider. In the poly community, that makes me feel normal.

Almost every conversation about honesty focuses on the importance of being honest with your partner. This is a very important skill, but there’s another side to it that I think needs to be addressed. It is also important to be a person to whom it is easy to be honest. This means being able to stop talking and listen, it means not punishing your partner for how they feel, and it means being appreciative when you know they’ve shared something with you that was difficult to share, even if it was something you didn’t like hearing.

Honesty is hard, but we have a lot of control over how hard it is. It’s always going to cost spoons to say the hard things, but how many spoons it takes is something the listener has a lot of control over.

The quintessential stereotypical example of a person who fails to encourage honesty is the girlfriend who, when her boyfriend tells her he’s spent time with a female friend, immediately accuses him of cheating. Honesty rewarded with suspicion. The right way to go about that sort of situation if it makes you uncomfortable is to thank the person for telling you, and then say that it makes you uncomfortable and you’d like to talk through that discomfort. Or whatever similar pattern works; the point is: you don’t blame the other person for your hurt feelings.

If you’re the one being honest about spending time with a friend of a gender you’re attracted to, it can be an easy conversation or it can be one that costs a lot of spoons, and the difference is in your partner’s response. If you’re being honest about something potentially more difficult, like wanting to spend more time with a new partner, any way of having the conversation is going to cost some spoons. But some will cost 3 where others may cost 10.

We all make judgments about which conversations are worth having, whether consciously or unconsciously. We all weigh the emotional costs of our actions. If you want someone to be honest with you, the best thing you can do is make it so that when they have to do that emotional calculus, the weight against having the conversation is 3 spoons and not 10.

In a nutshell: Honesty is a two-way streak. Everyone who wants to be in a relationship where people are honest has a responsibility to try to be honest, and a responsibility to be receptive to and appreciative of the honesty of others.